Teenagers do lots of crazy things to reel against authority. They dye their hair, they stay out past curfew, or may even threaten to run away from home to join the circus. However, there is a startling new addition to this laundry list of rebellious teenage acts. Now, young Western women are attempting to leave their homes to join the efforts of ISIS, from Colorado to the UK. Why are these women, some as young as 14 or 15 years old, risking their lives to travel to Syria in the hopes of joining ISIS knowing full well the dangers that await them?
Within larger society today, women are still not treated equally. They have fewer employment opportunities, less mobility, and less access to healthcare, to name it a few examples (Edmonds 2013). Of course women want to take an active role in their liberation, but this does not sufficiently explain such extreme measures. In Georges- Abeyie’s essay “Women as Terrorists,” he describes criteria explaining the growth of women’s involvement in terrorist operations. He says that “women may feel economically deprived or politically repressed. They may be encouraged by external forces… [or] have a historical ‘outsider’ to blame” (1987). However, this only offers a very limited view on why women join terrorist operations. It does not sufficiently account for this new wave of young, Western women participating abroad.
So if it is not because of their lower social standing, why do women join ISIS? Is it something more personal? Many studies on why women join terrorist organizations cite that revenge is often a main motivator, but that is not true in these recent cases of young Western women joining ISIS (Galvin 1983). The Farah sisters from Colorado had no personal ties to Syria or ISIS and therefore were not driven there under the guise of vengeance. Further research is imperative in determining the root of this troubling behavior. These new ISIS “fangirls” are hardly the ideal candidate for joining a terrorist organization.
Terrorists, male or female, “are a product of their environment,” even with differing ideologies and goals (Galvin 1983: 21). This is a terrifying statement because as Westerners we do not want to believe that we have raised our girls in an environment that fosters destruction and violence. However, this very environment allows the youth to gain access to ISIS’s ideals. ISIS does much of its recruitment through social media, painting a “‘Disney-like’ picture of life in the caliphate. Some young women were offered financial incentives, such as travel expenses or compensation for bearing children.” (Sherwood 2014). The internet affords this kind of guerilla advertising and access to the Western world, and these images often lead women to have an “almost romantic idea of war and warriors,” perpetuating this idea of leaving home to explore a dangerous, new land as an adventure. This gives these young women a sense of importance and respect (Sherwood: 2014).
This is why ISIS is so dangerous. They are adapting their recruitment style to fit a new generation that remains a mystery to the majority of society: the teenage girl. They are making a conscious effort to appeal to these young girls because of their youth. Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, believes that “ISIS is appealing to the youth because they are giving them a sense of purpose,” which is a common notion reflected in many religious conversion stories (Frej 2014). This notion is reflected in many women’s choice to convert in general. Religion provides a “more meaningful context in which to understand their lives” and becoming more involved in religion offers “order, meaning, and belonging” (Davidman 1991:90-97). In the tumultuous time that is adolescence, the youth often wants to be part of a movement making an important social impact. ISIS suggests to youth they will provide them with this opportunity, making information readily available online on how to become involved.
The reason people are so shocked to hear about these girls leaving their comfortable lifestyles to pursue a life with ISIS is that they never considered it an option. ISIS, on the other hand, saw these women as an untapped resource.