In a fledgling extremist state, no one’s role is generally defined. Unless, of course, you are a woman. Over the past year or so, the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS, has become generally acknowledged as the primary threat to the international community. This threat is in large part due to the successful recruitment of many westerners to IS’s cause. The media is inundated with stories of “lone wolf” vigilantes who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. However, those recruited go beyond the popular demographic of misguided young men who were radicalized over social media. There is a much smaller, and even more confounding group of IS recruits that are fleeing to the IS-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria. This group consists of young women, often recruited through the Internet, to join the cult of domesticity set up for them within the state structure attempted by IS. With its known human rights abuses and primeval attitude towards women, the ability of IS to attract increasing numbers of western women to its cause has become a concerning, inexplicable, and largely overlooked threat.
The Islamic State seeks to go back to the most basic and extreme form of Islamic law. Punishment for disobeying the law is often harsh, from imprisonment and forced work to physical abuse and death. Crimes punishable under IS’s rule include failing to grow an appropriate beard and, if you are a woman, being seen anywhere outside the house without an appropriate male escort. Such laws and rules of punishment make for a highly restricted and regimented existence for women. Furthermore, IS fighters are known to have carried out crimes against women, including supposedly ordained mass rape of non-Muslim women in conquered lands, such as the Yazidi women in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Nonetheless, IS seeks to be a society, and thus they promise young women who seek to join them a ‘hallowed’ existence in their ranks.
The official image of women in the Islamic State can be found in a manifesto released by the al-Khanssaa Brigade, a women’s morality group that acts on behalf of IS. According to the pamphlet, entitled “Women in the Islamic State”, the role of women is largely confined to a secure existence in the home, with the purpose of caring for her husband and children. The only exceptions to this are if a woman chooses to work in women’s medicine or education, in which case they may work outside the home, but on a highly restricted schedule so as to complete their wifely duties as well. A woman’s life is essentially dictated for her, though it is promised to be one of prosperity, love, and inclusion in the community of the Islamic State.
The ideal woman would be educated until age 15, in three separate waves so as to allow leave for marriage at any point during their schooling. The first wave focuses on religion, Quranic Arabic, and the most basic natural science. The second emphasizes religion’s role in a woman’s life, and skills necessary to maintain a home, in a sort of advanced home economics course. Finally, women study child raising, Sharia law, and basic Islamic history deemed to be necessary knowledge when bringing up children. By age 15, they are expected to cease their education, and seek a husband if they are not already married (IS sanctions marriage for girls beginning at age nine). While this existence may seem restrictive, it is framed so as to appeal to young women who want a husband and a sense of security, or those of a conservative Islamic background who struggle in an increasingly Islamophobic Western society. These jaded promises of stability are the focus of female-centric propaganda.
Recruitment of western women to serve as jihadi brides in the Islamic State is driven primarily through targeted social media campaigns. The target audience is generally young, ambitious Muslim girls from conservative Islamic communities who may have become disenchanted with their surroundings and the state of society as a whole. Women working as recruiters for the Islamic State make contact with these girls through social media, most commonly through sites like Twitter. The message varies with the girl, but it frequently centers around the promise of a stable and pious married life or a twisted form of what the Institute for Strategic Dialogue calls a “jihadi girl-power subculture”. While the former is a fairly shallow draw, the latter plays upon the culture of oppression experienced by many young Muslim girls. In exchanges with recruiters, girls often express concern that they excel above their male counterparts, yet are kept on a shorter leash for numerous reasons. Among other causes for this is the easy identification of young Muslim girls due to their clothing, which exposes them to a greater risk from Islamophobic sentiment. As a result, these girls seek a sort of rebellion in keeping with their religion that they may feel defensive of. Recruiters feed on these feelings of oppression by harnessing popular culture for their own use. In examining the social media accounts of young girls who have been radicalized, images such as a Cover Girl ad made to say “COVERed GIRL. Because I’m worth it.” Images such as these are not uncommon, and are telling of the overwhelming rhetoric that leads young Muslim girls, often from strong academic and social backgrounds, to give it all up in pursuit of a domestic existence in the Islamic State. No matter how committed a young girl may be to IS, she cannot fight as her male recruit counterparts do. She cannot spread the message of her cause. She can only marry into the state and further its message within the newfound extent of her life: her home.
Recruiters help these young women not just to sympathize with IS’s cause, but to prepare to join it in Iraq and Syria. In some cases, marriages are arranged even before arrival, with girls connecting with their husbands-to-be through social media. Such arrangements are also beneficial to the men of IS, as the promise of a western bride often strengthens morale, as it indicates that even westerners agree with their cause. As single women are not permitted to live alone under the Islamic State, these arrangements are made, if not prior to arrival, then soon after. The recruiters help girls plan to save money and travel first to Turkey, and then on into Syria, all without alerting their families to their imminent departure. In the case of the Bethnal Green girls, one of the most notable cases of young radicalization, the three involved had planned their trip for months, and even slowly packed ahead of time, all without raising their parents suspicions. With this sense of jihadi feminism and moral superiority in mind, they set off to start a new life free from the pressures of their past in a war-torn, vague semblance of a state.
The jihadi bride phenomenon has grown exponentially. It is, of course, concerning that the state of Western society has reached a point where Islamophobia is so ubiquitous that it actually contributes to the disenchantment and radicalization of young Muslims. It is also concerning that this trend is, despite its targeting patterns, nearly impossible to predict on a case-by-case basis. What is most concerning, however, is the threat that radicalized jihadi brides could pose to western security. Counterterrorism forces are ill prepared to combat this movement, and rarely consider it as serious of a security threat as radicalized young men. The girls who choose to become jihadi brides, however, are generally stronger academically and more clearly driven than their male counterparts. Furthermore, they are less likely to be killed while abroad, and more likely to lose a spouse to violence than men. Therefore, as the rates of female recruitment have increased, so have vocalized fears of these jihadi brides returning to their country of origin, indoctrinated and with renewed motivation on IS’s behalf. The broader the phenomenon, the more likely these young women will find a way to further the message of the Islamic State beyond the bounds of their new homes. As more stories of young, naive girls travelling abroad to what is almost certainly a life of violence and oppression come forward, actions must be taken to understand and avert further radicalization, so as to prevent a dangerous and overlooked silent majority within the structure of the Islamic State.