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Pushed and pulled: What is the lure for Western women to join ISIS?

The British government is scrambling to find three of its female citizens traveling to join the ranks of foreign recruits to the Islamic State (IS or ISIS). These young women are not alone. According to one recent study, more than 500 women from Western countries have traveled to join the extremists in Iraq and Syria.

Usually, these women are simply lumped together as “female recruits.” But how do the differences between these would-be female jihadis help us understand the growing phenomenon of young women leaving behind their families to join a terrorist group?

We know that any individual woman can be pulled in by the various tactics groups like ISIS may use. However, it is also widely acknowledged that she can be pushed into a violent movement by the circumstances of her life. Yet Western analysts and media uniformly emphasize pull factors—such as social media campaigns, or a political desire to participate in building a Caliphate—when discussing female motivations for joining ISIS, ignoring the life histories that are continually pushing them forward. 

This image, obtained from security camera footage by the Turkish police, shows three missing British girls at a bus terminal in Istanbul on February 17 before they apparently boarded a bus to Syria, where it is believed they have gone to join Islamic State. (Anadolu Agency/contributor)

Push factors refer to the personal biographies of these girls and women and the conditions of life in their home countries. For Muslims in Western countries, these include socioeconomic factors as well as the degree of political marginalization and repression they encounter. Most often, it is when push and pull factors work together that we see the creation of a committed female recruit.

Who is being pushed, and how, is largely determined by the types of details glossed over in representations of these women. In the past year, portrayals of female recruits group together two categories that are perhaps better understood separately: recent female converts to Islam and women from Muslim families in Western countries. Is there a single pathway into ISIS for both?

Shannon Conley, a Colorado woman recently sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to join ISIS, in many ways, fits the imagined stereotype of a Western female recruit being pulled toward a cause. A recent convert to Islam, Conley lived in a wealthy suburb of Denver and appears to have grown up with two loving parents who supported her throughout her trial. During the trial, in which she pleaded guilty of material support for terrorism, the 19-year-old nurse’s aide claims to have fallen in love with an ISIS militant online who convinced her to travel to Syria.

In actuality, the majority of female recruits from Western countries to ISIS are likely being drawn from among Muslim immigrants to the West. Unlike with Conley, it is impossible to understand their motivations without considering both the pull of a group like ISIS, as well as the push factors that lead them to join. Primary among these is the sense of alienation many young Muslims feel living in Western countries, characterized by contentious and often violent debates about whether they belong.

Western intelligence officers frequently dismiss the grievances caused by the treatment of Muslim communities by Western governments, referring to them as “wounds” for terrorist “wound-collectors,” a term coined by former FBI agent Joe Navarro to describe the conscious “collecting” of slights and injustices. However, experts on female recruitment, like Jane Huckerby of Duke University, argue that the lives of girls in these communities are characterized by feelings of alienation and inequality, factors that commonly push women toward radicalization.

The media’s selective representations of the intimate details of these young women, like Aqsa Mahmood, an 18-year-old Pakistani-British citizen who left the UK in November 2013 to head to Syria, depict their choice as a mystery. Why would someone like Mahmood join, when, according to media reports, her presence on social media included normal teenage obsessions such as a love of Coldplay and Harry Potter? She was never exposed to “extremism,” explains a relative, since nobody in the family wore headscarves. What then accounts for her “sudden” radicalization? Mahmood, authorities say, is now “one of the most active recruiters of young British women to join the Islamic State,” The New York Times reports.

These unauthorized mini-memoirs overlook what may have pushed a young woman to join ISIS. Even in upper-middle-class suburban upbringings, young women like Mahmood face forms of social marginalization and alienation related both to the contentious presence of Muslim communities in the West as well as the legacies of violence that often led their families to flee in the first place.

Indeed, there is barely a generation between the lives of girls like Mahmood and a family tree uprooted by political violence. Even in the most secular homes, young girls are often socialized around ideas of familial duty and communal obligations. The threads of intertwined identities will pull on them in distinct ways when they learn about the plight of women in Syrian refugee camps forced into prostitution, or overhear family tales of a young bride’s death by drone on her wedding day.

Girls from immigrant communities may begin to express anger and frustration at the suffering around them. Mahmood herself reminds us that she is not the product of material dispossession or unemployment—but an example of a conscious and intellectually engaged voluntary recruit to the Islamic State. She writes on what her family believes is her Tumblr account: “The media at first used to claim that the ones running away to join the Jihad as being unsuccessful, didn't have a future and from broke down families. But that is far from the truth.”

As of yet, beyond readings of social media, few researchers have been able to conduct in-depth interviews with current and would-be ISIS female fighters to understand their stories. However, our own research among recruits in South Asia and Africa, as well as in-depth personal accounts of prominent female jihadists, reveal that where conservative cultural norms intersect with a repressive social and political context, women are often pushed toward more violent forms of politics.

Those who misunderstand, or ignore, the factors pushing women into ISIS see pull factors that drew recruits like Conley as responsible for all female recruitment. Analysts have claimed that young women are lured by the promise of “empowerment” and “fantasy,” and that recruitment is “all about social media.” Even as the role of social media has been acknowledged by various academics and analysts to be largely overstated as a recruitment device for men, it is still seen as having a powerful pull on young women.

Most armed groups dedicate a significant amount of resources to the recruitment process, simply because asking someone to risk their life for a political message is a difficult task—much harder than asking for solidarity through the use of a hashtag. For women from immigrant communities, who may be dissuaded from engaging politically due to social and cultural norms, the jump into violence is a farther leap than for most men. For them, social media is likely to play an informative role in the process of planning, and not a determinative role in the process of recruitment.

African-American Muslim women offer important support for taking the interrelation between pull and push factors seriously. Despite the fact that African-Americans constitute almost a third of the American Muslim community, not a single African-American woman has been accused of attempting to join ISIS. This is true despite the fact that African-Americans are disproportionately poor, more likely to face violence at the hands of the state, and have faced various forms of marginalization and exclusion for centuries. In other words, they face precisely the set of factors that we might think would lead to recruitment. ISIS certainly agrees. During the protests in Ferguson, multiple ISIS supporters sought to recruit African-Americans through targeted social media appeals.

Why haven’t ISIS’ appeals worked to pull in this community? Among other factors, widespread coverage of ISIS enslaving people, including fellow Muslims, while offering questionable religiously derived justifications for this practice cannot be reconciled with their attempts to portray their territory as a paradise for African-American Muslims. Instead, many share Malcolm X’s interpretation of Islam as a faith especially suited for the descendants of slaves due to its emphasis on racial equality, despite ISIS’ (and, in an earlier era, Al-Qaeda’s) attempts to appropriate his name in its appeals.

At the recent White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama called for expanded educational opportunities for girls in Muslim countries, promising American support for women to create stable communities and combat radicalization. Such superficial engagement ignores Muslim women’s complex political views and fails to acknowledge the ways in which Muslim women suffer as a result of America’s military interventions into their countries. Offering education while ignoring drones is likely to sit uncomfortably for young women from immigrant communities for whom the issues are political. Countering violent extremism should begin by incorporating a gendered analysis into its programming, one that takes seriously the myriad of concerns and complex politics among young people in immigrant communities.

One reporter noted that among Mahmood’s things left behind was a copy of The Hunger Games, tying her recruitment to the “adventure narrative” that suggests the actions of these young women is nothing more than teenage rebellion. Perhaps there is an element of adventure that all female recruits seek as they slip into Syria, but the large majority of them were not, simply, pulled in. As dangerous as ISIS is, to misunderstand what is pushing young women to join may be even more so. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Paragraph 17 has been corrected to reflect that no African-American women have been recruited; media has reported this case of an African-American man who joined ISIS.

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