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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

Governing Iraq

The horrific bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 has focused renewed attention on the question of who, if anyone, is capable of governing Iraq in the current highly volatile environment and, in particular, on what ought to be the respective roles, during the occupation period, of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the Interim Governing Council and the United Nations.

Executive Summary

The horrific bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 has focused renewed attention on the question of who, if anyone, is capable of governing Iraq in the current highly volatile environment and, in particular, on what ought to be the respective roles, during the occupation period, of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the Interim Governing Council and the United Nations. This report proposes a new distribution of authority between the three – potentially acceptable to the United States, the wider international community and the majority of Iraqis – which would enable Iraq’s transitional problems, including the critical issue of security, to be much more effectively addressed.

The problem of who is to govern Iraq, and how, will persist until national, democratic elections are held and power is fully transferred to a sovereign government. But the conditions for such elections will not exist for some time, possibly as long as two years: the security situation has to stabilise, a democratic constitution has to be adopted, voters have to be registered, and – arguably – at least the beginnings of a pluralistic political culture have to visibly emerge. In the meantime it is not realistic, on all available evidence to date, to expect the CPA to be capable by itself of adequately caring for the population’s essential needs and successfully ruling Iraq. Nor is it realistic to imagine that Iraqis will view the present Interim Governing Council as a credible, legitimate and empowered institution.

The most drastic solution to this dilemma is presently unimaginable: for the occupying powers simply to walk away at this stage, leaving a fully empowered Interim Governing Council the only player on the field during the transitional period. What is more realistic to contemplate is the rebalancing of the respective roles of the CPA and the Interim Governing Council, with steps being taken to improve the latter’s representativeness, vest it with more real power, and improve its executive capacity to deliver – and in this report we argue that this should be done. But more than that is needed: in particular some broader international legitimisation of the transition process, and that means a greater role for the UN in the governance process.

The Coalition Provisional Authority. The CPA until now has retained quasi-exclusive authority, with Washington’s approach translating into an unwillingness to involve seriously either the Iraqi people or the international community. Since its early missteps, the CPA appears to have engaged in some salutary self-correction and has registered some real successes. But fundamental problems remain. Policing troubles are mounting and they have not been addressed with policing solutions. Instead, coalition troops unsuited to the task have been called in, leading to inevitable mistakes at the cost of both innocent lives and Iraqi national pride. Basic infrastructure has not been rebuilt. Iraqis lack jobs and subsistence income. The CPA lives in virtual isolation, unable to communicate effectively with the Iraqi population. It has yet to correct some of its most counterproductive decrees such as the disbanding of the entire 400,000-man army and the large-scale de-Baathification. Meanwhile, the occupation’s U.S. face has heightened suspicion and anger in Iraq and parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds where many view it as part of Washington’s agenda to reshape the region.

Opposition to the foreign occupation is becoming stronger and more violent. It comes in various shades: Baathist loyalists; nationalists; Islamists, who for the time being are predominantly Sunni; tribal members motivated by revenge or anger at the occupiers’ violation of basic cultural norms; criminal elements; Islamist and other militants from Arab and other countries. At present, the vast majority of Iraqis give no indication of supporting armed resistance; but, dissatisfied with current conditions and lacking loyalty to or trust in a central authority, many are not willing to oppose it either. Unless the situation rapidly is turned around, the distinctions between the different opposition groups could fade; resistance could become politically organised; radical Shiites could join the fray; and increasing numbers of Iraqis could relinquish their faith in institutional politics and look upon the resistance with greater – and more active – sympathy.

The Interim Governing Council. The formation of the 25-member Iraqi Interim Governing Council on 13 July 2003 was an attempt by the U.S. to develop an interim authority that would have legitimacy in Iraq and abroad, appease the population and deflect criticism of the occupation forces. Under current conditions, it is unlikely to meet those goals fully. The basic problems are the Interim Governing Council’s political legitimacy, actual power and executive capacity. While it can accurately be described as the most broadly representative body in Iraq’s modern history, selected as it was by the CPA in consultation with pre-chosen political parties and personalities, the Interim Governing Council simply lacks credibility in the eyes of many Iraqis and much of the outside world. On paper, it enjoys broad powers; in reality, few doubt the deciding vote will be cast by the U.S. A gathering of political leaders with weak popular followings, very little in common between them, no bureaucratic apparatus and a clumsy nine-person rotating presidency at its helm, it is doubtful that it can become an effective decision-making body.

The principle behind the Interim Governing Council’s composition also sets a troubling precedent. Its members were chosen so as to mirror Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic makeup; for the first time in the country’s history, the guiding assumption is that political representation must be apportioned according to such quotas. This decision reflects how the Council’s creators, not the Iraqi people, view Iraqi society and politics, but it will not be without consequence. Ethnic and religious conflict, for the most part absent from Iraq’s modern history, is likely to be exacerbated as its people increasingly organise along these divisive lines.

The United Nations. The missing ingredient in Iraq’s governance during the transitional period is the United Nations, which has so far been granted by the occupying powers only an advisory and wholly subordinate role. The UN has been a visible presence in Iraq, but its visibility – and awful vulnerability – has not been matched by any compensating responsibility. There needs now to be a three-way division of real governing responsibility between the CPA, the Interim Governing Council and the United Nations, embodied in a new UN Security Council resolution. The UN, as the institutional embodiment of international legitimacy, should be given, in addition to responsibility for the coordination of humanitarian relief, explicit authority over all aspects of the political transition process, including oversight of the Interim Governing Council and other transitional institutions; supervision of the constitutional process; and the organisation of local, regional, and national elections. It would, in addition, be given a defined role in supporting the development of civil society, rule of law institutions and a free media.

The UN would have a particular responsibility, through its newly constituted mission in Iraq, to identify as soon as possible, after consultation with the CPA and the Interim Governing Council, a realistic indicative timetable for the adoption of a constitution, the holding of local and functional elections, the holding of national elections (to be held within 24 months, and preferably sooner) and the withdrawal of foreign forces subject to a request to that effect by a newly elected sovereign government of Iraq.

Rebalancing Transitional Governance. Under this new distribution of authority, the CPA, in its capacity as the institutional representative of the occupying powers, would have the primary responsibility in all matters relating to immediate security and, through the restoration of infrastructure, ensuring satisfaction of the Iraqi people’s basic needs. The present CPA military force would be transformed into a U.S.-led Multinational Force endorsed by the UN Security Council – with member states being encouraged to contribute personnel to such forces on an urgent basis. While civil policing would remain the primary responsibility of the CPA in the first instance, the Security Council would endorse the establishment of an international police force which would take over this role as soon as possible, and prepare the ground for the ultimate full transfer of responsibility to reconstituted Iraqi services.

And the Interim Governing Council would, working through an interim cabinet reporting to it, be responsible for all other matters of day to day governance, including social services, economic reconstruction, trade and investment, and managing relations with other countries and international institutions. It would also work with the CPA in reconstituting Iraq’s police and security forces. Although its sovereign powers would be incomplete during the transition period, it would be appropriate for the Interim Governing Council – on the recommendation of the Security Council, and with the endorsement of the General Assembly – to occupy Iraq’s UN seat during that period, perhaps at the chargé level to underscore its temporary status.

Granting the UN a stronger role and devolving more power to the Interim Governing Council in the ways described would meet several crucial objectives. It would help overcome reluctance on the part of many countries to participate in efforts to stabilise Iraq, enabling the rapid dispatch of military and police forces. It would diminish the perception that the U.S. seeks to dominate Iraq, projecting instead the image of a broad-based international effort, including with the participation of Iraq’s Arab neighbours, to rebuild the country. And it would strengthen the legitimacy of the political transition process in the eyes of the Iraqi people while accelerating steps toward self-government.

Until now, the U.S. has strongly resisted giving the UN such authority and the UN itself has not vigorously pushed for it. The Secretary General’s Special Representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello – tragically killed in the 19 August attack – was able to perform a valuable role behind the scenes (not least in the construction of the Interim Governing Council) because he gained the trust of both the U.S. and important Iraqi players. But that role was never clearly defined, and the CPA remains for all intents and purposes in charge. While it is still unclear whether the bombing will change that reality, it should. The attack is yet another reminder to the U.S. that it needs partners to ensure security in Iraq; for that it needs a UN mandate. The UN has paid a terrible price for its presence in Iraq, and it deserves to exercise real responsibility.

The more Iraq’s future can become a matter for the Iraqi people and the international community as a whole, the greater the chances of success. Many of the problems that currently exist stem directly from the initial choice not to share more widely the burdens of transitional administration. Today, the U.S. ought to agree to a more effective and rational distribution of responsibility between the occupying powers, the Iraqi people through the best interim representation that can be devised and the broader international community represented by the UN. It is a step it will have to take if it is serious about addressing Iraq’s most urgent priorities – restoring law and order, providing basic services and holding national elections that will genuinely transfer power to the Iraqi people.

Baghdad/Washington/Brussels, 25 August 2003

‘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.