Female Radicalization: A Case of ISIS
With ISIS losing its positions, young women that have been driven to the group, predominantly to marry Daesh militants are expressing their sentiments to return back to countries of their origin. This induces a debate whether they need to be allowed back or not. The discourse is polarized with ones claiming for a second chance and ones arguing against it. While politicians, scholars, civil society and journalists debate on this matter by trying to justify their arguments, it is crucial to understand why radicalization happens in the first place. The following article aims to explore the reasons why women from democratic states travel to war zones such as in Syria and join the terrorist network.
The civil war in Syria, unfortunately, is not over yet. However, stories of people who once left their homes to join ISIS as foreign fighters and jihadi brides, and who are mow trying to return back to their countries of origin, are widely covered by the media. The story of Shamima Begum who has expressed a desire to return back to the UK after four years in ISIS, or Hoda Muthana’s who similarly left her home in the US in 2014 to marry an ISIS militant has sparked a debate among politicians, academics and civil society. The question is whether to give these people a so-called second chance. These young women declare deep regret of their past decisions and urge for a chance to start a new chapter in their lives. However, it is not that easy to grant them that chance due to the close association with the most violent and brutal terrorist organization of the twenty-first century.
British society, for instance, is divided between those, who argue in favor of revoking citizenship and those who speak for permission to return and rehabilitate. Ones in favor of exoneration claim that Ms. Begum was too young (fifteen to be exact) when she fled away. Therefore, she has been misguided. Others argue that the role of women in ISIS is underestimated. Girls join jihad knowingly and thus intentionally motivated by a true belief in the terrorist narrative. There are supposedly many more similar cases, each with a different story. In order to debate whether these girls should or should not be allowed to return, it is important to have a deeper knowledge on the topic which begins with reasons why they have left in the first place. It is vital to ask ourselves, why these women choose traveling to war zones and joining the extreme groups as a better alternative to living in a democratic state with its values and freedom?
The journey to Daesh starts with radicalization. The concept itself is quite complex. Various scholars have come to a list of possible explanations of this phenomenon. Nevertheless, there is no overarching rationale to place everything under one umbrella. History demonstrates that the problem of women radicalization is not unique. For instance, there were female fighters in Sri Lanka as part of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, “Black Widows” phenomenon in Chechnya, Red Brigade in Italy, Red Army Faction in Germany, the armed wing of Hamas – Izzaddin Kassam, and others. According to statistics, since 2013 15 % of travelers to Syria have been female. The latest numbers presented in a report by International Civil Society Action Network emphasize that out of “41,490 foreigners, who became affiliated with ISIS, up to 4,761, or 13 %, are women”. France, for example, is one country that has the biggest number of jihadists and 30 % of them is female. In the Netherlands, for example, more than 50 women travelled to Syria and they gave birth to approximately 20 children. The UK also served as an incubator for radicals. At least 56 women have left the country in their pursuit to join ISIS. In Germany, the share of women fluctuates between 20 to 30 % depending on the year. These statistics illustrate that the issue of Western females joining radicals deserves our attention and we need to understand why the war zone has been preferable to the peace at home.
Understanding the reasons why…
One of the most popular explanations is the concept of a “jihadi bride”. As the name suggests, this term portrays a woman who travel to become a wife of ISIS jihadists, live under ISIS governance and fulfil the roles assigned to them by Daesh. They are not viewed as fighters themselves rather serve as a support base for ISIS fighters. Shamima Begum’s case fits exactly into within the "jihadi bride" rationale. Pearson and Winterbortham support the idea that women travel because of “lure of marriage” meaning they seek personal partnerships. Logically, it creates a question why they are not attracted to marry someone back home. The study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization revealed that these women are attracted to marry a “hero” who is not afraid to sacrifice his life for a greater cause. These women find heroism in the actions of ISIS members. Moreover, the "jihadi bride" phenomenon is connected to a very traditional understanding of the role of women as wives and mothers in Islamic countries. Since ISIS wants to portray itself as a state, it is important to create a sense of having a domestic space. This is essential for a state to grow and gain stability. Therefore, they need females to produce as many children as possible so that a ‘state’ can grow. Women’s ability to give birth is weaponized by ISIS.
2. Victims of propaganda
Another reason why Western women leave everything behind and search for new homes is a carefully tailored propaganda. ISIS masters the art of picturing a romanticized life. Thus, a utopian imagine appears tempting. Recruitment happens online using well-known social networks and also by publishing female-authored columns in ISIS magazine Dabiq. Hearing a female voice from the other side helps women to believe that ISIS is just another country. Furthermore, they hear a call from ‘sisterhood’ - a group that they might have never been a part of.
3. In pursuit of a new chapter
Another possible explanation might be that vulnerable people are easier to be exposed to extremist propaganda. Women who have been treated badly in the “previous” life want to have a second chance to start over. Democratic attributes such as freedom of speech, rule of law, human rights, etc. become secondary for people in challenging mental positions and thus become no longer significant to enjoy. Traveling to Syria is seen as a new beginning. Example of Colleen LaRose, although it has taken time in a different setting, still gives us a hint to assume that sometimes women who have been exposed to vulnerabilities, abuses and bad treatment in their motherlands are willing to try one more time and open a clear page somewhere else.
4. Filling the gap of identity crisis
Young people, in general, are more exposed to insecurities regarding their appearances, habits, dreams. Therefore, they are sensitive to changes that start occurring once entering adult life. Surrounding environments start expecting decisions and this pressure to choose something, this constant chase and search for identity can be used by radicals who are well trained to catch their type of prey. Hence, younger women possibly have been joining ISIS to find answers to identity crises and uncertain futures. Pearson and Winterbortham put it precisely: “Identity crisis can be a significant source of vulnerability”. Aqsa Mahmood, a young Scottish girl who left to Syria and romanticized her future, is known to fall into this reason.
5. Paradox of freedom
Just like when men feel marginalized and discriminated in the West, based on their ethnicity and religion, women also experience Islamophobia. Most of the times, it is connected with how they dress. If a Muslim woman wears hijab, it is possible that she will receive unpleasant looks from surroundings, feel excluded and uncomfortable. If the society where they live is hesitant to accept them the way they are, then both men and women want to find a place where they would belong and feel comfortable. France, Germany and the Netherlands, for instance, introduced a ban of wearing the headscarf in public spaces. But these people are not guests, the West either became their home or has been a shelter from birth. Feeling unwelcomed at home is a terrible feeling. Furthermore, hijab and burka are perceived by Islamophobic people as a sign of extremism. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression so notoriously and vigorously promulgated in the West seems to have restrictions. ISIS, on the other hand, uses it as bait to attract people.
6. Independent, rational choice
On the one hand, jihadi women are viewed as someone who has been brainwashed and thus misled to travel to a dangerous territory. Supporters of this view claim these women are victims and therefore argue for granting them a chance to return. On the other hand, some women as well as men genuinely believe in the narratives of ISIS and thus want to help to reach its aim. They feel their presence matters, that they are important figures in the game of jihad by fulfilling the roles assigned to them by ISIS. Not only they marry and give birth to children of Daesh militants but also, they are trained and become terrorists. A case of foiled terrorist attack in the British Museum that has been planned solely by all-female ISIS terror cell serves as an example. Some women reject values such as feminism that is usually associated with the West. Others are naturally submissive and enjoy when they are dominated, told what to do and how to act. They believe that living under Sharia is the rightest thing and it would not be possible in Western countries. Hence, they even do not require extensive brainwashing, they are naturally attracted to the ISIS ideology. Proponents of this side argue to be strict and do not allow these people back.
Analyzing female radicalization, we can conclude that the issue by itself is wide and complex and it is not easy to generalize the reasons why people leave their homes. Understanding the rationale is rather context-specific, meaning some women fall for brainwashing, others for emotions, the others for freedom of religious expression. The choice is not about a country that better provides education, health care, employment opportunities and generally a better lifestyle. The choice is ideological and subconscious quest where people first and foremost want to feel contended. The case of the Syrian conflict illustrates that women radicalize due to personal and social dynamics that are not related to living in a welfare country. That is probably why they prefer a war abroad to peace at home. The states that are struggling with a dilemma of returnees need to carefully analyze each case separately by employing polygraphs and experts in human psychology. Individual approach instead of “one size fits all” policy might make a vital difference in someone’s life.
About the author
Aizhan Orozbakieva is an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree student studying Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies at three European Universities (University of Glasgow, UK; Dublin City University, Ireland; Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic) with a focus on Conflict Studies.