To defeat ISIS, listen to the women

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In a world inundated with news, information and entertainment, it is easy to miss something important or to forget about it. We hear about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on a near-daily basis because its media operation is sophisticated and omnipresent. We see the terror organization’s soldiers, guns, bullets, bombs and beheadings. We see its victims.

{mosads}But a new, positive trend is on the horizon: the role of women, not just as victims of ISIS, but as powerful change agents to reverse the tide of terrorism.

Instead of fixating on the warriors and the wounded, let’s listen more often to the strong women on the ground in places where ISIS and other extremists have ripped apart lives, literally and figuratively — lives of innocent people, especially women and girls. Those are the sounds we need to hear.

Last month, Nadia Murad Basee Taha bravely told her story to the United Nations. Her experiences in Iraq at the hands of ISIS should make your blood boil. Like many Yazidi women in the region, she was kidnapped, beaten and raped by members of ISIS, who sold and bought her as a human sex slave over a three-month period. She did not mince words. “Rape was used to destroy women and girls and to guarantee that these women could never lead a normal life again. … [The] Islamic State has made Yazidi women into flesh to be trafficked in,” she said, adding that the group uses women as “war booty.”

But Nadia neither remained silent nor focused on her victimization. She spoke up for other women in Mosul, Iraq and the region with her powerful testimony about how ISIS has revived the institutional practice of slavery everywhere they operate, using a female morality police to punish women, creating a global market for enslaved women within the caliphate, and recruiting Western and non-Western women, under false pretenses of participating in some glorious battle, only to find themselves segregated, sexually violated and silenced. 

More and more women are standing up to say: enough.

Late last month, a panel of experts gathered at the Wilson Center as part of the Women in Public Service Project. Fatima Sadiqi, who founded the first Moroccan Centre for Studies and Research on women in 1998, raised the possibility that ISIS may have overreached with its treatment of women, and that if the voices of women like Nadia echo around the world, we may begin to see the unraveling of the extremist narrative. “Looking at the big picture,” she said, “advancing women’s rights appears to constitute the first nail in the coffin for the jihadi ideology. Indeed, using the lens of women’s rights is the only way to break the jihadi ideology.”

Others on the panel — which included Farah Pandith, who directed outreach to Muslim communities at the White House and the State Department, and Sanam Anderlini, who leads the International Civil Society Action Network — are networking global women around security leadership, reminding us that listening to the women on the ground is critical to countering violent extremism. Timothy Curry, deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Counterterrorism Policy, participated in the forum and agreed and reinforced the view that women — mothers, aunts, daughters, sisters and girls — play a critical role in preventing radicalization.

Women have to be part of the solution to ISIS and extremism. Radical movements are adept at exploiting women. But women are also powerful agents of change in their families, communities and countries if provided their political, economic and social rights and multiple platforms from to be heard. Women will stand up and refute the terrorist narrative if given the space to do so.

So let’s tune out the radicals and raise the volume of the women battling extremist ideologies. Let’s embolden half the sky.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs and lectures at George Washington University.

Tags Iraq ISIL ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Syria Yazidis
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