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‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants
Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena (front) stands for the national anthem during a ceremony to swear in Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, as Sri Lanka's new prime minister, Colombo, 21 August 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawat
Report 278 / Asia

Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process

Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.

Executive Summary

The unexpected chance for lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka that followed President Maithripala Sirisena’s January 2015 election faces increasing turbulence. Initial moves by Sirisena’s government halted and began to reverse the slide into authoritarianism and family rule under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Its reform agenda is ambitious: restoring the rule-of-law and ending impunity for corruption and abuse of power; a new constitution; a complex package of post-war reconciliation and justice mechanisms agreed with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC); and major policy changes to jump-start a beleaguered economy. Progress, however, has been slower than key constituencies expected and lacks the coherence and resources needed to sustain it. The “national unity” government expanded the political centre and isolated hard-line nationalists, but the window for change has begun to close. Seizing Sri Lanka’s unprecedented opportunity for reform requires bolder and better coordinated policies, backed by a public relations campaign to restore sagging popular support.

The stuttering progress strains ties between the government and the constituencies that brought it to power. Tamils in the north and east voted overwhelmingly for Sirisena but are increasingly doubtful he will fulfil his reconciliation and justice promises. Many Sinhala “good governance” activists criticise the failure to follow through on rule-of-law measures, continued cases of alleged nepotism and corruption and what they consider the lethargic pursuit of corruption and criminal investigations. As the budget deficit grows and currency reserves dwindle, belt-tightening has been blocked or scaled back due to protests. At the same time, strains are growing between Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The small window for threading the political needles essential for reforms is shrinking. 

Institutional factors hamper progress: too few staff and too little expertise, particularly on reconciliation and transitional justice issues, multiple power centres and unwieldy, often overlapping ministries, and the different priorities and governance styles of president and prime minister. Governance reforms are slowed by need to work through bureaucrats and politicians implicated in past abuses, some of whom were given cabinet posts to help the government achieve the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to approve a new constitution.

Boldness is limited by Sirisena’s struggle to counter the faction loyal to ex-President Rajapaksa within his SLFP, especially in upcoming local elections. Reacting defensively to Sinhala nationalists’ attacks against Sirisena’s relatively modest reconciliation gestures and proposed constitutional reform and scared of giving opponents ammunition or angering the military and security services, the government has returned only a small portion of military-occupied land and released few Tamil detainees. 

Seven years after the end of the civil war in May 2009, issues of reconciliation and accountability remain largely unaddressed. The government appears to be backtracking on transitional justice plans, particularly the role of foreign judges and experts. The enormity of the crimes, especially in the final weeks of the war, makes them impossible to ignore but hard for the military and most Sinhalese to acknowledge or accept responsibility for. Mechanisms promised to the UNHRC feed Sinhala nationalist suspicions, while attempts to reassure Sinhalese and the military encourage doubts among Tamils about government willingness to pursue justice for wartime atrocities or back constitutional changes that satisfy legitimate Tamil aspirations for meaningful autonomy. 

To hold its coalition together and meet UNHRC obligations, the government must sequence reforms carefully, speeding progress on some fronts to rebuild public confidence, while committing resources to build support and institutional capacity for deeper and harder steps, particularly making progress on the critically important special court for prosecuting war crimes. Better communication and cooperation between president and prime minister, more transparent policymaking and clearer lines of authority are essential.

To rebuild confidence among Tamil communities in the north and east, the government must quickly release detainees and military-occupied land, begin credible inquiries into the fate of the disappeared, investigate and end abuses and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). For these and other reforms to be sustainable, the president and prime minister will have to assert authority over the military and national security apparatus, including by developing a credible security sector reform plan. If they are serious about constitutional changes that will contribute to a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict, Sirisena and key ministers must make a much stronger public case for greater devolution of power.

Ending impunity and restoring rule-of-law are concern to the whole country, as seen in the popularity of good governance and anti-corruption citizen movements in the Sinhala south. To resonate more broadly with all ethnic groups and regions, measures for addressing the war’s legacy should be presented by the government and civil society as an integral part of the rule-of-law and good governance agenda. Moves to prosecute key cases of corruption and political killing under the Rajapaksa regime need to be backed by a sustained public relations campaign that articulates a broad vision of a reformed state, the links between the various initiatives and the benefits they bring all communities. 

As longstanding dysfunctional political dynamics reassert themselves, the government’s ability to distinguish itself from the Rajapaksa era, which is essential to its political survival, has begun to fade. If ethnic and religious chauvinists in all communities are not to grow stronger and belief in democratic reform that Sirisena’s election reflected and encouraged is to be rekindled, the government must make a concerted push to jump-start the flagging reform process.

Recommendations

To strengthen rule-of-law and democratic governance 

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Ratify the UN Disappearances Convention and pass enabling legislation criminalising disappearances; terminate the Paranagama commission on missing persons and transfer its investigation files to dedicated police investigation units. 
     
  2. Pass the pending Right to Information (RTI) Act and legislation to establish a well-resourced and empowered Audit Commission. 
     
  3. Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and replace it, in consultation with lawyers and human rights defenders, with legislation in line with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations; and develop and publish guidelines for expediting cases against existing PTA detainees and releasing those against whom there is insufficient evidence to bring charges.
     
  4. Overhaul the Victims and Witness Protection Act, in consultation with human rights activists, to establish a well-resourced witness protection authority fully independent of police and security forces.
     
  5. End the longstanding conflict of interest in the Attorney General’s Department by establishing a permanent, independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases in which state officials are alleged perpetrators. 
     
  6. Establish a clear focal point in the Attorney General’s Department, staffed by state counsels vetted for conflict of interest or involvement in past cover-ups, to oversee and prosecute emblematic cases of political killings and abduction currently under investigation.

To promote reconciliation, reestablish effective civil administration in the north and east and begin security sector reform

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Take immediate steps to end remaining military involvement in civil administration; remove the military from all shops, farms, hotels and other commercial businesses; and immediately suspend construction or expansion of military camps in the north and east.
     
  2. Establish, in consultation with communities and the military, transparent principles, processes and timetables for the return of military-occupied land or payment of compensation for land that is not to be returned. 
     
  3. End intimidating monitoring of civil society activists and ex-detainees by security services and appoint an independent, multi-ethnic, well-resourced internal affairs unit to investigate credible allegations of arbitrary detentions, abductions and torture in custody.
     
  4. Begin developing a longer-term plan for comprehensive security sector reform that includes job training for demobilised personnel; and devise and implement in the short term policies for handling individuals credibly alleged to be responsible for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.  

To support constitutional reform needed for lasting political stability

To the government of Sri Lanka:

  1. Launch a public outreach campaign, led by the president and prime minster, in support of expanded devolution of power to provinces.
     
  2. Support a mixed electoral system that maintains proportionality and the influence of smaller, regionally-dispersed parties through use of double-ballots.

To address the complex demands of transitional justice processes

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Reaffirm publicly the government’s commitment to full implementation of the 1 October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution and take initial steps to build capacity and public support for effective transitional justice, by:
     
    1. launching a coordinated public outreach campaign – involving the offices of the president and prime minister, the Reconciliation Secretariat (SCRM), National Unity Office (ONUR) and national dialogue ministry – to promote the value of transitional justice mechanisms and highlight links to broader rule-of-law measures, beginning with immediate distribution of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report in all three languages once Tamil and Sinhala translations are available;
       
    2. giving the public consultation process adequate resources and endorsement and presenting draft legislative proposals to it for popular input, with a transparent timeframe for final submission to the parliament; 
       
    3. publishing draft legislation for the Missing Persons Office and inviting active input from families of the missing and disappeared and other stakeholders;
       
    4. establishing a timeline for training judges, lawyers and investigators for participation in the special war crimes court and for passing legislation establishing command responsibility as a mode of criminal liability and incorporating war crimes and crimes against humanity into national law; and
       
    5. requesting the OHCHR to recommend international prosecutors and judges for participation in the special court as committed to in the resolution. 

Colombo/Brussels, 18 May 2016

‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants

Originally published in The Guardian

Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.

There are around 150 British women in the world who can be called “jihadi brides” – those who left places such as Luton, Birmingham and Burton upon Trent to migrate to the Islamic State and eventually marry its fighters – and Shamima Begum is one of the youngest. She assumed this status as a minor, and the use of the term “jihadi bride” by journalists and commentators to describe her is appalling, a heaping of further trauma on a groomed child.

Tabloid sensationalism flattens a complicated and necessary debate about agency: whether these women had any; and how much and the extent to which they should be held accountable for the spectacular violence Isis has inflicted, even if they were not directly involved and some of them were crushed by it, too. In trying to get to the bottom of these questions for a forthcoming book, I interviewed more than 20 Isis women.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word ‘bride’, so resonant and feminine.

At the heart of this problem is female militancy itself: the historical and near-universal aversion across so many societies to viewing young women as capable of dreadful violence, and the incentives for powerful governments and militaries to downplay or amplify the nature of female militancy and its implications. One premise underlying the term “jihadi bride” is that the debutante in question holds no valid political grievances, is indoctrinated into accepting grotesque violence as legitimate, and as “just” a wife plays a dangerous but marginal role in the working of the armed group to which she is wed rather than operationally affiliated. “In-house whores for Isis,” as one columnist memorably called them in 2015. The term also tilts toward characterising such women as civilian spouses of jihadist militants, akin to the German wives who held dinner parties for Nazi SS officers, rather than aspirant members who joined first and wed second, or at least concurrently.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word “bride”, so resonant and feminine. Its inclusion is almost antique, from a time when women had hysterics and doctors acting on behalf of the patriarchy had to pacify them with dubious sex therapies or lobotomies. But perhaps in the past this patronising view also served a social function: if militants’ wives were just wives, society could forgive them more easily and, once the fighting was over, they could serve as bridges back to some normalcy. Women could then try to explain what had overtaken their sons and husbands (as Osama bin Laden’s mother has done). As I wrote earlier this year, in Nigeria viewing women who voluntarily joined the Boko Haram insurgency as wives who didn’t commit violence has helped communities grudgingly tolerate their reintegration. Returnee men are often simply slaughtered.

But this inherited thinking has outlived its use, especially in light of the way militant groups themselves play on gender to recruit and swell their ranks. Ignoring women’s agency in this process obscures our understanding of all the ways, meaningful, oblique and direct, that women lent their power and numbers to Isis. Women in the caliphate served as doctors and midwives, language instructors, recruiters and intelligence agents, and morality policewomen who tormented locals.

With the flow of Isis men and women out of the group’s last patch of territory and the prospect of them returning to their countries of origin, there are loud voices now calling for the suspension of “jihadi bride”. But sometimes these reflect social and political forces with their own agendas, such as Sajid Javid’s early bid for the Tory leadership, which was signalled through the stripping of Begum’s status as a British citizen. In the rush to bestow militant women agency, there is a tendency to blaze past any legal and investigative process and hold girls such as Begum just as accountable as those who beheaded civilians. The haste to make her indoctrinated, feeble responses to journalists’ questions appear lucid and defining of her fate is reminiscent of the excesses of the post-9/11 period, when jihadists disappeared into the facility at Guantánamo Bay in a netherworld of lawless, indefinite detainment. Among those who directly suffered under Isis there is an understandable impatience with the attention such women receive, but among some voices from Syria and Iraq, the language about Begum is sometimes dehumanising, making her the focus for both justified rage at what transpired and a target for sectarian or ethnic hate.

Our need for new, measured and more forensic language to characterise female militancy and the agency that underpins it is now clear. Yet we must remain sensitive to the coercion and violence many female Isis members experienced themselves.

It is worth remembering that, after a certain point, it became virtually impossible to leave the caliphate. During the years I spent following the stories of female Isis members, I was in touch with women, or families of women, who were repulsed by what they saw unfolding and tried to escape. Kadiza Sultana, one of the three original Bethnal Green girls, saw she had made a terrible mistake and worked with her family in London to plan her evacuation. She died in an airstrike on the building where she lived, before the collapse of the territorial caliphate gave her a chance to flee.

It is no disrespect to the victims of Isis to hear women such as Begum attempt to explain their motivations. Perhaps not immediately after having a baby, in a fetid IDP camp, but later, in a courtroom – or, better, in a transitional justice hearing, where she could be confronted with the stories of Yazidi women such as Nobel peace prize winner Nadia Murad, the victims of Isis who were faceless at the time, about whose suffering Begum was, and remains, chillingly incurious.

There are legal bases on which to assess criminal accountability, which require investigations and collection of evidence. But we are also struggling to understand, as a society encumbered by loaded terms such as “jihadi bride”, how much blame to accord such women. This requires learning precisely what they did – and what might have been done to them.

The role of women in Isis is one of the most significant questions of the post-Arab spring period, the aftermath of a historic sweeping revolt that women often led and animated. The Syrian Isis woman who met Begum at the Syrian border that dark night in February 2015 and escorted her into Raqqa told me later how surprised she was by the Bethnal Green girls’ submissiveness. The driver snapped at them to cover their hair properly, and they smilingly complied.

This woman, a bookish university student, a Hemingway reader who had gone from demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad to working for Isis at the behest of her family, couldn’t understand what had brought these London girls to the hell that had become her country. They seemed bewitched. She herself was dissimulating each day, biding her time until she could just get out.