May 27, 2015
RAQQA — After ISIS announced self-declared rule in mid-2013, the terror group began receiving a significantly higher number of Arab and foreign volunteers, including hundreds of women. Of those, many came from countries across the Middle East itself, in addition to an estimated 200 to 300 European Muslim girls, according to a recent report in the Financial Times.
Many of the women believed they were going to help the fight as a kind of jihad, experts say, although the vast majority have ended up being married off and confined to domestic roles.
Observers, including Kalsoom Bashir of Inspire, an organization that works with Muslim women to tackle extremism, have said that ISIS targets young, religiously illiterate women. "It's ideological grooming and sexual grooming too," Bashir has said in comments echoed by ISIS expert Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Syria Deeply recently spoke with one such female volunteer, who identified herself as Umm Haytham, 23, who traveled to ISIS-controlled Raqqa in northeast Syria.
She said her heritage was Moroccan but that she was born and raised in an Eastern European country. She told us she speaks and writes Arabic and has two siblings, but she declined to disclose any more information about her background or family, instead repeating ISIS talking points, making her story difficult to verify. A male ISIS representative was also in the room with her when she spoke.
Nevertheless, the interview gave some insight into the thoughts and beliefs that motivate female ISIS recruits, especially their deep desire to help the Syrian people, as well as the group's social media recruitment process.
"I decided to emigrate from the land of infidels to the land of Islam and to ISIS in Syria and Iraq after closely following what happened in Syria over the past four years," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of Muslim women, men and children, and only Muslims, had been killed. I saw the world and the country turning a blind eye to infidels, Shias and Alawites massacring Muslims every hour."
Staying on message
She claimed that by establishing a self-declared state in Syria and Iraq, ISIS was channeling the word of God for all deaths and injustice inflicted on Muslims, and that the group was battling all the "U.S.-led forces."
“The main reason I joined ISIS was my unshakable conviction in what ISIS announced when establishing the caliphate and applying Sharia law and setting up the borders of the caliphate," she said. "I saw the world fight against the caliphate in a desperate attempt to dismantle it."
Women calling for the application of Sharia law — Photo: Dying Regime
She said she agreed to be the wife of an ISIS fighter in Raqqa. "I met him on the social media platforms, and we communicated daily for over a month. We then agreed that I emigrate to Raqqa and we get married and we pursue jihad with ISIS."
She did not inform her family about her decision. Instead, she flew to Turkey after saving her money, and after her future husband sent her some of his own.
"After I arrived in Turkey, there was someone who was waiting for me and who smuggled me into Raqqa to meet the man I had agreed to wed," she recalled. "We got married that same night."
Haytham is now pregnant with her first child, and she said she hoped her child would grow up to be a fighter like his father. She added that she was very happy in her married life, that it has been the best time of her life. She also described her husband as compassionate and kind. "He teaches me the true Islam teachings, and not as we had learned it previously. Our finances are fine. We don't lack anything. We eat, drink and dress with what we've been given by God. I try to be a good, obedient wife to repay his kind nature and good treatment. His love and generosity made me forget that I was missing my family and friends back home."
Haytham said she contacts her family a few times a week by phone and over social media. "A few days after I arrived in Raqqa, I contacted my family. That was the hardest call to make after my family knew I was in Raqqa. My parents were devastated. They cried and asked me to return home, telling me that what I was doing was wrong, and they needed and loved me."
But that didn't affect her decision. She told them she was doing well in Raqqa and that she had married an ISIS fighter. "I'm living the good life, and it's so much better than the life I had in Europe," she said.
Her family has continued to try to persuade her to return, but she said she's more committed than ever, having also joined the al-Khansaa women's brigade.
Her dream now is to convince her family to join her in Raqqa. "I was delusional thinking the life of misery I had was the happiest life I could lead since I was in the land of "civilization and progress,’"when it is actually they who are behind," she said. "ISIS offers the land of Islam and civilization."
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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