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"ISIS Female": Why women are drawn to join

"ISIS Female": Why women are drawn to join
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.

In the past week alone, two separate cases of women and girls trying to leave a western country for Syria to join ISIS militants have surfaced in the media. ISIS also released a propaganda video in which a woman gets stoned to death for committing adultery.

Despite continuous reports that members of ISIS enslave, rape, torture, and stone women, women continue to join the ranks of ISIS. Roughly 10 percent of recruits from the West are women, and ISIS seems to be expanding its female recruitment. Last week, they launched al-Zawra, a propaganda campaign promoting videos that teach women to cook, sew…and use weapons.

Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International and author of Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny, spoke of these recruitment tactics on RFD a few days ago. I followed up with her to better understand what draws women to ISIS.


WF: I’m sure you saw the front page of The New York Times yesterday. Their headline was “In West, ISIS Finds Women Eager to Enlist.” I want to use this as a pivot to something you said on our show yesterday about the two types of women who join ISIS.

ZS: It is not a question of women from the West or women from the Middle East, it is a question of why women join ISIS.

One is the youth. ISIS is appealing to the youth because they are giving them a sense of purpose. We’re going to take Islam and the Muslim nations into one caliphate. Many Muslims grew up with a sense that once upon a time, we were a gifted people and we lived in a golden era when science and art and all of that flourished. So that’s the history from the Islamic perspective and they have been defeated particularly in the last hundred years. And so what ISIS is doing is saying “look, no one has helped us. They bombed us, they killed us, they tortured us, so now we are taking charge of ourselves and we’re going to take you back into this whole era.”

But when they’re doing that, it’s also opened up a whole discussion among Muslims that this era may have entailed wars and killing and pillaging and raping and we did not study this in our own history but we’re now being faced with this question as ISIS is doing all that.

One group of Muslims is very scared of this vision and the other group of Muslims is finding that this gives them a purpose and it’s going to take them back to a glorious time. The side that is seeing a purpose out of ISIS is being recruited and a big chunk of that is usually youth. Youth in the region and youth everywhere. There’s a movement here, and people want to go and be part of it.

It’s important that we understand the psychological reasoning that ISIS has tapped into. It’s important because the way to fight it beyond the bombs is to promote the alternative vision – that the future is not about the return to the past of the caliphate, but entails freedom and prosperity for all.

The minute we start looking at the narrative of Islam, we enter into dangerous territory because we group everyone as one Muslim. It’s very, very important for the Western world and the Western media to talk about it in a multi-dynamic aspect. Not all Muslims are like that but ISIS is appealing to that psychology. We are having a crisis within Islam and that entails a crisis within families themselves, between generations.

WF: And what about the other type of woman?

ZS: There’s another kind of woman. They’re older and their sense of identity stems directly and solely from their relationship to men. This kind of woman sees the man as the provider for her and her children. Her role as a woman is to support the provider and for the provider to do whatever he wants to do. That includes polygamy and that includes her absolute obedience to him and that includes whatever he wishes. She has no sense of independent identity. She is an extension of him. These women become the soldiers of patriarchy and they’re becoming the soldiers of ISIS in a way.

The creation of an alternative for these women is to show them the possibilities where they, too, have an independent identity and they, too, can be free to fulfill their full potential.

WF: Presumably, these young girls, especially the Western ones, are learning about ISIS through the internet and via social media. When I go online and do a Google search for something like “ISIS female,” two types of things come up: the propaganda videos put out by ISIS’s media wing, and articles from the Western media decrying this activity and recounting stories of Western girls fleeing in reaction. How do we make light of this juxtaposition? When these girls go online, do they choose to ignore all of the negative portrayals of what ISIS is doing to women?

ZS: They don’t ignore it; they’re blaming it on the women. They see ISIS as the “moral police.” For example, this woman who was stoned to death by members of ISIS – her crime was adultery. She admitted to adultery and asked all fathers including hers not to put their daughters in oppressive circumstances by forcing them into marriage. This is a crisis of identity. So most of the girls seeing this, as well as the adults, they view this as her fault. She lacks morality. And they see women’s liberation as lacking morality, particularly sexual liberation. It’s almost like the girls are becoming the soldiers of ISIS. They become a worse patriarch than the patriarchs themselves.

What we do need to promote is the sense of how Islam actually enables women to be educated and work and create their own independent freedoms. So right now there’s a lack of positive image of what it means to be a Muslim woman.

WF: In a way, these women and girls are becoming spokespeople for the organization.

ZS: ISIS has hit a nerve. It has hit a sensitive nerve that is speaking to the psychology of Muslims. That is “we’re going to help you get back to glory.” To defeat that, we need to we need to encourage moderate Muslims, we need to hear them, we need to promote them, we need to support them.

WF: I think that is the most unfortunate part. There are millions and millions of them but their voices seem to be drowned out by all of this overwhelmingly negative, salacious rhetoric.

ZS: These are the same people who are also getting killed by ISIS! The West can help by highlighting these other voices and making them more popular. I’m not saying undermine the importance of ISIS because they’re actually important and are playing a major role, they have taken over a good chunk of the region. I am saying in order to defeat them, we need to carve out more of a space for the moderate voices to appeal to other Muslims.

WF: Do you believe that’s best achieved through political means, or more on the civilian level?

ZS: Everything. Politicians need to act up right now, civil society needs to act up right now, and the media plays a much more important role right now to make sure the voices of girls like Malala Yousafzai, as a Muslim woman, are more important, and they cover more space, than the voices of ISIS.