Why Do Western Women Join Daesh?

“You look at me and call me oppressed, simply because of the way I am dressed. Man doesn’t tell me to dress this way, it’s a law from God that I obey. Oppressed is something I’m truly not, for liberation is what I’ve got. For God himself gave us liberty, when he sent Islam to you and me!”

Muslimah — The Bird of Jannah, 2015

In September of 2014, 17-year-old Austrian girl, Samra Kesinovic, slipped quietly out of her parent’s house early one morning leaving behind a note... “Do not look for us. We will serve Allah and we will die for him.”

Just months later reports emerged from Syria, that Samra, having at first become a poster girl for Daesh, had now been beaten to death with a hammer, after trying to escape the militants who passed her around as a sex slave. Samra was just one of hundreds of Western women to have migrated to Daesh controlled lands to contribute to jihad (the struggle against the enemies of Islam), and though not all have met her fate, few have returned. Back here in the West we still ask why do women, like Samra, want to join a fight which so clearly oppresses them?

Samra Kesinovic

Women have long since taken active roles in terrorism, and though global terrorism has its roots in the 19th Century, women were not identified as key players until the Latin American guerrilla wars of the 1970s. Still, women continue to be largely painted as victims of male coercion, even following considerable research into the rise of female suicide bombers. Maybe this is in part because (although the numbers of woman in front line positions has increased) extremist Islamist organisations such as Daesh contend that a woman’s role is domestic.

In this respect there exists a gender-specific interpretation of jihad, recognising that jihad does not always refer to armed violence. Female jihad can equate to women undertaking a political act by supporting their male relatives, educating their children in the ideology and facilitating terrorist operations. The fundamental question remains, however, what do Western women gain by carrying out jihad?

The Western women who join Daesh are answering a religious and political call from a group they believe represents their interests, and beyond that, they are seeking a form of emancipation in the caliphate. The women involved are seeking to take control of their own lives, searching for identity and belonging, and hoping to free themselves from Western restrictions. This has important consequences for understanding the conflict of identity that exists in Western society. A conflict that must be overcome in order to prevent future generations of Muslims becoming easy prey for jihadist recruiters.

Hoda Muthana

Understanding the factors and processes that prime certain females to be susceptible to extremist ideology is critical, and one of the more influential factors involves women feeling isolated within Western culture. The effect of experiences in early life on subsequent value patterns and participation in adult life are important, and help shape personal identities within wider society. Sadly, in the West, most individuals from ethnic minorities are likely to have experienced abuse, be it physical or verbal, essentially due to their ethnic identity.

One day in November 2014, then 20-year-old student Hoda Muthana from Alabama told her parents she was going on college trip. By the time her father next heard from her, she had entered Syria. In a press interview over Kik, Hoda explained her action…

“I literally isolated myself… I grew closer to my religion, I lost all my friends, I found none in the community that desired to tread the path I was striving for.”

Hoda did not talk of violence or discrimination, but her isolation was clear. Though discriminatory comments nor even violent abuse alone are likely to turn someone to violent extremism, it can fuel the feeling of isolation and distance women from the society within which they live. Such treatment can leave an individual more open to extremist narratives that cultivate a sense of belonging to a persecuted community.

That feeling of persecution, not only felt individually, but as part of the Ummah (Arabic word meaning community) is another key push factor for female migrants. A belief, shared with their male counterparts, that the Ummah is under attack, assists radicalisation by erecting a cognitive behavioural pathway around propaganda that the Kuffar (Arabic term meaning infidel) have violently persecuted them throughout history.

The repeated use of Hirja (Mohammad’s migration) by the muhajirat (Arabic word meaning emigrant) on social media shows that they see themselves emulating Mohammad — literally fleeing persecution and waging a violent jihad against non-believers.

Salma and Zahra Halane

Salma and Zahra Halane, two young sisters from Greater Manchester who arrived in Syria aged 16 in 2014, revelled so much in killings of the Kuffar, that they were labelled by the British press as the ‘Terror Twins’. The girls, who between them had just gained 28 GCSEs before their Hiraj, publicly celebrated atrocities committed by Daesh such as the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office. Zehra exclaimed…

“Our brothers doing jihad in darul kufr! Allahu Akbar! The Kufar needs to understand we are the Ummah of Mohammed saw!”

Young women like Salma and Zahra, feeling isolated in Western society who accept the narrative fed to them of injustices against the Ummah may then subsequently find Daesh attractive to them. This is especially the case for those who face religious persecution, those who struggle to find community at home and those frustrated over international inaction.

Bethnal Green schoolgirls Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum

Anger and frustration over the lack of action from international society when there is violence perpetuated against innocent Muslims can serve a narrative that the West is complicit in their suffering. This was a factor especially in the early stages of the Syrian conflict where the lack of any intervention against the Assad regime was highlighted by extremist propaganda. Critics have argued that the frustration-aggression hypothesis that illustrates how frustration can lead some young Muslims to terrorism is over-simplistic but there are valid examples. Amira Abase, one of the Bethnal Green trio of teenage girls which included Shamima Begum and Kadiza Sultana, migrated to Syria in 2015.

Like most typically ‘normal’ girls, Amira had social media platforms on which she discussed her love of shopping and her favoured Chelsea Football Club. In the months prior to her departure, her feed had turned to questions surrounding radical Islam and depictions including Syrian children dead and dying. Propaganda such as this which exhibits violent persecution of the Ummah, pits the good believers against the Kuffar, justifying violence against this ostensibly evil force. This is not to say that frustrated women who isolate themselves from society will necessarily turn to violence but it is one of three push factors identified that help drive women to the caliphate. These are often similar to those that influence men whereas pull factors are more unique to women.

One of the fundamental factors that pulled Western women towards Daesh controlled territory is a sense of religious duty and the idealistic goal that they can build a utopian Caliphate. Not only do these women reject the Western culture they have left behind, but they look to contribute to a society overseen by Sharia law. Female migrants repeatedly express this and call on others to join, such as in the nasheed, ‘My Ummah, Dawn Has Appeared’, an anthem for the muhajirat which appears in film propaganda. The words sing… ‘The Islamic State has arisen by the jihad of the pious… so that religion may be established, in which there is the law of the Lord of the Worlds’.

Zehra Duman, arrived in Syria from Melbourne in December 2014, stating her motivation on social media, she said…

“I couldn’t sit back one second. I was waiting for the day Khilafah returned.”

Zehra Duman

The obligatory nature of the notion of Hirja to women like Zehra is often repeated as is her hatred of the West. Zehra frequently spoke of her desire to perform violent acts and as just one example of her social media activity asked her twitter followers to…

“Kill Kuffar in alleyways, stab them and poison them. Poison your teachers. Go to haram restaurants and poison the food.”

For women like Zehra the caliphate is seen as a sanctuary for those who wish to accept and preserve a strict interpretation of Islam. They are convinced that Hirja to the caliphate is also their duty, also known as fard-al-ayn, and that once there they will meet their sisters.

Providing a sense of belonging is another pull factor for those female migrants searching for identity and a community. This phenomenon is known as fictive kin, where personal ties are developed between women who use ideology to create a sense of sisterhood.

Aqsa Mahmood who quit University in Glasgow to marry a Daesh fighter, clearly felt detached from her family before migrating, stating one day on social media…

“yay my niqab has arrived today… I really do not care what my parent’s opinion of this will be!”

Asqa Mahmood

Following her journey to Syria she became prolific at spreading propaganda online and said ‘the family you get in exchange for leaving the ones behind are like the pearl in comparison to the shell you threw away’.

For Aqsa wearing the niqab was a symbol of her faith, a belief she like others, probably developed as she questioned her identity growing up as a minority in Western society. Having feelings about relationships at home that intuitively feel false help contribute to young women searching for meaning in their lives. Feelings that become further strained when encountering romantic notions of adventure.

Unlike men, it seems that women are attracted by the romantic notion of marriage to Daesh fighters and their participation in jihad. That is not to say that young women are coerced into terror by an irrational sexual or romantic desire as some scholars claim. In fact, prospective muhajirat appear to view becoming a martyr’s widow is an honour, because their devotion is rooted in religious ideology, not the need for affection.

We can look at the case of a young Bosnian woman named Elvira Karalic who left not only her husband behind, but two young children to answer Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call for women to help build an army for jihad. Police records show that Elvira was behaving aggressively before leaving for Syria, and had begun to describe the rest of her family as infidels. In Syria she married a jihadist with whom she bore a son, before as is to be expected, he was killed not long after. There is little doubt that marriage between the muhajirat and jihadist is highly glorified, but women are encouraged to view the deaths of their partners as an honour and this is a fate often actively hoped for. Rather than sexual desire women are drawn by the romantic notions of adventure, and the opportunity to shape history in the caliphate.

The dominant framework in gender and securitisation on why women join violent political organisations focuses on explanations such as fear, poverty, and a lack of opportunity. The muhajirat complicate this framework. The women identified are not outliers, but often reflective of the middle classes, are in higher education, with careers ahead of them, and living comfortable lives. In addition to this the western narrative of its actions in places such as Iraq and Syria is painted as that of the humanitarian, fighting a perceived evil in the Middle East that violently oppresses women.

This narrative is difficult to reconcile with the knowledge that these Western women are willingly joining with those who ostensibly oppress them. Because of this and because the muhajirat tend to fall outwith the extant gender and securitisation framework, policymakers, researchers and officials tend to portray them as coerced, naïve and irrational. In treating the muhajirat as peripheral actors rather than extremists we ignore the empirical evidence of the participation of women in terrorism, and blind ourselves to their motivations.

An alternative theory would be that these women are seeking a form of emancipation unknown in the West. These women do not see themselves reflected in Western society and they do not wish to emancipate themselves in a feminist sense. Gender equality seems to be perceived by the muhajirat as hypocrisy, instead they look to change gender roles in society and become complimentary to men. The women cited appear to share the wish to free themselves from the control of their families at home and to take control of their own lives, or at least, in accordance with their Islamic ideology.

Just as most Western women wish to free themselves from the subordination of men, the muhajirat wish to live in a state that allows them to live under the Sharia law which secular Western countries forbid. From a western viewpoint this Islamic form of emancipation is admittedly difficult to understand.

Shannon Maureen Conley, the 19-year-old Colorado woman who pleaded guilty to conspiring to help ISIS

In studying the Western women who joined Daesh, we can see that their motivations in joining are much the same as of those male recruits. The gendered security framework assumes that women are motivated by romance or are tricked by recruiters. It appears, however, that it is feelings of isolation at home and religious commitment that drives women toward becoming a muhajirat. Most of our knowledge of these women is taken from their social media output, which is an indication of how technology has enabled the isolated to connect easily with radical Islamists abroad.

Terrorist attacks in Europe tend to be carried out by second-generation immigrants who have not integrated, and though these women have lived their whole lives in Western society before migrating, they will not have been alone as Western Muslims in feeling marginalised in their daily lives. The utopia that Daesh created with the declaration of the Caliphate gave these women not only a way out, but an inherent sense of obligation to their fellow Muslims, and to themselves.

Western women who joined Daesh were answering a religious and political call from a group they believe represents their interests, and beyond that were seeking a form of emancipation in the caliphate. Nobody is born a terrorist, but the cultural and social environment at home can impact on identity. Many of the reasons for migrating to the Caliphate are the same for men as they are for women — they have no fewer motives. There is little evidence that romance is a factor for the muhajirat and certainly no women appear to have been coerced by the allure of sex. For them marriage is a religious duty. It is clear that those muhajirat who migrate tend to feel isolated and persecuted at home, and harbour frustrations at what they consider a Western war on Islam.

Women are driven to migrate by an ideology that adopts a gendered frame around an Islamic form of emancipation. The challenge now, and it is not a simple one, is to rehabilitate those women such as Shamima Begum who might seek to return, and to build the conditions to prevent further radicalisation in the future.

Shamima Begum was found among 39,000 refugees in a Syrian camp