It's not the Nutella: Why are women joining IS?

It's not the Nutella: Why are women joining IS?
Blog: The images Western media creates of why women join the militant group are derogatory to women and distract from their real motivations.
4 min read
11 Mar, 2015
The three British schoolgirls caught on camera en route to Syria [Anadolu]

The Islamic State group (IS, formerly Isis) has surprised everyone with their dexterous use of social media, and their creation of well-orchestrated propaganda videos. Of course, this has largely been aided by the Western media's obsession with the militant group.

Due to this skewed coverage, the phenomenon of "Jihadi John" has become the face of IS. Naming the individual concerned "Jihadi John" is counter-productive, because it trivialises the brutal acts he has performed by making him sound like a comic character.

     IS is reportedly using images of kittens, Nutella and wink face emojis to lure in Western women.

An increasing number of young men have left their home countries to join IS, and media coverage has amplified underlying insecurities in British society in particular. In doing so, it has contributed to rising Islamophobia in the West. The media's poor attempts to cover stories relating to Britons joining IS are unhelpful for several reasons.

Last month, three teenage girls from East London are believed to have travelled to Syria to join IS. The three girls, Amira Abase, 15, Shamima Begum, 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16 have been labelled the "schoolgirl jihadi brides" by the media. The "jihadi bride" tag, commonly associated with women in IS, is incredibly sexist because it denies women political agency and erases the active role some women play in the group. The al-Khansaa' Brigade for example, is an all-women force that domestically polices women living under the "Islamic State".

The horrific acts IS commits, particularly gender-based violence such as rape, trafficking and forced marriage, begs the question, however: "Why would any woman want to join IS?’

According to a recent story by CNN, IS is using images of kittens, Nutella and wink face emojis on social media to lure in Western women. This denies women political agency and is, quite frankly, extremely insulting and reductive. Believe it or not, not all women love kittens, nutella and wink face emojis. Even if they do, it is probably not enough to make them join a terrorist organization that is attempting to establish a tyrannical caliphate.

Recent news stories have even claimed that women are being tempted to join IS by promises of marriage to attractive male fighters. These outrageously sexist explanations divert attention away from the numerous long-term social factors influencing both men and women from the UK to join the group. They imply women and men have different reasons for joining IS, when this is simply not true.

The three girls believed to have travelled to Syria were young, impressionable, and exploited by IS recruiters, as are so many of the young men who have joined the group.

The disparity in media reporting exposes underlying patriarchal ideas about the role of women in conflict, as well as orientalist perceptions held by the West. Women are frequently portrayed as victims to be protected in conflict, and men are always understood to be fighters who protect vulnerable women.

Even when women do take an active role in militias, they are still treated as civilians not combatants. The presumed noncombatant status of women creates an illusion that women are protected in war, while also serving to legitimise war. The masculinisation of fighters is also a common method of erasing women who participate in resistance movements against oppression all over the world.

Media depictions of women in IS highlight these gender roles and show how deeply entrenched these norms are. This sheds light onto a wider problem of gendered orientalism, a feminism that denies agency to Muslim women, treating them as oppressed objects belonging to men. The US’s appropriation of feminism to legitimise the Afghanistan war is a clear example of this.

A police failure to alert the parents of the three girls, despite knowing they were at risk of radicalisation demonstrates gendered orientalist perceptions. Young Muslim men are put under disproportionately heavy surveillance and harassed by intelligence organisations in the UK on flimsy, if any, evidence of radicalisation. This case emphasizes that the preventative strategy aims to criminalise Muslim men specifically.

It is undeniable that women who join IS will have their rights denied. The Women in the Islamic State manifesto is clear evidence of this, as this set of strict guidelines for women is highly patriarchal and oppressive. It is synonymous with the despicable acts of misogynistic violence and heavy subjugation that women under the group's control are forced to suffer.

Nonetheless, great care should be taken to distinguish between children who have been groomed, and women who have made a conscious decision to join IS for ideological or other reasons. The white feminist savior complex must always be left out of the discussion.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.