By Simon Cottee
What do Western women who join Islamic State want? One prominent theory is what these women “really” want is to get laid. Another is that they don’t know what they “really” want, because what they want has been decided for them by male jihadi “groomers.” Both theories are meant to resolve a seeming paradox: How can any woman who enjoys democratic rights and equality before the law join or support a group which actively promotes her own oppression? But both are misconceived. Indeed, they say more about the gendered assumptions of those who proffer them than about the women they are trying to explain.
The idea that Western Islamic State “fangirls” — as they are often derogatively called — “just wanna have fun” (to paraphrase Cindy Lauper) is the thesis of, among others, Shazia Mirza, a British comedian whose latest show is called “The Kardashians Made Me Do It.” The show’s title references a comment made by one of the sisters of the three East London schoolgirls who absconded to Syria in February 2015. “She used to watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians and stuff like that, so there was nothing that indicated that she was radicalized in any way — not at home,” Sahima Begum said about her missing sister, Shamima. This gives Mirza’s show its central theme, which is that the Western girls who join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, share the same banal and all-too-human concerns as their non-jihadi Western peers —including, and especially, when it comes to love. Mirza’s argument is that the Islamic State, for teens like Begum, is just another teenage crush. Indeed, the Islamic State, she suggests, is like a boy band — only with guns.
“I’m not being frivolous,” Mirza said in a recent TV interview, “but, these ISIS men, as barbaric as they are, you have to admit, they are hot. They’re macho; they’re hairy; they’ve got guns. And these girls think, ‘These are a bit of all right.’ What they’ve done is sold their mother’s jewelry and bought a one-way ticket to Syria for some halal meat.” Or as Mirza phrased it in her 2015 Edinburgh show, referring to the three East London runaways: “They think they’ve gone on a Club 18-30 holiday to Ibiza.… They’re not religious; they’re horny.”
This is funny — and Mirza, after all, is a comedian. But it isn’t serious as a commentary on the motives of the Western women who have joined, or aspire to join, the Islamic State. Yet many news organizations have taken up the idea as though it were. Earlier this year, for example, CNN ran a news story titled “ISIS using ‘jihotties’ to recruit brides for fighters.” This was only slightly more cretinous than a BBC Newsnight report from March 2015 proclaiming, “Attractive jihadists can lure UK girls to extremism.”
Another way of not taking Islamic State “fangirls” seriously is to suggest that they have been “groomed” over the Internet by shadowy, charismatic men into believing that the Islamic State is the solution to all their problems. In March 2015, Hayley Richardson wrote in Newsweek that militant fighters “are using similar online grooming tactics to paedophiles to lure western girls to their cause.” Sara Khan, the founder and co-director of the anti-extremism NGO Inspire, echoed this. “Just like child abusers groom their victims online and persuade them to leave their homes and meet them,” she claimed in the Independent, “male jihadists contact women through social media and online chatrooms, and build trust with them over time.”
This is a gendered reading of radicalization: Young men are not “groomed” by charismatic women who prey on their emotional weaknesses and naivety. Only women are groomed. Only women lack the necessary agency and political engagement to want to support or join the Islamic State. Mirza’s reading of women’s radicalization is similarly patronizing, but it at least puts women on an equal footing with male Islamic State jihadis, who, presumably, from within her one-dimensional worldview, also want to get laid.
The problem with the grooming narrative is that it seriously misrepresents women’s radicalization as an essentially passive process and obscures, as numerous studies show, the striking degree to which young women themselves are actively involved in recruiting like-minded “sisters” to the cause. It also presents an unreal picture in which women and young girls are somehow “targeted” and then seduced by online recruiters, drastically overestimating the recruiter’s powers of selection and persuasion. Everything we know about radicalization suggests otherwise: that potential recruits actively seek out the message and the messenger (and that the decisive facilitator in radicalization is typically not an anonymous predatory online recruiter, but a trusted friend or family member).
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