How IS message lures Western women

Last month two women were charged in New York with conspiracy to use a “weapon of mass destruction”.

They claimed to be “citizens of Islamic State (IS)”, despite never having travelled there. Their reason for not migrating was because they thought they were too old and one was already married.

The women’s concern with age and marital status is unsurprising.

Online discussions also stress a swift marriage upon arrival in Syria as an expectation of women.

Marriage to a fighter provides a strong identity, a sense of belonging to the wider community, the Umma.

‘False choice’

The majority of analysis presents these women as rejecting Western liberalism – and assumes the same access to these goods as other European women – confirming how little the mainstream understands the difficulties they face.

They are offered a false choice: either they get rights and feminism, or, “tradition” and “faith”.

Asking for both is seen within their communities and by mainstream public discourse as unreasonable.

IS capitalises on this, constantly questioning the status of women in the West, highlighting battles over body images, the double bind of domestic work and paid labour, rape culture, pornography, racism, and so on.

This is not to suggest IS is feminist; for them women are not equal to men, and they reject the potential of Western liberal feminism.

Women in IS are granted little freedom to travel, work, or have public roles.

According to a recent manifesto translated by the Quilliam Foundation think tank, women are only permitted to abandon domestic roles for fighting “if the enemy is attacking her country and the men are not enough to protect it, and the imams give a fatwa for it”.

Women of IS are clear this time has not yet come.

This demonstrates that IS’s messaging encompasses both the personal-private and the public-political.

Accounts of Jihadi brides are full of hope and naive romanticism.

One undercover reporter, Anna Erelle, became a minor online celebrity once she was known as the fiancee of Bilel, a well-known European Jihadi fighter.

In IS, marriage represents more than the private union between two people.

Personal desires are combined with broader ideas of the good life, and common purpose.

Bint Nur, the wife of a British fighter in Syria, wrote on Ask.fm in 2014, “women build the men and men build the Umma”.

‘Self-fulfilling prophecy’

Their personal choices – domestic chores, children, marriage – are about building a new state.

According to the news website Vocativ, 45% of IS propaganda centres on efforts to build and sustain the burgeoning caliphate.

Along with roadworks and local infrastructure, there is messaging on traffic police, charity work, judicial systems, hospitals, and agricultural projects.

For young women travelling to Syria and Iraq the personal has broad purpose – their duty is to become founding mothers of the new state.

This contrasts with negative public discourse about young Muslims living in Europe: constantly presented as threatening, “at risk”, alien and unwanted at worst; with little and limited future at best.

It is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Challenging IS will require more than countering their religious narrative, more than new legislation or granting new powers to the police and security services: a successful counter-radicalisation programme requires addressing the lives of young Muslim women without securitising them.

Too many young Muslims are silenced by the current political atmosphere because they fear being spied on, or treated as “already radical” just for asking questions, which only drives them towards extremists.

Instead, understand their fears and aspirations, and seek to overcome Islamophobia, discrimination, and other material disadvantages.

The forthcoming Daughters of Eve conference, run by the Muslim Women’s Council is an example of this broad approach.

We must allow them to ask critical and difficult questions not only of IS, but of Britain.

Dr Katherine Brown is a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. In her work, she has examined the roles and portrayal of women in terrorism, counter-terrorism, and violent politics, and investigated Muslim women’s radicalised political activism.