Since the establishment of its caliphate, the Islamic State (IS) has showcased its ability to attract women to territories under its control. With a utopian vision of establishing a society based on its interpretation of and implementation of shari’ah, the group has displayed its understanding of the importance of including women in its political project. Consequently, at the zenith of its territorial control in the mid-2010s, over 10% of westerners who made hijrah (migration) to IS territories were women (such numbers are often close to none in other jihadist organizations). This figure does not include local women who supported the group or those who migrated to IS territories from non-western countries.1
Despite its geopolitical vulnerabilities, history of insurgency, and targeted propaganda from IS, India has not witnessed a strong wave of radicalization and support for the terrorist group. Based on the latest estimates, 100 Indians have left the country to join IS in other territories, and by 2019, 155 people were arrested in India for allegedly belonging to IS—miniscule numbers compared to the levels of IS recruitment from other countries in South Asia, Europe, and Africa.2 The social media revolutionization of jihadist recruitment and radicalization has seemingly not reduced the entry barriers for alienated Indian Muslims to participate in global jihadism.3 This is due to the uniquely syncretic characteristics of Indian Islam which have cross-fertilized with other faith communities and belief systems over centuries. Furthermore, research suggests that Indian Islam tends to be pluralistic and inclusive, and the Indian Muslim community has always invested in liberal-secular politics that champion religious equality.4
These numbers are even lower for women’s participation—only four Indian women migrated to the Islamic State’s Central Asian “Khorasan Province” since 2015 and less than two dozen (overwhelmingly members of the Indian diaspora in the Middle East) are held in camps run by the Syria Democratic Forces in Syria’s Hasaka governorate or in jails in Turkey and Libya.5 While such estimates may suggest that IS’s influence in India is negligible, due to factors which will later be discussed, those who have joined the group have been sufficiently committed to its ideology to pose a challenge for the Indian government: Female Indian IS supporters who have been detained in Kabul’s Pul-e-Charkhi prison have showcased their continued allegiance to the terror group,6 which has led the Indian government to oppose their repatriation.7
With the normalization of divisive communal politics in India and the lack of accountability for perpetrators of violence, violence against minorities, especially Muslims, has soared in the country.8 In terms of similar hostilities present in online spaces, the level of anonymity lent to Twitter and Facebook users has also allowed religious bigots to stalk, threaten, and intimidate Muslims, including Muslim women. Subsequently, in the last few years, Indian Muslim women have become targets of coordinated right-wing harassment on social media.9
These rising intercommunal tensions in India have provided IS supporters with a plethora of opportunities to exploit. As this article shows, supporters of the group have been able to connect the growing intercommunal tensions with narratives of crises faced by Muslim women in India as well as the global Ummah (community of Muslim believers), thereby seeking to portray an acute crisis faced by Islam as a whole.
The article will first provide contextualization for IS attempts to exploit the increasing communal tensions in India, followed by a general overview of pro-IS supporters’ presence on the messaging platform Hoop. The subsequent sections will identify the primary women-focused narratives disseminated by “Channel 1” and “Channel 2” and consider the importance they serve in decentralized, unofficial pro-IS propaganda messaging generated by supporter networks.
Situating Hoop Channels within IS Messaging Efforts
For the purposes of this study, the authors examine two channels on Hoop, which will remain anonymized in keeping with the standard research ethics of the field.10 Among the 82 pro-IS supporter channels monitored by the authors on Hoop, a Canadian-based messenger app, only two channels dedicatedly disseminated narratives pertaining to women in South Asia. The content disseminated by the two channels were also shared constantly by other active channels,11 garnering several comments by supporters agreeing with the narratives.12 The two channels were thus responsible for a significant volume of narratives pertaining to women disseminated by IS supporters. Furthermore, one out of every three messages on the channels focused on narratives pertaining to Indian women, with the remainder focused on women in South Asia and across the world. The authors monitored pro-IS channels on Hoop Messenger from January 2020 until October 2022, when Hoop Messenger was shut down due to several factors, including a lack of funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.13
This research effort was novel: many papers look at the Islamic State’s narratives on women, especially through its official propaganda, but there is no research on IS supporter channels’ narratives as they pertain to women, especially on women in South Asia and India. Moreover, substantial previous research has focused on pro-IS communities on Telegram,14 but there has been only limited literature examining IS supporters’ use of Hoop. In contrast to the wide array of multi-lingual IS content on Telegram covering a diverse set of subject matters, IS or IS-aligned Hoop channels appear to heavily center on South Asia and regional politics.
In November 2019, Europol and Telegram coordinated a mass take down of pro-IS content and accounts on Telegram, resulting in major disruptions in pro-IS communities.15 In response to sustained de-platforming pressure and deletions, IS supporters branched onto a wide range of other apps in attempts to seek a new home. During the initial period of platform migration, IS supporters found potential stability on Hoop before soon finding themselves facing content removal efforts there as well.16 While Hoop saw a decrease in the proliferation of IS channels on its platform since January 2022 due to deplatforming efforts, a handful focusing on South Asia managed to remain. It is important to highlight that these channels are not official IS propaganda channels but were instead grassroots channels created by the group’s online supporters, highlighting the decentralized nature of pro-IS online spaces and IS’s reliance on supporters to generate new content. With regards to the identity of the administrators behind these channels, their gender generally cannot be verified, but the default understanding in pro-IS online spaces is to assume that the individuals are men.17 Additionally, it is not abnormal for male-presenting accounts to write about women and provide “advice” to “sisters” from a position of male authority—a dynamic that further reveals the male-dominated nature of these milieus.
Channel 1 is an English-language IS supporter channel focused on South Asia and more specifically India and the Kashmir region. Due to content moderation efforts by Hoop resulting in the frequent banning of individual accounts, it is difficult to precisely gauge the number of accounts that follow this channel, but the fact that this channel’s content is also regularly shared in private pro-IS channels on Telegram suggests a wide area of influence and noticeability. Channel 1 offers its readers a wide range of functionalities covering topics ranging from current affairs to historical anecdotes and developments in the Salafi-jihadi theatre to discussions of Islamic jurisprudence. Pro-IS supporter channels such as Channel 1 dissect, analyze, and widely disseminate information (i.e., official IS propaganda, unofficial pro-IS propaganda, video clips, personal reflections from IS supporters), in turn creating an echo chamber and offering a one-stop shop for its followers to view the world through the lens of IS.
Channel 2 also posts in English and focuses solely on addressing and accentuating the apparent crises faced by Muslim women across the world and especially in India. Propagandistic narratives from this channel attribute the erosion of Islamic values and decline of the religion’s integrity worldwide to the rise of feminism, which these narratives liken to a disease.
Channel 1 and Channel 2 also function as link channels, i.e., they are often used by members to disseminate links to other working IS supporter channels. Moreover, content from either group is shared on the other regularly, provided it meets each channel’s agenda.
Narratives on Women
“Harassing women is crime. So is theft. But thefts still happen despite the fact that almost all parents have taught their sons (and daughters) that theft is bad. Till all sons have been educated and they all have paid heed, protect your daughters. And it is not just education issue. It is man’s biology, environment and religion. Feminists need some biology education, at least.” – An excerpt from Channel 1 aimed at tying violence against women to the “pervasive ideology” of feminism
A wide array of South Asian narratives about women are disseminated on the two channels, with the primary narratives aiming to exploit intercommunal tensions prevalent in India by portraying an accelerating crisis faced by Muslims in the country. Messages falling under this narrative theme focus on a number of subjects: Hindu nationalists sexually assaulting Muslim women, the erosion of Islamic values due to feminist propaganda and the promotion of secular values, resentment (expressed by the channel admins) towards instances of non-Muslims dictating how Muslim women should dress, and critiques of abortion and pro-choice policies.18
Offering an alternative narrative of divine redemption, IS supporters in these channels mirror propaganda points expressed in official IS narratives on gender by rejecting gender equality and instead providing what they view as alternative notions of women’s empowerment distinct from what they frame as “Western” feminism.19 This pro-IS messaging stresses biological differences between men and women while also portraying women as being inherently weaker than men due to emotional and physical vulnerabilities, the overarching implication being that they are unequal to men in social, economic, and political spheres. As previous studies on official and unofficial IS narratives about women have shown, this type of shifting messaging reveals a mix of “blurred boundaries of empowerment, agency, and subjugation” when talking about women.20 It is worth mentioning that women who supported and/or travelled to the so-called Caliphate have discussed how they felt drawn by IS’s “empowering narratives” centered on fulfilling expected roles as mothers and wives, for example.21
Along these lines, the administrators of the two channels provide their followers with carefully curated narratives on women to form a worldview coherent with the Islamic State’s utopian vision. Women are portrayed as irrefutable properties of men (usually the standing patriarch of the family). The patriarch thus has the power to dictate rules that must be followed by his family, including women. These rules are in turn to be implemented by a righteous clergy—in this case, that of the Islamic State. The channel administrators additionally provide their followers with a framework informed by rigid interpretations of shari’ah for issues relating to marriage and the freedom that women are allowed when it comes to working and providing for the family. The deviation of the global Ummah from said frameworks, in conjunction with feminism and secular notions of the nation-state, are often touted as the primary reason for the decline of Islamic values and the ostensible crises faced by global Muslim populations as a whole.
Sexual Assault and Communal Violence
“Indian army has track record of mass rapes in Indian occupied Kashmir… Indian Hindus have been wishing to get chance to rape Kashmiri women. There is entire Indian nation wishing to rape and slaughter Muslims" – Narrative emanating from Channel 1 and shared in Channel 2 regarding the violation of Muslim women in India
The admins of Channels 1 and 2 classify women as commodities, and thus their messaging often compares the issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment to theft. Accordingly, the patriarch (whom these channels frame as the owner of the commodity) stands to lose more than the victims themselves. Hence it is the imperative of Muslim men, according to these narratives, to protect the women in their family by any means necessary, which, by extension, allows the man to safeguard his integrity and his religion. By accentuating the communal tensions prevalent in India, including sexual assaults on Muslim women, the channel administrators attempt to connect these issues to the decline of Islam in the country. It is important to note that pro-IS narratives promulgate a “policed version of womanhood” centered on gendered conceptualizations about societal and/or religious purity symbolically being attached to women themselves.22 In other words, it is not the abuse of women itself that the admins of these channels express anger about but a symbolically extended humiliation and violation of their wider in-group community.
The channel administrators provide a multitude of anecdotes of sexual assault to exacerbate the perceptions of crisis by portraying Indian men (particularly Hindus) as being predatory towards Muslim women. Discussions of the plight of Kashmiri Muslims in particular are ubiquitous in South Asian IS supporter channels and are often accompanied by a discussion of incidents of sexual violence against Kashmiri women.23 Messaging about the violence perpetrated by the Indian armed forces and law enforcement agencies are regularly disseminated in both channels, as these institutions are seen as the primary enforcers of the Indian government’s rule. One such post speaks of the infamous February 1991 mass rapes by the Indian army in the Kashmir valley in which soldiers sexually assaulted 150 girls and women and tortured nearly 200 men in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora.24 Justice for victims was rendered elusive due to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants Indian army personnel entry into any premises at any time in the Valley, without a search warrant, and to use lethal force as deemed necessary.25 Such incidents have created further animosity against the Indian government and law enforcement agencies among Kashmiris, sentiments which are exploited by separatist and militant Islamist groups such as IS.
The narratives disseminated in Channels 1 and 2 are curated to highlight incidents from the past such as the 1991 mass rapes in conjunction with more recent developments in order to claim that the harsh reality facing Muslims in Kashmir and India more broadly has not changed and is in fact deteriorating. Following the controversial abrogation of Article 370 in 2018—when the Indian government stripped the erstwhile autonomy enjoyed by the state of Jammu and Kashmir26—a video made rounds among right-wing Hindu groups on encrypted social media platforms in which several Hindu men discuss their willingness to join the Indian army to “teach Kashmiri Muslims a lesson by raping their women and enslaving them.”27 IS supporters online used this video as evidence of the supposed inherent mentality of all Hindus to exploit and abuse Muslim women. Suggesting that such videos can make the rounds without repercussions, this messaging from IS supporters aims to increase the perceptions of crisis among the channels’ members by suggesting that such a reality (of Hindu domination of Muslim women) is around the corner. The video garnered reactions from IS supporters on both channels, including one comment on the importance of picking up arms and killing Hindus to protect Muslims.28
The propaganda also draws a clear link between the lack of rebellion among Indian Muslims (especially the youth) and the looming threats facing fellow Muslims and the global Ummah. According to the administrators of both channels, a lack of focus on religion and an obsession with worldly possessions has blinded the Ummah from recognizing imminent threats. This messaging also calls for the increased participation of Muslims in propagating IS media in order to disseminate “truth” to wider audiences. It is further argued that occurrences of sexual violence and oppression of Muslims are bound to rise unless the Ummah support the guardians of Islam—i.e., the Islamic State—which will work to restitute Muslims to their former glory.
“Hindus have plans for Muslims in Indian occupied Kashmir and India. But sadly our youth are lost in entertainment and stupidity. Wake up. Please.” - Excerpt from Channel 2
IS supporters’ use of narratives pertaining to sexual violence and the rape of Muslim women include, implicitly or explicitly, criticism of a wide range of targets beyond Hindus. These include co-religionists (secular Muslims and practicing Muslims who do not share the IS worldview), the media, and nation-states. Criticisms aimed at fellow Muslims are omnipresent in IS propaganda (and more broadly in militant Islamist propaganda). The lack of participation of Indian Muslims in transnational militant jihad has also long been a cause for concern for Salafi-jihadist ideologists such as those of IS.29 Messaging focuses on alleged threats emanating from the “other” (i.e., enemies of IS) as a consequence of the lack of responsibility from fellow religionists.
Furthermore, mainstream Indian and international media are criticized in these narratives for their selective coverage of the threats faced by minorities in India. These narratives spotlight the hypocrisy of the media for its continual coverage of the atrocities and violence perpetrated by IS on minorities (such as the Yazidi genocide) while ignoring the genocide of Uyghur Muslims or the plight of Indian Muslims. This in turn is linked to the double standards practiced by the West and Muslim countries in quickly condemning the activities of groups such as IS while ignoring nation-states such as China and India. According to IS supporters, such hypocrisy emanates from a global war on Muslims.30 Such messaging seeks to emphasize two overarching narratives: First, the hypocrisy and unreliability of Muslim countries who refuse to come to the aid of oppressed Muslims; and second, the inherent anti-Muslim stance of Western countries, which ignore atrocities perpetrated against Muslims. In other words, nation states, regardless of whether they are majority-Muslim or not, cannot and will not protect the Ummah. This is an obligation that only the Islamic State claims it can fulfill.
The Feminism Cancer
“When most men see a women dressed modestly, they see that as signal ‘Not Approachable, Don’t even try it’. The women who dress immodestly send signal, ‘Approachable. Try it.”- Post by the administrator of Channel 2 on the hijab and modest dress
Accentuating the crises emanating from sexual assault and communal violence against Muslim women in India, IS supporters attribute the root causes of such threats to feminists around the world. Linking the secular values of feminism and women’s emancipation to the erosion of Islamic values, these narratives rely on arguments against feminism. These include discourse on a woman’s place in society according to religious scriptures, the gender requirements for leadership in politics, and Islamic regulations surrounding female dress.
These channels focus heavily on discourse regarding the legal status of Islamic dress in different societies. Since 2010, at least nine European nations including France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands have either partially or completely banned women from wearing the niqab (a set of clothes that fully cover the body and face) in public. In India, there are similar ongoing debates regarding whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear hijabs in school: the Indian Supreme Court remains divided on this issue,31 which has allowed one regional government, that of Karnataka State, to ban the headdress in classrooms.32 These policies in the West and India have drawn fierce criticism from IS, which alleges there is an international, Western-led conspiracy to abolish Islam. In addition, Muslims nations such as Saudi Arabia have also drawn criticism from IS and its supporters for their alleged leniency regarding the niqab.33
IS supporters such as the admins of Channels 1 and 2 allege that Western feminism is responsible for these bans on Islamic dress and is likewise chiefly to blame for the difficulties faced by Muslim men and women alike. According to these narratives, the lack of niqab mandates in most modern societies is the main cause of sexual violence experienced by Muslim women. The rejection of such a religious mandate, and the sexual violence this rejection allegedly engenders, is highlighted as a prime consequence of feminism. Hence feminism and secular values are directly responsible not only for the violation of Muslim women but, by extension, the erosion of Islamic tenets and the religion itself. The fixation on the niqab can be attributed to the ability of these narratives to spread the blame for the Ummah’s plight widely in a similar manner to narratives on rape, i.e., by blaming not only non-Muslim governments and societies but also ordinary Muslims, whom these IS supporters accuse of being too lax in their attitudes towards their dress.
Speaking on the sexual violence aimed at Muslim women, the messages in Channels 1 and 2 often employ the metaphor of rape as theft, as previously mentioned in this article. These narratives underscore the importance of wearing fully-covered-clothing (akin to a lock or a safe) as a deterrence to harassment (or theft, metaphorically). Hence, according to the messaging on these channels, any woman who rejects dressing modestly deserves the harassment they might receive. Such narratives reflect Hamoon Khelghat-Doost’s findings regarding women’s modesty in the IS worldview: “The notion that Eve is the initial seducer and that women have thereafter been vessels of sinful sexual power, has set the premise for IS to establish patriarchal restrictive regulations, curtailing and controlling women’s social activities.”34
Transnational terrorist groups such as IS have so far have failed to capitalize on the inter-religious violence in India to the extent that many might expect. As argued by Kabir Taneja, IS’s inability to find fertile ground for recruitment in India may stem from a mix of factors: grievances over issues such as Jammu and Kashmir take on a more nationalist nature among Indian Muslims which does not align with the objectives of IS; a disorganized approach on the part of IS to recruit Indians online; a general lack of receptiveness to IS messaging among Indians; and effective counterterrorism efforts by the Indian government, among other factors.35 However, the soaring anti-Muslim hatred within India and attendant fear among Muslims of Hindu nationalism is threatening to alienate members of the nation’s Muslim communities and potentially render its vulnerable youths susceptible to radical influences.
The India-specific narratives on women and feminism discussed in this article demonstrate how IS supporter networks often produce messaging that aligns with views expressed in official IS propaganda despite lacking centralized leadership. More specifically, these supporters are able to tailor their narratives on a granular level to Indian Muslim audiences in attempts to exploit the country’s intercommunal divisions, various forms of gendered violence against women, and legitimately concerning patterns of discrimination against Muslims.
Although there is plenty of wide-ranging IS-aligned content about India and the wider South Asia region present within pro-IS virtual ecosystems, the fact that these two prominent Hoop channels focus intensely on Muslim women provided an opportunity to examine specific gendered narratives that are being disseminated about Muslim women in India. Providing a descriptive review of narratives promoted by a unique pair of pro-IS South Asian channels helps in further understanding how IS supporters attempt to craft unofficial propaganda on a regional level designed to connect with a particular target audience—albeit rather unsuccessfully in this case.
While the messaging seen in Channels 1 and 2 may resonate among some Indian Muslims, it does not appear to find a broadly receptive audience due to the reasons previously discussed regarding the lack of support for IS within India. IS supporters have certainly not given up on attempting to woo Indian Muslims, however: The pro-IS online supporter magazine titled Sawt al-Hind (“Voice of India”) that first appeared in February 2020 continues to be produced, showing concerted efforts to connect with potential Indian and South Asian audiences.36 Whether such efforts will prove successful in winning recruits is yet unclear, but there is no denying that IS supporters are taking note of the increasing tensions in Indian society and hope to exploit such developments to their advantage.
Moving forward, Indian policymakers and counterterrorism officials should maintain a continuous focus on monitoring pro-IS online spaces, especially chatter (communication between individuals in large or small groups), messaging patterns of supporter-generated propaganda, and official IS media releases. As Taneja states, it will additionally be important to monitor “online jihadism” and Hindu far-right activities, which have the potential to fuel one another in a cyclical dynamic and cross over into offline environments.37 Finally, ensuring a pluralist and inclusive India that values religious, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity is crucial to ensuring civil rights while also mitigating popular grievances. Such an approach would challenge extremists who promote black-and-white messaging that portrays themselves and their violent ideologies as the only viable solution for protecting those who are vulnerable.