After a seven-hour raid in Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, police reported that two suspected terrorists had died and seven people were arrested. One of the terrorists who died was a woman who blew herself up, and the Daily Mail reported that she might have been the wife or cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the Paris attacks. Her official name hasn't been released, but she has made headlines, because it's unusual to hear of female suicide bombers taking part in ISIS attacks. What is ISIS' relationship with women? It's usually never good for the women, though ISIS does use female fighters.
The apartment that Saint-Denis police raided early Wednesday was reportedly hiding up to six suspected terrorists involved in the Paris attacks, according to the Daily Mail. A woman with "long blonde hair," who is reportedly either Abaaoud's wife or his cousin, reportedly fired her AK-47 at police before detonating her suicide bomb vest. Abaaoud was apparently inside of the apartment, but it's unclear whether he is dead or alive, according to The Guardian.
No more information was released about the female suicide bomber, but the fact that she was female is striking some as abnormal. Unfortunately, female suicide bombers are not at all uncommon, especially when they are the wives or relatives of terrorist leaders, according to The Guardian. Female suicide bombers were being used by terrorist groups as early as the 1980s during attacks by secular organizations in Lebanon. Now, suicide bombers are most often used by Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group that pledged allegiance to ISIS earlier this year.
Boko Haram sent four female suicide bombers into mosques in northeast Nigeria about two months ago, killing dozens of people, according to The Guardian. They used the same technique in October when they sent five young girls between the ages of 9 and 15 into a mosque as suicide bombers. BBC News reported that 15 people died, including the bombers, and 35 more were injured.
ISIS doesn't often use the same technique as Boko Haram, but it does often use women in its military strategies. ISIS actually has all-female battalions, which it uses to force other women to comply with ISIS' vision, according to Vox. These women apparently want to engage in a strange form of liberation by showing that they are stronger than the stereotypical Muslim woman that the West portrays. Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on violent Islamism at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, explained the strange movement to The Atlantic:
There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one. Many of them are eager to portray themselves as strong women and often make fun of the Western stereotype of "the oppressed Muslim woman."
For example, in Raqqa, Syria, ISIS' home base and capital, women are not allowed to go out in public without being fully covered or being accompanied by a male chaperone at all times, according to The Atlantic. If they break these rules, they could be arrested or beaten — by women in ISIS' female battalions. The Atlantic says this punishment of women by women takes the "prohibition against sexes mingling to its logical extreme."
There are also strategic advantages to using female fighters, according to The Guardian. For example, women often seem less threatening and suspicious thanks to the perception that they are lesser than, and they can pose as one half of a couple, which helps them become invisible.
But ISIS' female fighters are the "lucky" ones, if there's such a thing. The rest of the women it uses most often are forced into sex slavery. ISIS has historically captured Yazidi women, who are of the Yazidi faith, an ancient religion that uses principles from Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and even older practices like sun worship, according to CNN. ISIS convinces its soldiers that women who are not Muslim are allowed to be raped; they go so far as to say that raping non-believers actually brings them "closer to God," according to the The New York Times. Yazidi women are "sold" to ISIS fighters, and the act has been built up as one of the group's grounding, core principles.
For women in ISIS, there's no actual power — only violence and perpetual subordination.