Why do women join the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations?

You can find just about anyone or anything represented on social media these days, and the Islamic State in Syria is no exception. From the soldiers of ISIS to their wives and daughters, a great deal of members are active online. Tweets and Tumblr posts are flying out of Syria and Iraq every single day. This abundance of posts has allowed anyone with Internet access to gain unprecedented insight on the day-to-day lives of extremists and their families. The participation of women sympathetic to the cause is especially shocking.

“For many, the idea of women as violent extremists seems paradoxical,” wrote Nimmi Gowrinthian, an expert on female extremism. “After all, why should women want to join a political struggle that so blatantly oppresses them?”

Analysts and researchers have been studying this question of what causes anyone, particularly those from Western nations, to abandon their homes and join ISIS. One factor is the group’s social media campaign. ISIS is quite active across Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, meaning that anyone has access to the firsthand accounts from jihadis, ISIS writings, and propaganda.

Each of these modes of communication could catalyze a disgruntled citizen into joining ISIS or supporting them financially. In January 2015, a 19-year-old nurse from Colorado was convicted and pled guilty to providing material support to ISIS.  The nurse was attempting to flee the country to Syria to marry an ISIS soldier she had met online, as well as provide medical care. She was a recent convert to Islam, and connected with the Islamic State online.

Another factor is the allure of creating an Islamic nation run by a religious leader, or caliph. According to the Quran, a caliph is God’s chosen representative on earth, and it is written that he will create a kingdom (caliphate), which will provide “security and peace after their fear.” The idea that a caliphate could spring up in modern-day Syria and Iraq gives many Muslims religious inspiration for joining the cause. ISIS Tumblr user Umm Layth posted that she and others migrating to Syria see it as a place they can live “honorably under the law of Shariah.” Indeed, creating the caliphate is enough justification for some to support ISIS. The use of airstrikes certainly hasn’t endeared Americans in their eyes.

These factors are all pull-factors, tactics that attract individuals to a life of radicalization, as opposed to the often-overlooked push-factors.

“Western analysts and media uniformly emphasize pull factors…when discussing female motivations for joining ISIS, ignoring the life histories that are continually pushing them forward,” said Gowrinthian.

Alienation and marginalization typically cause many people to seek the life of an extremist, including women. For Muslim women, alienation can serve as an extremely powerful push-factor, as they tend to be more oppressed than their male counterparts. Muslim women in Western nations might experience alienation due to lack of understanding, sympathy, representation, or acceptance of their religious practices. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French ban on the niqab, or veil, in the case of a 24-year-old French-Muslim woman. She argued that the ban “violated her freedom of religion and expression.” While some argue that the hijab is by its very nature oppressive to women, the woman who brought this case to the court stated that she chose to wear it because she was a devout Muslim. However, under the current law in France, anyone who covers their face in public spaces can be fined 150 euros. This means that zero ofthe approximate 2.5 million Muslim women in France are able to follow a religious custom that might be essential to their identity as a Muslim.

Overall, the push factors alienate and separate the women from the society they live in, while the pull factors make life in the Islamic State seem more attractive. While this is a powerful combination for any alienated Muslim, when combined with the anxiety of adolescence, it becomes even stronger. There are many references to Western teen movies and books by many of the Western girls who join ISIS. The blogger “Birds of Jannah” posted a photoshopped Tangled meme with Rapunzel in a burka, one girl who emigrated to Syria in 2013 left behind a copy of The Hunger Games. Another woman tweeted: “I wonder if I can pull a Mulan and enter the battle field.” These references to Western media and cartoons show the adolescence of many of these new recruits. They are feeling alienated and angsty, and suddenly ISIS becomes not just an extremist group but also an avenue for camaraderie, solace, and adventure.

The Mulan reference is fascinating beyond the surface level of wanting adventure, as Mulan is fighting illegally in an army run by men. Ubaydah knows that if she were to fight in this conflict and achieve jihad as she wants, it would be in secret and against the principles of ISIS. As male ISIS fighter Abu Fariss so eloquently posted online, “apparently, head military of Sham said women are not allowed [to fight]… if u wanna be a dr here or anything just come, u can do it all inshallah [God willing]. Lolll.” It is out of the question for women to fight, but not because they are less aggressive by any means. Many of the women of ISIS loudly vocalize their anger and desire to fight via the Internet. Umm Ubaydah wrote, “my best friend is my grenade … It’s an American one too Lool. May Allah allow me to kill their Kanzeer [pig] soldiers with their own weapons.” The only thing keeping her from fighting is the reservations of the patriarchal systems of oppression that exist within ISIS.

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