By Veena Ali-Khan
A common narrative taken when referring to women joining ISIS centres on their description as ‘Jihadi Brides’, an inherently sexist term that discredits the underlying political motivations that drive women to join such extremist groups. Coverage of women’s participation in ISIS is almost always entwined with misogynistic ideologies that their radicalisation is purely for the aspiration of becoming a sex slave.
The ‘Jihadi Bride’ narrative, a term so obsessively used by Western media in an attempt to make sense of the phenomenon, encapsulates how we do not take women seriously, even when they make the biggest decision of their life.
The narrative of women ISIS fighters is misogynistically reductive such that they are reduced to sex motivated individuals and are not afforded the same agency as their male counterparts. When deconstructing why women join ISIS, it is normally relative to either being a mother, wife or sex slave. The mother and wife discourse centralises the personal as opposed to the political as a key motivation for women joining ISIS fighters. Instead of positioning these women as actors in their own lives, we assume that their presence in ISIS can be explained solely in relation to the man.
The way female foreign fighters are framed as incapable of agency or politics, and how we understand their motivations and actions is deeply flawed. Any sort of radicalisation is a form of political engagement, and women should not be exempt from such political agency.
As surprising as it may be, women like men, have choices, and some choose to become violent extremists, just like men. Instead of encouraging gender stereotypes, we need to address the wholly political reasons that motivate women to join ISIS. Only once men and women are addressed equally, we can search for effective prevention methods. The question we need to be asking is why would women choose to leave their country and join a violent extremist group, notorious for its oppression and misogyny?
Research on male radicalisation is extensive and almost always described as a form of political engagement. Their reasons for joining extremist groups are commonly framed in terms of socioeconomic grievances and feelings of isolation.
Through the lens of Western women joining ISIS, their radicalisation is actually more political than that of men as it is an expression of the exact same grievances possessed by men, on top of a sort of political rebellion. These women may feel that the Muslim community in their home is being violently persecuted, and they take pride in travelling to Syria in order to take control of their lives and the situation.
It is common knowledge that Muslim women in Western countries are often victimised, perceived as oppressed, with inferior rights. So, by travelling to Syria or Iraq, they are revolting against the Western construction of the Muslim women as the lesser feminist, and taking up an important role in a new caliphate.
The decision to depart their home is independent, daring and wholly political. As part of the caliphate, women are respected in being pragmatic enough to take control of their life, something that was never received at home. "Many of them are eager to portray themselves as strong women and often make fun of the Western stereotype of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman'" (Hegghammer in Gilsinan 2014).
Only when we deconstruct the “orientialist” representation of women as victims to the Muslim man can we begin to understand their political motivations and embark upon worthwhile research. We need to go beyond these outdated approaches to ISIS that stigmatise women as they too have agency in conflict and should not be ignored.
© 2000 - 2019 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)