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Romance, Religion, & Idealism: Why Western Women Join IS


An image from a tweet by Umm Waqqas, a woman associated with the IS group. She describes her time living with IS militants like this: "I have come across such beautiful sisters who will spend mornings and nights in happiness because they are cooking the Mujahideen food,"

An image from a tweet by Umm Waqqas, a woman associated with the IS group. She describes her time living with IS militants like this: "I have come across such beautiful sisters who will spend mornings and nights in happiness because they are cooking the Mujahideen food,"

Western women are joining the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS) group in Syria and Iraq for a variety of reasons including religious idealism, a belief that Muslims are being systematically oppressed, and a desire for romance and friendship, according to a new report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a Britain-based think tank.

The report, titled Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants To ISIS, examines the social media postings of a number of European and North American women recruits to the IS group.

Six of the women whose social media postings are used in the report come from Britain, two come from the Netherlands, one from France, one from Canada, and one is believed to be from Austria.

The motivations given by the women for joining the IS group in Syria and Iraq reflect those stated by male foreign recruits. The women sampled for the report said that Muslims around the world were being oppressed and that there was a larger war against Islam being waged by the "kuffar" ("infidels"). Many used their social media accounts to post images of violence against Muslims, including children.

The use of graphic images, particularly of women and children, as part of a narrative that talks about Muslim oppression at the hands of non-Muslims, as a recruitment has been reported by other IS recruits, including Chechen men who say they joined the IS group or other militant factions in Syria before becoming disillusioned and coming home.

The black and white worldview of a global struggle between Muslims and the "infidels" who seek to systematically oppress them, as presented by Western women recruits to the IS group, is also a noticeable thread in pro-jihadi accounts run by Russian-speaking supporters of both the IS group and other factions in Syria.

Islamic Utopia

Beyond supporting the concept that the IS group's creation of a "caliphate" -- an Islamic state run according to the IS group's interpretation of Shari'a Law -- is a duty for all Muslims, the Western women IS recruits also expressed a desire to contribute to the idea (or ideal) of such a "caliphate."

One woman, Umm Ubaydah, wrote that "we don't resort to violence because of the wrong America has done. We are trying to build an Islamic state that lives and abides by the law of Allah."

Similar motivations were found among some Central Asian women who joined the IS group because of the "call of a devout life, or an Islamic environment for their children," a recent report by the International Crisis Group found.

Another key theme expressed by the Western women who joined the IS group in Syria and Iraq is the concept of marriage to a "mujahid" ("jihadi fighter"). The report notes that the "imagery of a lion and a lioness, of finding a brave and noble husband" is widespread among the IS group's female supporters.

Media reports have also demonstrated that, beyond the romantic ideal of the "caliphate," another push factor persuading women to leave their families and join Islamic State is the idea of worldly romance. In one such case, a Dutch teenager ran away to Syria to marry a militant named Yilmaz, a Dutch-Turkish man who had previously served in the Dutch military.

Just A 'Normal Housewife'?

Once in IS-controlled territory, the Western women recruits lead a predominantly domestic life, with tasks in the home filling their everyday lives, the report found.

One woman, Umm Layth, wrote that an IS female recruit's "normal day...revolves around the same duties as a normal housewife."

However, in Umm Layth's view, even the most quotidian domestic tasks are imbued with a sense of happiness, because the IS recruits are doing them "for the sake of Allah."

"I have come across such beautiful sisters who will spend mornings and nights in happiness because they are cooking the Mujahideen [militants'] food," Umm Layth wrote.

The Strategic Dialogue report suggests several ways that could be used to counter the IS group's allure for, and recruitment of, women.

According to the report, counternarratives that push back against those of the IS group should be developed specifically for a female audience, and targeted via social media.

Strategies involving the women's families should also be employed to help them prevent their female relatives from leaving to join the IS group.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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