Extremism's Earliest Critics

Women Are Often the First to Raise the Alarm

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the draft of the "Al-Jafaari" Personal Status Law during International Women's Day in Baghdad, March 2014. Thaier al-Sudani / REUTERS

Long before the Islamic State (ISIS) was a fixture in world news, Syrian women were warning about the spread of extremism among the displaced and refugee population of their county. In 2012, still the early days of the war, one peace activist told me, “Our kids need schools, but the international community is absent. Instead,” she continued, “the Saudis are introducing their curricula to our communities.” Syrian children, she implied, were suddenly being exposed to materials that condoned intolerance and bigotry as the “true” Islam.

“Groups like Al Nusra offer money, bread, and protection,” said another woman, now based in Lebanon. She noted how desperate families were accepting money in exchange for sending off their boys to fight. Although the number of recruits is not available, since 2011, Human Rights Watch and others have been documenting such cases. Many of the same families were marrying off their girls in the hope that an older man would bring greater protection than the insecurity of a refugee camp would. Comprehensive data are unavailable given that local sheikhs conduct many of the “marriages,” which are not always registered with state authorities. But in Zataari refugee camp alone, the number of just the registered marriages of children to older men jumped from 42 in 2011 to 737 by 2013.

Syrian women have not been alone in raising the alarm. As the dust settled on the 2011 Arab revolutions, women’s rights and democracy activists from Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were among the first to see and speak out about the sudden emergence of extremist forces in their midst. No wonder: among the movements that were coming to power—from the longstanding Muslim Brotherhood to the more recent Salafi groups—control of women in public and private spheres was a core tenet. Such groups associated women’s rights with the state feminism of toppled dictatorial regimes. And so, they targeted new laws protecting women straight away. In Libya, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the leader of the National Transitional Council, ended a ban on polygamy in

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