In February, a group of women arrived at a roadblock in northern Syria, manned by armed members of the Islamic State. No physical security checks were carried out on the group because of a religious ban, and several minutes later, the IS members were hit with a veil of bullets fired from the womens' concealed weapons.
Following the incident, the IS, formerly known as the State of Iraq and Levant, decided to establish a unit of female jihadist fighters for the first time. The al-Khansa battalion is one of such units - named after Al Khansa, a devout Muslim who dedicated poetry and eulogies to jihad fighters after losing four sons in a war against Persia at the time of the Prophet Mohammed.
In 2012, an anonymous fatwa was distributed, calling for women to join jihad fighters in Syria in their campaign for the country to return to ultra-conservative customs and a broader Islamic caliphate. Surprisingly, a significant response to the propaganda was noted in Tunisia – to the point where authorities intervened in an attempt to stop the phenomenon.
Many of the al-Khansa female fighters are of Chechen descent, but women from Yemen and Afghanistan have reportedly joined the battalion. The recruitment network is allegedly related to the phenomenon of "black widows" enlisted for suicide attacks. Some members are believed to have joined in response to the deaths of husbands or other family members, assassinated by the Russian army in Chechnya or at the hands of the US military in Afghanistan.
In the northern Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah or Raqqa, on the north bank of the Euphrates River, Al-Khansa has over 50 women affiliated with IS. According to an IBTimes UK eyewitness, many are wives of immigrants in Syria, of Tunisian, Moroccan, French and British nationalities.
Until fairly recently, the battalion had patrolled the city's streets to pursue women. According to our source, Al-Khansa enforced legal marriages to "Mujahidin" - a term used to describe those they see as Muslims who struggle in the path of Allah - prompting the families of female students to leave the city and keep their daughters away from schools.
It was reported earlier this year that women, referred to as "muhajirat" – immigrants in the name of religion – were being recruited by the Islamic State for marriage purposes. But according to reports, sexual abuse is rife. Some are married with families, but others are young and single, and serve as a potential attraction to manipulate young men interested in siding with the militant rebels.
Yet female fighters for the al-Khansa battalion perform other tasks, including street patrols and public floggings for Sharia crimes. Others are recruited as roadblock guards, or carry out a violent coercion regime against women who fail to adhere to the strict Islamic ideology of IS.
Female fighters joining the IS are yet another setback in the fight for women's rights, specifically in Syria – a country ravaged by a civil war that has killed more than 100,000. The militants continue to advance across the state, with activists stating the group has taken control of several towns in the northern province of Aleppo, a significant expansion for the organisation.
Women played a central role in the Arab Spring when the revolution erupted in Syria in March 2011. Yet three years after the uprisings, hopes that the revolts would bring greater freedom and expanded rights for women have been thwarted by entrenched patriarchal structures and the rise of militant Islamist organisations.
In 2013, a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of 22 Arab countries showed three out of five states involved in the Arab Spring came last for women's rights, in terms of gender violence, treatment of women in the family, inclusion in politics and economics and reproductive rights.
And with women pledging their support for militant jihadist groups, it seems that improving the status of female Syrians is further away than ever.