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Singer Ariana Grande performs onstage. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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The top 3 things ISIS fears about ‘dangerous’ women

May 26, 2017

Don’t need permission
Made my decision to test my limits
‘Cause it’s my business
God as my witness

 Ariana Grande, “Dangerous Woman”

When suicide bomber Salman Abedi blew himself up at a concert by pop star Ariana Grande in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and injuring dozens, the Islamic State terrorist group took credit for slaying “crusaders” at the “shameless” concert.

How did fans at a pop concert, many of them girls under the age of 16, qualify as “crusaders” to the network of militant Muslim men now being rounded up by British police?

The answer lies in the name of Grande’s tour: “Dangerous Woman.”

While security analysts, pundits and policymakers are focusing on the tragedy as yet another act of terrorism, this attack is symbolic of something else: The anti-woman ideology of interpretations of Islam for whom the freedom of girls and women is enemy No. 1.

And these interpretations are not just embraced by the Islamic State, but they are also put forward by state-sponsors of extremism, like the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as a vast network of Muslim scholars, authors, organizations and thinkers, including in the United States and the United Kingdom.

As an American Muslim woman who has challenged sexist rulings of Islam from the mosque to the bedroom, I know extremists like Abedi and his co-conspirators fear girls at a concert for what they symbolize: self-determination, self-expression and girl power.

And many of us, as mainstream Muslims, believe Western liberal feminists — in their rush to embrace conservative symbols of Islamic purity culture, like the headscarf — apply a double standard to dangerous interpretations of Islam that make women and girls vessel for honor in a society — and targets for wrath.

“A major threshold was crossed in Manchester with the murder of little girls at a concert,” says Nushin Arbabzadah, an Afghan writer and cultural critic. “We need to understand the connection between the girls in the concert with misogyny as an integral part of Islamism,” or political Islam.

Growing up in Afghanistan, Arbabzadah witnessed the murder of her elementary school classmates at a girls’ school when Afghan mujahideen, or freedom fighters, poisoned girls for not covering their hair. She laments that too many Western feminists balk at openly criticizing misogynistic interpretations of Islam in the name of political correctness and cultural “sensitivity.”

“Western feminism failed these poor girls,” Arbabzadah told me in an interview. “This tragedy is the outcome of their willfully denying the threat of Islamist misogyny. We have warned them again and again that Islamist extremism targets women and girls but they mostly choose to look the other way.”

We need to all wake up and recognize that the threat of Islamic extremism is real. Its targets will continue to include women and girls.

There is a lot that extremists fear about “dangerous” women, illustrated by lyrics from Grande that three powerful teen girls tutored me on, singing the lyrics loudly and clearly so I could feel the power of Grande’s words. It’s testimony to the threat of Islamic extremism today that to protect these teen girls I won’t name them here.

1. Sexual freedom.

 Anytime, anywhere, baby boy, I can misbehave …

Ariana Grande, “Everyday”

 This past February, Grande released a new music video for her single, “Everyday” from her Dangerous Woman album, featuring the singer strolling through a city as a diverse range of couples have sex in public: an overweight couple on the hood of a car; a lesbian couple in a laundromat; an elderly couple on a bus and an interracial couple in an office. Extremists’ interpretation of Islam abhor sexual freedom.

While most religions put forward some sort of ideas of sexual conservatism, it’s mostly Islamic countries that cling to religious laws that even order death as punishments for crimes of “morality.” From Afghanistan to Morocco, it’s mostly women and girls who are in jail for “moral crimes,” in part for violating concepts of hayaa, an Islamic term for shame or modesty.

Not long ago, at Halalco, a Muslim store in Falls Church, Va., I picked up a book, Islamic Hijaab (Purdah), by the Young Men’s Muslim Association in South Africa, in which the group argues, “The libertine culture of the West and its total advocacy of sexual mingling and illicit sexual relationships has ripped the veil of hayaa (shame and modesty), honor and purity from most nations.”

Some years ago, in my hometown of Morgantown, W.V., I listened in horror as a Saudi student declared that “unchaste women” are “worthless.” He read word for word from a sermon he had downloaded from a website, [] al Minbar, founded in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Some Muslims may argue that morality laws were put in place in the 7th century at Islam’s birth, as a protection clause to protect women from sexual assault, rape and even murder in their own society, but, now, these same interpretations are being used to hurt women. It is not the women and girls who are shameful. It’s these laws and these teachings used to control and slay women and girls.

2. Self-determination

Oh yeah

Don’t need permission
Made my decision to test my limits
‘Cause it’s my business
God as my witness
Start what I finished
Don’t need no hold up
Taking control of this kind of moment
I’m locked and loaded
Completely focused my mind is open

 “Dangerous Woman”

The title track from Grande’s album, Dangerous Woman, puts forth a message of empowerment and self-determination. To extremists who believe that women must have male guardians, or legal chaperones, called mahram, the idea that she belts out to girls — “Oh yeah, don’t need permission” — is blasphemy.

The theology of restricting women, even in travel, is set forth in a popular website,, published by a Saudi sheikh, Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid, of the Hanbali madhab, or school of jurisprudence, from which Wahhabism and Salafism come. This is what he states: “The basic principle that we have stated in numerous fatwas is that it is not permissible for a woman to travel without a mahram, whether the trip is for an act of worship such as Hajj, or to visit her parents, or it is a permissible kind of journey for other purposes.”

Even if Muslim women in the West enjoy the privilege of being free from these restrictions, we must acknowledge that these rules are a reality that makes this world a prison for too many Muslim women. We must challenge the theology behind these rulings.

When Grande encourages women and girls to go forth in this world with “God as my witness,” she dares to do something that extremists fear: give girls sacred, divine permission to live free. And we should live free.

3. Self-expression

 I used to let some people tell me how to live and what to be

But if I can’t be me, then what’s the point?

 — “I Don’t Care”

Newly-surfaced video footage of a the bomber wheeling out the recycling bins outside his family’s home in Fallowfield, U.K., in July 2016, reveals that, in his external rituals, or orthopraxy, Abedi practiced a strict, literal interpretation of Islam, common among the strict interpretation of Islam known as Salafism, named for practicing the way of the salaf, or companions of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. In the video, Abedi wears his pants and djellaba, or robe, hiked high in a look that I call “high-water jihadi” fashion. A hadith, or saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad, orders men and boys to hike their pants high, or the “fire” of hell will burn them, according to the Saudi site, Not everyone who wears their pants that way is a violent extremist, but they are taking teachings literally, which can become dangerous when applied to teachings from preachers like former al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar Al-Awlaki.

Grande’s message of critical thinking, saying explicitly, “I don’t care,” challenges the fundamentalist ethos in any culture to control every element of our lives, restricting our self-expression in this world. So too does her lyric, “my mind is open,” from “Dangerous Woman.”

What is the answer we should exercise in the face of this tragedy? We must recognize that there is a connection between theologies of power and control over women and girls and violence against us, in all communities, including Islam. And we must challenge them. When Taliban fighters shot Pakistani activist Malala Yousufzai in the face, she later said, “If one man can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?”

While Grande understandably halted her tour, there is one response that many of us, as Muslims who reject extremism and support girl power, would like to see her do: sing her song. And we will sing along, loud and strong.

Asra Q. Nomani is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement. She is working on a new book project, “Make Islam Great Again,” to be published in 2018 by St. Martin’s Press. She can be reached at or @asranomani.


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