By Parvathi Menon
April 6, 2015
Muslim girls in U.K. are leaving for Syria to ensure long-term stability of the IS by managing the domestic front & bearing children of fighters.
The number of British women who have gone to Syria to join the jihadist forces of the Islamic State has been slowly growing. Women are believed to account for around 10 per cent of the approximately 600 British citizens who have left for Syria since the conflict began in 2013. Most of them are young, some no more than 15 and 16. They are won over after a phase of “grooming”, primarily conducted online in a parallel world hidden from home, family and school. Though the numbers of foreign women, at least from Britain, crossing over to Syria, are relatively small, they are significant as they point to a new phase of occupation of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State (IS). For the long-term stability of the new power structure, jihadist fighters who have come from abroad must be allowed to start families that will eventually replace the families they have left behind and may never see. Obedient wives who can manage the domestic front and bear children are therefore important for the consolidation of the IS, and must be recruited from the same countries and societies as the fighters come from.
Warnings and Escapades
It was the case of the three girls from Bethnal Green Academy, who left for Syria this February in a daring getaway that underscored the strength of the pull factors that operate on young women. The friends, Shamima Begum (15), Kadiza Sultana (16), and Amira Abase (15), were brilliant students with loving families who had no knowledge of their daughters’ plans to leave Britain. Pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place in evidence given by the police and the families before a Home Affairs Select Committee in Parliament in March. It transpired that the police has issued letters to parents warning them to watch their wards for signs of radicalisation after a 15-year-old girl left for Syria in December last year. Instead of handing over the letters directly to parents, the school management gave the letters to the students to do so. The letters were later found in the girls’ rooms.
While much of the “grooming” of women takes place online, there is usually a ‘real’ figure or contact who plays a decisive role, someone who knows that a person wishes to leave and helps her make the decision. For the Bethnal Green trio, this person, it is believed, was their friend who left for Syria in December. March alone saw three incidents of young people, a majority of them women, travelling to Syria. In mid-March, Jaila Nadra H., a 21-year-old British woman, was arrested by Turkish security services as she waited to board a bus to Syria in Ankara. In late March, High Court judge Anthony Hayden barred five teenage girls — two aged 15 and three aged 16 — from going overseas, over concerns that they would flee to Syria. He confiscated their passports and made them wards of the state, also impounding the passports of their adult carers. More pertinently, he revealed that the girls were all pupils at Bethnal Green Academy and knew the trio who had left the previous month. Around the same time, nine young British medical students — four women and five men from a medical school in Khartoum — travelled to Syria and are believed to be working in hospitals in IS-controlled areas. Their families tried hard to persuade them to come home at the Turkish-Syrian border, but to no avail. All the women who have left have done so at their own free will, although the “persuasion” exerted on girls who are barely in their teens would fall under a different category of online tutelage.
Arzu Merali, a writer and one of the founders of the Islamic Human Rights organisation, warns not to see the outflow of young women as an “exodus”. She points to the “growing alienation that young people feel, even those who are bright but who do not have a lot of life chances. The environment in which they are living is really very negative [with] the media making them feel miserable about being a Muslim, and a relentless, anti-Muslim discourse.”
Mussarat Zia of the Muslim Women’s Network U.K. identifies some of the vulnerabilities faced by young girls in relation to the IS-type grooming. “The first is being approached. For bodies like the IS, the first stage was about insurgency and picking up arms,” she told The Hindu. “Now they want to become more established, and part of that is that they need women. They want marriages and children. For that they need to entice and lure women.” She argues that in the U.K. Muslim youth who already “feel very isolated are not engaged with their society, and have issues around identity.” In addition to normal teenage anxieties, they also have to contend with the “Islamophobic rhetoric that is going on all the time.”
In the case of young girls, Ms. Zia makes the interesting point that it is the sense of gender equality and freedom — an element of British law — that inspires in young British Muslim women the desire to go to Syria like their male counterparts. “The images of beheadings and executions and torture are not shown to the girls. What they see are images of people doing charity work, or images of girls on horseback with weapons. And I don’t doubt that the girls are told that the images we see is propaganda of the West,” she said. Professor Kamaldeep Bhui, Professor of cultural psychology and epidemiology at Queen Mary University, conducted a survey of attitudes towards terrorism in order to establish a risk of radicalisation index. He and his team interviewed 600 Muslims in the 18-25 age group from the Bangladeshi and Pakistani community in Bradford and London. Those who were attracted to or supported terrorism were likely to be younger, in full-time education and generally financially stable. However, they were also “more likely to be depressed and socially isolated,” the study found. Poorer migrants were less likely to be radicalised because they could remember the problems of their homeland, and were occupied with the need to earn a livelihood.
“So, it does seem to be a phenomenon born of people who are at least not poor,” Dr. Bhui said. “They are engaged in trying to meet social objectives or haven’t really got enough hope and optimism left. They are looking for meaning in their lives in all sorts of place. Take these young girls of 15 and 16. Do they ever know the kinds of restrictions that will be imposed upon them when they arrive? They really have no idea; they want a bit of adventure and they have made bad decisions.”
Both Dr. Bhui and Ms. Zia feel that the many government-led interventions to help families recognise and tackle the phenomenon of radicalisation have not been effective enough, although things are changing. Ms. Zia had herself worked with the government’s Prevent and Channel strategies. “Rather than saying, you know, we need Muslim mothers to come forward and tell us about behaviour changes in their children, we need to equip those women with how to deal with behavioural changes,” she said.
Dr. Bhui feels that there has been a welcome change in the approach of the government — from their initial attitude towards those who fled to Syria as criminals, they have become more sympathetic and sensitive in the programmes they now conduct. “On the whole the aim should not be not to criminalise them, but to safeguard them and realise they are vulnerable,” he said.