Aside from the news that the Islamic State (IS) is selling women as slaves and establishing women brigades imposing the group’s ideology on the local population, the proclamation of the “caliphate” has brought with it a new phenomenon: Western women, attracted by the idea of creating a whole new society, are joining IS from all over the world.
|Aqsa Mahmood, 20. Photo Credit: Enterprise News|
Aqsa Mahmood was a 20-year-old radiology student from
Glasgow who until July had been tweeting
about ice cream and #examseason. Then, the topic of her tweets suddenly
changed: “Do your best and to Allah leave the rest” and “Be conscious not to
oppress others or yourself. Depriving oneself of the favours of Allah is
oppression against them self [sic]” were her next tweets. What happened
over the summer?
In 2013, the Saudi religious leader Muhammad al-Arifi wrote a Fatwa on Jihad al Nikah, calling for women from the age of 14 to sacrifice their bodies to the holy war. The remuneration for their services was
The internet Fatwa was instantly repudiated by al-Arifi’s entourage, but the
damage was already done. After the appearance of the Fatwa, hundreds of young
women of the age of 14 or even younger volunteered. They came from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and other Arab
countries, sometimes leaving behind their husbands and children. As Sharia
forbids extramarital intercourse, IS introduced time-marriages for them; the
women are married to a fighter and divorced just hours later. As polygamy is
not a problem in IS’s interpretation of Islam, their fighters can marry up to
four women at a time. The Jihad al Nikah,
sexual Jihad in a Nikab, is an euphemism for civil war prostitution. The women
are promised paradise, but what they face is sexual exploitation and social
ostracism at home.
In July 2014, IS called upon Muslim families to hand over their single daughters in order to support the jihadis – by sacrificing their bodies to the holy war. The women are mainly needed at the front – serving in time marriages, doing the household work for the fighters, working as nurses and teachers and eventually bearing children for the caliphate. According to experts there is explicit recruitment going on by IS on behalf of their leader Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Young women from the West also seem to respond to IS propaganda. Many have traveled from Europe and other parts of the world to join the Islamic State in
It is estimated that about 200 Western women joined IS, with an increase since
the declaring of the caliphate this summer.
Security agencies state that the new wave of extremists is very young – often minors– and radicalized in a very short period of time. One of the first German women leaving for
was Sarah, a 15-year-old girl still in High school. Social media was the main
instrument of communication between Sarah and her future husband, a jihadi who courted her to follow him to Syria.
In order to buy a ticket to Turkey
she faked her father’s signature; her parents were completely unsuspecting of
what was about to happen.
Experts give a range of explanations for the motivation behind these incomprehensible actions. For one, IS draws clear lines between good and bad and offers orientation through a higher morality. For teenage girls that often come from families who barely practice religion, the conversion to extremism incorporates a very radical way of rebelling against the parents. From all the cases of European emigrants to
mentioned in Western media, not one single girl had her parents’ approval. According
to Smith from King’s College International Centre for the Study of
Radicalisation, “there is a feeling that the more hardline your interpretation,
the more authentic it is, and that’s not the case at all – it’s just not true
of Islamic law”.
In addition, the fact that many European countries passed laws forbidding the wearing of a Nikab completely (
Spain, France, Belgium,
Netherlands) or for public
officials and pupils ( Switzerland,
contributes to the feeling of rejection many Muslims have in their home
countries. These women see an opportunity to live according to their religious
beliefs among people who share the same habits. They do not believe in the
notion of gender equality but prefer the idea of the “complementarity of the
The ones leaving for idealist motives, labeled “mother Theresa”-type by experts, wish to help the people and dream of working as a doctor or nurse in the field. They are often quickly disappointed when they realize that the “good” jihadis don’t protect people from the regime, but also kill innocents. Besides that, women who travel to
to join a combat brigade are most often disappointed, as the only women who get
to carry a weapon are those enforcing Sharia laws in the local population – a
sort of vice squad or morality police.
the social media-savvy women usually get married and start their own blog,
doting upon their brave jihadi
husbands and giving detailed advice to other girls on how to organize the
departure from Europe. Aqsa let her parents,
who had held a press conference urging her daughter under tears to come home,
know via her blog that IS was her true family and that she finally felt free.
While Aqsa’s tweets mainly revolve around her new life, other girls post
statements such as “so the US want to bombarded us with airstrikes in Iraq and
not give a damn who killed, but want cry when a dusty journalist is killed?
Contact with women like Aqsa facilitate the departure, making the girls feel like they are a part of a community standing up to the West. It even seems to be possible to get married to a jihadi over Facebook. Aqsa Mahmood posted an entire recruitment handbook on how to find jihadi love, telling the girls to get vaccinations, bring decent clothes, winter boots, and make up. She also urges them to find a husband as soon as possible: "To stay without a man is really difficult". It seems that there is a high possibility for single girls to be exposed to sexual abuse and/or time marriages. Married women, on the other hand, get to live in a house with their husbands, spending most of their time indoors and only leaving it to go grocery shopping, in the presence of their husbands.
For female Arab emigrants, the situation seems to be more difficult. The Tunisian Ministry of Internal affairs confirmed that “some” women (< 10) returned from
after “disappointing experiences.” According to the Ministry, the women stated
to have had sexual contacts with different jihadis
over several months. They are now back with their families, refusing to accept
any support from the state. One of them is pregnant; others are carrying
sexually transmitted diseases. According to the magazine “Jeune Afrique”,
two were infected with HIV while giving sexual support. As to the European women, Smith believes none of them want to come
home. Smith states that “they see it as emigrating to a better life. They say
they feel free”. A few weeks ago, however, the
media reported for the first time on a Dutch girl fleeing IS and coming home.
As for now, this phenomenon only concerns a narrow group of women, who experience deep disillusion once in the war zone. They hope their fate will open the eyes of other young women being recruitment. While the Western fear of European women returning home remains.
The Clarion Project
Spiegel – Europäerinnen und der “Islamische Staat”: Was Frauen in den Dschihad zieht
TIME – How
ISIS is recruiting women
from around the world
This article is written by one of Diwaniyya's interns, Nina Zivy. Nina is a Masters Candidate in the Middle Eastern Studies program at Tel Aviv University.