Home / In Depth / The Modern Mujahidaat: What Women Want When They Join ISIS – Part I

The Modern Mujahidaat: What Women Want When They Join ISIS – Part I





The steady flow of Muslim girls and women joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a.k.a. ISIS, is forcing analysts, scholars, and security officials worldwide to question their motives. Last month, when three British Muslim girls headed for Syria, the world community was quick to offer a number of possible drivers for terrorism.  Among them is that ISIS fighters need girls to establish a utopian-like “perfect family,” a fantasy given the decay and destruction in Syria. Or that ISIS aims to establish an Islamic state, in honor of its name, by granting new female recruits a home, a family, and an overall sense of belonging and community. None of this holds true for two reasons: Syria is hardly the place to establish an Umma given the nature of conflict there; and ISIS fighters likely need women, or wives, to quell their desire for pleasure, sex, and perhaps boredom, rather than honor the women they wed. And few men actually want women to fight and die alongside them.


Charmed by ISIS, it is possible female recruits do not know what they are doing, where they will live or have command over their near-term future when they abandon their families and enter Syria. ShaistGohir of the UK Muslim Women’s Networkoffers an explanation: “Some of these girls are very young and naïve, they don’t understand the conflict or their faith, and they are easily manipulated.”

However, it is possible that some girls, based on twitter feeds and online messages, do know that Syria is a warzone—their lives will be interrupted by artillery fire, bombs, and shelling, and that death is a welcome possibility. Under the cover of Umm Layth, Scottish-born Aqsa Mahmood maintains ablog titled “Diary of a Muhajirah” and tweets about the Afterlife. Last fall, she posted:“My sisters. We made hijrah [migration] together. May Allah grant us shahada[martyrdom] & unite us in Jannah,” or heaven. Another English-speaking ISIS woman, under the guise of Al-Brittaniyah, posted: “May Allah grant all the wives of the MujahideenSabr [patience] and re-unite them in the Highest Jannah with their Husbands.”


While marriage is a compelling argument, there are no shortages of available Muslim men in the non-violent and non-extremist Islamic world. Determined to follow a militant mythology, young women discard their Western futures and shed their Western selves as they subscribe to a fairytale life that has slim chances of materializing—at least in this life. It is possible that by embracing death, women expect to win a place in Paradise.


With an estimated 30,000 ISIS fighters, women account for 10 percent of foreign recruits from Western countries, including a small number from America, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Germany, Scotland, and France, which heralds the highest number of female recruits.


Acting as deadly divas, a term I use in lectures I give on this subject, these radical women can be alluring, attractive, and also potentially lethal—an asset to male-dominated terrorist groups. Dressed in a niqab, one Muslim woman brandishing a Kalashnikov declared: “I know what I’m doing. Paradise has a price and I hope this will be the price of Paradise.”


The modern mujahidaat, an Arabic term for female fighters, is a reference to women who incite violence by offering ideological, logistics, and operational support. Years ago, asthe first Muslim American woman at The Counter-Terrorism Center in the U.S. Government, women joining al-Qaeda for the same reasons as ISIS women today. They remain determined, dedicated and destined for change. Possibly the greatest distinction between the women of al-Qaeda and the women of ISIS is the latter’s deceptive qualities.



Consider the three girls from the U.K. who went missing in mid-February. When teenagers Kadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase were seen at London’s Gatwick Airport, sporting jeans, printed scarves draped around their neck (not their head), they did not fit the stereotypical look of a female terrorist wearing an Islamic conservative ankle-length dress. The girls in London looked like ordinary Muslim girls of South Asian descent in any Western country. But that was part of their mask. As of this writing, the girls are suspected in Syria.


What explains their motivation to leave a life and family in the West for an unknown and uncertain future on the ISIS battleground? While public information, including interviews of ISIS women, is not readily available or difficult to access, it ispossible to understand why girls in London and others like themjoinedthe feared ISIS terror network. I developed a simple model to describe common factors, known as “3 Possible Drivers” or simply, “3Ps”:


PrestigeWomen are as capable as men. It is likely that girls and women go to ISIS to assert a twisted kind of Islamic feminism. To prove that a woman’s “rightful” place in Islam is to be the mother and wife of a Muslim man—an act of piety that the girls believe will grant them tremendous respect and reverence from the ISIS fighter they marry. By donning a niqab, female recruits may feel they exemplify the Muslim prototype of modesty and purity. Radical Muslim women joining ISIS may also think they have restored glory, respect, and honor—a powerful ideal in Muslim culture that women, even moderates, uphold.


Power. While there is no proof, yet, that empowerment is a motivator for the female recruits, it can be inspiriting and uplifting for women to feel they can participate in a greater cause or campaign, to include “Save Syria” from tyrannical rule. Some women may feel empowered when they belong to a “sisterhood” network that creates unity and gives them purpose, even if that is aligned with death. Couched under the myth of martyrdom, female recruits believe God will grant them the rewards of an Afterlife—an empowering emotive.And the modern mujahida is sometimes also dangerously naïve. Upon arriving in Syria, some have discovered a stark truth. That life is burdened by harsh living conditions and an unpredictable and uncertain future. Muslim women with exposure to the West and a Western upbringing may find that the men of ISIS to be brutes—men who exert control over women with violence or at the very least, foreign men impose their own set of cultural customs and traditions that will be unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, for Western female recruits. Further, when in Syria, these girls have no exit and will therefore lose any power they might have gained by being regarded as “pure” Muslim women in a country they do not know.





Passion. The emotional appeal of war, or what some experts call adventure, compels some girls to believe they can be Mulan, the Disney characterwho joined the Chinese Army to honor her family—the cartooninspires young girls worldwide, even radical Muslim ones. But there is another kind of passion that is heart-felt and the reason many girls have risked travel to Syria to find love (or lust), all in the name of Islam. To encourage other women to seek an ISIS husband, Umm Layth posted online: “Marry the person you know can uplift you morally and who will always remind you that Allah is sufficient for you in times of trials.”Marriage to an ISIS fighter offers women a new Islamic identity—they are proud to be wives of ISIS men—and their bond with other women in the compound fosters an Islamic society and system that many may find lacking in the West.

In reality, most female recruits probably do not find utopia. Reports of women in ISIS-territory being alienated, abused, or raped may hurt ISIS’s recruitment strategy.  A fifteen-year-old Muslim French girl, Nora el-Bathy, told her brother when he found her in Syria: “I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.”Perhaps Nora realized, as is often the case with male-dominated terror groups, that girls have little value in some parts of the Islamic world.What does this mean for the women of ISIS? Will their sacrifices count?


In my lectures on women, I offer the following conclusion. That women are a riding wave of al-Qaeda’s success. For ISIS, the same holds true. Women are a temporal solution to an immediate (physical, emotional, tactical or strategic) need. If only Muslim women could see that behind the ISIS mask of terror, they are expendable.



Come back tomorrow and read the Part II: The Modern MujahidaatWhat Women Do Not See When They Join ISIS.




Farhana Qazi
Farhana Qazi


Farhana Qazi is a scholar and speaker on conflicts in the Islamic world. For her service to the U.S. military, she received the 21st Century Leader Award by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) and the Humanitarian Award for her work on women in war from her alma mater in Texas. Her forthcoming non-fiction book is a human-interest story set in Kashmir, titled “Secrets of the Valley.”For more updates on women in terrorism, visit her blog, www.farhanaqazi.com.



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