Gone girls: why British teenagers are attracted to Islamic State

We need to teach children about the differences between propaganda and fact, between Islam and Islamism


The decision by Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana, and Amira Abase to board a flight from London to Turkey last Tuesday meant leaving behind their families, their friends, and the only way of life they have ever known.

Shamima made online contact with Aqsa Mahmood, a Scottish woman who left Britain to marry an Islamic State fighter, days before her journey. Another of the three girls was signed up to 70 sites that disseminate Islamic State propaganda to aid recruitment.

Prime minister David Cameron was ‘horrified’ by the way two British 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old appear to have been ‘radicalised and duped’ while ‘at home on the internet in their bedrooms’. Public focus has centered on the mechanical elements of travel to Syria, as well as the failings of the police and airlines in monitoring this challenge. We appear, however, to be ignoring the agency of the girls themselves. In doing so, we risk misunderstanding what causes them to join radical movements.

Yes, the appeal of joining the global jihad and an ‘Islamic utopia’ is conflated with a sense of adventure in social media. But social media is not enough to turn young women into radicals. Jihadism is accessible to men and women, albeit with different roles, and radicalisation is a process rather than a switch.

For young girls, this process stems from two elements. The first is a ‘push’ factor, in that girls feel they do not fit into the societies they live in, and are not understood by their families or by the religion they are supposed to practise. The idea of waging jihad in the Middle East gives these individuals an increased sense of agency.

A heavily shared photo by Qad Af-Iahal Shuhada, a female jihadist’s social media account, for example, shows a woman in a burqa holding a gun. Words in italics over her frame read:

“I know what I’m doing. Paradise has a price and I hope this will be the price for paradise”.

Here, a woman is not in a secondary ‘helping’ role, but is the one making the decisions. For a teenager, this increased sense of self is attractive.

The second is a ‘pull’ factor. Violence is often glamourised and sensationalised, particularly when women are put in the frontlines of power. “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well”, sings British artist and rapper M.I.A., while she dances provocatively in a sandy desert. In the background, women hold guns and wear hijabs and balaclavas.

This video, long criticised for its Orientalism, has been overlooked in its undertones of female empowerment. Islamic State propaganda does this well too. Violence becomes a suspension of ‘normality’, women are seen as aggressors, and everyone is given an increased sense of power and dominance.

For women involved in the Islamic State, however, the reality does not match expectations. A manifesto released by the female policing group, the Al-Khanssaa Brigade, and translated by Quilliam, explicitly states that women are not to be active participants of war or perpetrators of violence.

Instead, they are bounded in their agency, and there is ‘no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband’. In terms of the roles they play, there are ‘divine’ limitations to stop them from being more than a supporting role of a mother and a wife. It is awareness of this mismatch between reality and fantasy that we must actively promote among young people at risk of radicalisation.

An increased focus on a civil society approach involves facilitating conversations about the risks of jihadism between parents and teachers and the children for whom they have a duty of care.

We need experts to train families and teachers to be able to spot radicalisation, know what they can do about it, and teach critical consumption skills. This will help children distinguish between Islam and Islamism, and between fact and propaganda. Ten years ago, parents worried how to talk to their children about sex, and the ‘birds and the bees’ talk became a seminal event in their social education. Now it’s time for us to get talking openly with our children about the risks of radicalisation.

Nikita Malik is a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank. To aid Quilliam in their fight against extremism, visit their ‘Countering Extremism Together‘ campaign at IndieGoGo

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