How women wage war – a short history of IS brides, Nazi guards and FARC insurgents

The names of American-born Hoda Muthana and Brit Shamima Begum have appeared in countless headlines in the United States and Europe since these two female members of the Islamic State group were discovered in a large displaced persons camp weeks ago.

The women were among the holdouts in Islamic State’s last stronghold in Baghouz, Syria. When they were found by journalists, one was pregnant and the other was caring for her young child.

In the four years that these women lived as part of IS, they went from a self-described idyll in IS’s capital, Raqqa, to fleeing airstrikes with little more than the clothes on their backs. Now, as young mothers, they have been held up as iconic IS brides, evidence of the group’s ability to distort the minds of vulnerable teenagers.

In numerous interviews, these two women have wholeheartedly adopted this narrative.

“When I went to Syria, I was just a housewife for the entire four years – stayed at home, took care of my husband, took care of my kids,” Begum told Sky News. Although Muthana incited the murder of Americans on Twitter, according to these women’s accounts they did not take part in Islamic State’s violence. They did not even see it.

A history of impunity

We’ve heard this story before.

As Wendy Lower meticulously details in “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields,” roughly half a million German women followed their husbands or volunteered to settle the territory conquered by Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe. Women on the Eastern Front were integral to the expansion of the Nazi state, serving in key administrative, logistical and medical roles.

Some of these Nazi women also perpetrated horrific crimes. As many as 5,000 served as concentration camp guards. Roughly 10,000 women were SS auxiliaries, or Helferinnen, serving in a bureaucracy that murdered millions in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and elsewhere. A total of 7,900 women were employed in the SS Frauenkorps, where those working as secretaries would often decide which political prisoners ended up on the day’s kill lists. Thousands more Nazi nurses assisted in heinous medical experiments and euthanasia.

Yet, like most of the women in IS, Nazi women did not engage in armed combat. They clung to the gender roles and identities that National Socialism had created for them as wives and mothers.

As the Third Reich collapsed around them, most Nazi women in the East fled and returned to their former lives in Germany. Of the few who were apprehended, only a small portion ever faced justice. Following a military trial, the United Kingdom executed one such woman – Irma Grese, a 22-year-old Bergen-Belsen guard. But the vast majority of Nazi women were never held to account for their crimes, in Germany or abroad.