Image from Flickr via pieter.michiels

By David Jacobson

At the end of January, from the day French forces pushed Islamist militants out of Timbuktu, women in the fabled city responded. After ten months of Islamist control, they put away veils and retrieved high-heeled shoes. “It’s been a very long time since I put on makeup,” one middle-aged woman told a journalist, displaying the black kohl highlighting her eyes. “I’ve put it on to make myself beautiful. So that men see me.” But in the most exhilarating celebration of the end of their oppressive control—in front of the international press—women came out into the city’s streets to dance.

The dancing of these women, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, points to a fact that’s important but largely overlooked in the fight against Islamist extremists: the higher women’s status in a community, the less amenable is that community to Islamist militancy and the less likely that community is to be involved in religiously motivated violence. This potent trend is evident in statistical patterns and research of women’s status and religious violence, which I have tracked together with my students. In tracking extremism and violence, Islam is not the issue—women’s freedoms are.

Mali shows us why. Militants are trampling on rights that women had before the occupation—not least to work and dress as they wish. Moving forward, US interests in the struggle against militant Islamists will depend on supporting communities that value women. With external support, such communities become an antidote to the expansion of the Islamists, without the need for military intervention.

This is notably the case with the Tuaregs in Northern Mali, a Muslim tribal confederation in which women have been held in greater esteem than is generally the case in North Africa or the Middle East. Tuareg women, for example, more easily work alongside men, walk unescorted in public and can be appreciated more readily for their artistic talents.

Those communities in the North had suffered deeply under the Islamists, who banned uncovered women, music, alcohol—and who have always prohibited dancing.

The dancing in Timbuktu followed a dizzying chain of events in Mali in the last year, with a coup in the capital Bamako, a seizure of northern Mali by the Tuareg nationalist movement and Islamist militants, and the Islamist expulsion of the Tuareg forces to gain full Islamist rule in the North. The Islamist militants then sought to expand south, threatening even Bamako. At that point, in mid-January, the French intervened, most recently expelling the Islamists from the main cities in northern Mali. Those communities in the North had suffered deeply under the Islamists, who banned uncovered women, music, alcohol—and who have always prohibited dancing. Stonings and amputations by the militants further scarred life in these cities.

In the seizure of northern Mali last year, the Tuareg nationalists, in their decades-long fight to wrest independence from Bamako, made an alliance of convenience with the Islamists. The nationalists, represented by the largely secular MNLA movement, cooperated with the Islamists for pragmatic reasons, but displayed little ideological affinity. This alliance was naïve—alliances with Islamist elements have often disappointed, from Leftists in Iran leading up to the 1979 Iranian revolution to, more recently, liberals in Egypt in the period leading to the ouster of the Mubarak regime. After the Islamist hijacking of the gains in northern Mali, the MNLA began to fight against these militants, but they were resource-poor in the extreme while the Islamists were amply supplied with weapons and other necessities, sources from the region told me, from sympathizers in Algeria and Qatar.

One clear pattern with Islamist militants is that they move about most easily in patriarchal and tribal areas. Where have they had their most marked successes? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa—and indeed across the Middle East. These militant groups are interwoven with the severe patriarchy of the region. Understanding tribal patriarchy is key to understanding the militants, and even the non-violent Islamists. In the kinship groups of these patriarchal tribal societies, women become symbolically very important, as they are literally and culturally core to the reproduction of the family, clan and tribal lineage. In the more patriarchal tribes, women’s “virtue,” notably virginity before marriage, is the foundation of their honor, and is controlled by their fathers, brothers and husbands. Women become become “protected” to the point of being kept inside their homes for much of their lives. Ironically their importance becomes the basis for their oppression.

The militants have highlighted this patriarchy, and see the West as a corrupting force in this light. Thus the issue of women figures so large in their ideologies, and women are the first to suffer when the Islamists claim power. This was the case of the women of northern Mali who were forced to veil themselves, forced to stay at home and to not work.

The place of women seems at times an obsessive concern. The default explanation of Americans has been to point to Islam as the driving force.

For some years now I have delved deeply into the question of why women’s sexuality and status looms so large for political and militant movements from Afghanistan and Pakistan through to North Africa. This focus on women is evident from surveys to ideological tracts, from statistical studies to ethnographies of daily life in these regions. Indeed, the place of women seems at times an obsessive concern. The default explanation of Americans has been to point to Islam as the driving force in this regard.

Yet contrary to such a perception, in statistical analysis I have undertaken with the demographer Natalie Deckard, we find that a country being majority Muslim as such does not help us predict religiously motivated violence. A high level of patriarchy does. This is also relevant for the non-violent Islamists. Women’s status is already eroding in the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, which received roughly two-thirds of the vote in the first elections. Women regularly report now of being harassed by police for being out alone at night, or by security teams at clubs. One well-known club for example, the Shams, demands women wear head-to-toe bathing suits where before western bathing suits sufficed. The affect is social as well as political; Egyptians report simply fearing doing anything that would be considered objectionable to the Brotherhood.

A French Algerian sociologist described to me a conversation she had in the late 1990s with the Algerian general heading the counterinsurgency against militant Islamists. The general explained one way he evaluated the successes and failures of the fight against the insurgents: he drove to different parts of the capital Algiers and elsewhere in the country, he said, and observed how the women were dressed. If they dressed in ways that the Islamists approved—that women were fully enveloped in fabric and that their dress was colorless and not diaphanous—the government was losing the fight. If not, then the war was proceeding more hopefully. In the fights ahead of Islamist militants—and there will be many more fights—keep an eye on women. Much will be revealed. Hopefully we will see much more dancing in the streets.

David Jacobson is the author of the just released book, Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict. He directs a project researching Islamist militants’ relations with tribes and ethnic groups in Mali and Nigeria. He can be reached at

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