FIRST OF ALL: Is it ISIS or ISIL? My research informs me that the answer depends on whom you ask, but I want to get it right, not only as an informed global citizen but also, I suppose, in the name of some principled Dumbledore-esque You-must-be-able-to-name-what-frightens-you stance. Because ISIL (I’ll follow the UN’s acronymic lead) frightens the s**t out of me. And just to be clear, only ISIL does. Not the Middle East, a fascinating and beautiful region populated, like anywhere else, by predominantly good-hearted people. And definitely not Islam, which is a rich and sacred religious tradition that teaches love and peace. But ISIL isn’t Islam. ISIL is a vicious perversion of something pure and holy, born of the same tunnel-visioned, corrosive extremist rhetoric that prompts certain so-called Christians to picket funerals and shame LGBT youth into suicide. ISIL’s stronghold and staying power and sheer number frighten me. Their slickly-produced propaganda and gut-wrenching snuff films frighten me. Their soldiers’ steely fearlessness and disregard for their own deaths frighten me. Their utter, unabashed hatred of the land I call home and the ideals I hold dear frightens me. But all of this pales in the face of a fact I can’t wrap my head around. ISIL, with its glorification of gore, blatant inherent sexism, and rigid mandates that require non-believing females to be captured as concubines and repeatedly raped, is attracting droves of women who are, of their own volition and against all seeming logic, traveling to Syria to join their ranks.
And this frightens me most of all.
According to BBC News, an estimated one-tenth of Western recruits are women. Hundreds of wome — most notably from the UK and France — have made the trek, abandoning their families and communities to “marry jihadis, bear their children and join communities of fighters, with a small number taking up arms.” Although the armed women of ISIL are not dispatched to the front lines of combat, those who comprise the all-female brigades of al-Khansaa and Umm al-Rayan serve primarily policing roles. Their duty is enforcing civilian women’s adherence to ISIL’s strict morality doctrine, which lists among its tenets the necessity of male escorts in public, and the wearing of a full veil at all times. Although it certainly seems counter-intuitive that women would willingly participate in their own oppression, the phenomenon of female participation in radical movements is not revolutionary. Research regarding women’s involvement in rebel and conflict initiatives suggests that dual gender participation in insurgency movements is crucial. Accordingly, modern recruitment publicity often appeals directly and especially to women.
This tactic appears, however alarmingly, to be working. ISIL presents itself as an Islamic utopia tasked with the thrilling endeavor of creating a brave new world. Crucial to this new world is the propagation of its population, and the majority of the women who travel to join rank quickly pair off with soldiers and are made their brides — and the mother of their children. While many of the women who risk their lives to join ISIL do so for the same reasons that entice their brothers, a special emphasis is placed on the necessity of the role of wife and mother. For women — particularly young women — who are estranged from their families, or perhaps just suffering typical teenage growing pains, this idea of being needed is inescapably seductive.
Also significant is the role technology and social media plays in the recruitment of teenage girls. Tweets, blogs, and online campaigns of formerly-Western women now living under ISIL’s rule urge their “sisters” to join them, not in martyrdom but in matrimony. They speak of the joys of domestic life, of devotion to their husbands and children and the bond they share with the organization’s other women. This grassroots-y online campaigning is backed by serious and efficient bureaucracy — ISIL has officially opened a “marriage agency in the northern Syrian town of Al Bab for women who want to wed jihadist fighters in territory they control,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. One of the ISIL blogosphere’s most prolific contributors, who calls herself Shams or “Bird of Jannah” and runs the heavily-trafficked http://diary-of-a-muhajirah.tumblr.com, offers a fascinating look at the motives and day-to-day existences of women like her. Shams has medical training, and the eerie juxtaposition of banal everyday details with warlike imagery is particularly jarring. One of her posts reads, “Stethoscope around my neck and [weapon] on my shoulder. Martyrdom is my highest dream.”
And what are the highest dreams of the young women who undertake the illegal, dangerous, and by all accounts ill-advised trip to join their ‘sisters’ in Syria? It’s hard to say. So far, those who have been apprehended remain tight-lipped. The most recent account of Western would-be ISIL women hits close to home, and features individuals who are not in fact women, but teenage girls. The trio, ages 15-17 (whose names are currently splashed all over the web but I am purposely choosing not to share in this piece) stayed home ‘sick’ from school, and once left alone at home stole $2,000 dollars worth of their parents’ money, collected their passports and headed for the airport. The FBI was alerted and the girls were intercepted in Germany on their way to Syria via Turkey. When questioned about the reason for the trip, they displayed typical teenage terseness, saying only “family” although evidence of connection to ISIL was clearly mounted against them. Their families identify as American citizens, supporters of democracy, and are in no way supportive of ISIL’s politics. They were stunned and saddened by their daughters’ disappearances, describing it as “completely out of the blue” and inexplicable.
Personally, I don’t find teenage rebellion or yearning for a place to belong inexplicable. I understand why a young girl, perhaps isolated by peers because of her beliefs or forbidden by her government from wearing a traditional symbol of her faith would feel frustrated and lonely. I understand how her tender years, limited life experience and online influences could allow her to misinterpret a movement. To view it through rose-colored lenses that disregard horror and bloodshed and zero in on the chance to have an adventure, to feel important. But I don’t understand how to stop this troubling, potentially life-threatening manifestation of age-old angst, now that the stakes are higher than ever. It doesn’t seem like anyone does. And that breaks my heart as much as it frightens me.
*A note about jihad: The jihadi movement predominantly refers to armed warfare in Islamic extremism/fundamentalism, at least in the context of the late-20th century. It should not be confused with jihad itself, which is an Arabic term for “struggle” and in Islam refers to striving to be a good Muslim, through the peaceful battle for self-control and betterment. It is not an inherently violent concept, nor is it a declaration of war against other religions.