Young radicalised girls are a new thing in the jihadist world. Often model students, from the middle classes and converted, they are overturning the feminist ideals of their elders by adhering to this violently repressive regime. What are their motivations? A combination of more or less ambivalent desires, the common thread of which is the aspiration to become an adult early on, sometimes with a naively romantic vision.
Photo credit Emmanuelle Marchadourw
Since 2013, Europe has seen an unprecedented development in female jihadis; of the some 5,000 aspiring jihadis who have left for Syria and Iraq, more than 500 are women. Among them, young girls (12-19 years of age) form a minority, that varies from one country to the next, but is probably between 10 and 20%. These young women are often model students. They are mostly from the (small) middle, suburban classes. This is notably different from the young men, most of whom come from poor suburban areas (in France).
Another specific feature: a large majority of them have converted - from Christianity, Judaism (a few cases), or even Buddhism, or come from agnostic or atheist families (1). These radicalised adolescents and post-adolescents are a new phenomenon in the jihadi world. During the time of Al-Qaïda, underage girls (and boys) were uninteresting to the jihadi cause and were not at the centre of the fighting.
Today, everything points to the fact that joining ISIS is part of what could be qualified as a “pre-jihadi” phase: a combination of more or less ambivalent desires, the common thread of which is the desire to become an adult early. Some of them also show a propensity to dwell in fantasies which have little to do with the reality of the ideological and mental world of radicalization in the strict sense. At best, this is the proto-radicalisation and even fantasising of young girls and post-adolescents looking for love or their ideal hero - one of the lessons that has arisen out of the “deradicalization” work of the association Entr'autres in Nice. The desire to copy girlfriends, “do stuff together” and the “pioneering” role of those who have already left, are an essential source of motivation in the departure of some young girls. The departure of an adolescent can have a contagious effect, fuelling the imagination of others, and pushing them to take the leap and fly off to Syria to prove that they are not faint-hearted. Adolescent socialisation, fully exploited by the propaganda machine of the Islamic State, also plays a driving role (2).
DESIRE FOR EARLY MARRIAGE
As well as these motivations, these young girls (or women) often share a desire for early marriage. They do not accept it unwillingly, as a sacrifice to be paid to access the Caliphate - except in a small minority of hard-line believers from traditionalist families. More, it is real impatience to marry, shown in their desire to blossom outside the control of parents, seen as an embarrassment. Departure for Syria is a rite of passage that, made possible by marrying and then by having a child, means they are at last recognised as a fully-fledged adult who will finally be taken seriously. Running against feminist culture which has delayed women’s first pregnancy and allowed them to work, taste life’s pleasures and assert their independence, the juvenile adolescent culture inspired by ISIS promotes a model of the subjugated woman, who becomes a mother young.
By becoming a mother in adolescence (between 15 and 17), by giving birth to “cubs” (ISIS expression) to defend Islam, these young girls are caught up in a triple negative - neither child nor adult, neither responsible nor irresponsible, neither minor nor of age - to achieve a positivity that fills them with happiness, as long as they dream of becoming an adult, or are not faced with the concrete reality of women in Syria.
However, they do not envisage marriage with just anyone. The elected one must be a knight of faith who fights to the death for his ideals and who can be summed up in three adjectives: virile, serious and sincere. In the women’s eyes, jihadis embody this ideal. Their fight against the enemy, sometimes to martyrdom, proves their ultimate, vigorous commitment. For young radicalised women, they provide a substitute for the father and/or brother, whom they deem to be too emasculated in the modern world. This position - idealising masculine virility, nostalgia for a family united under a man’s authority (father or brother) - is an expression of serious disenchantment with the liberal economy (whose battering has annihilated the father’s authority and forced women to work), and with the feminism defended by their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation (which called into question the man as the sole holder of authority).
Through their attitude, these young women are trying to reverse the ideals of traditional feminism. They are also trying to create the conditions of a new “post-feminist” autonomy, where the place of the man-husband (to which they submit) is relativised. How? On the one hand, by internalising the idea of a possible future life without their husbands, lost on the jihadi battlefield against miscreants and infidels. On the other, by accepting the idea of a new married life for themselves after the disappearance of the husband.
Prior to departure, all this is wrapped up in a naive humanitarian vision. This is based on the idea that the religious brothers in Syria (the Sunni) need help against the heretical and evil power of Bachar el-Assad (Alawite, a deviant fraction in the eyes of ultra-orthodox Sunnis), and that they need to sign up to help the former against the latter. Humanitarian work however loses its pacifist dimension and becomes an engagement that can make use of violence to fight the forces of evil. This “humanitarian” motivation is also a means of living up to being an adult worthy of the name; the young woman imagines herself as the heroine of a saga in which she becomes an agent saving the Muslim victims of violence from miscreant Syrian government killers (as well as being an adult woman, in control of her sexuality and able to make the decision to marry before coming of legal age).
This naively romantic vision, of love and commitment, is combined with the seductions of war and even violence for some young radicalised girls. Within ISIS, women are allowed to participate in violence, at least indirectly, exercising it against other women seen as heretics. For example, against Yzidi or Assyrian women reduced to slavery and used to satisfy the sexual appetite of combatants - in this case, management of these “Islamic brothels” is entrusted to young Western women who have embraced Islam. They are members of the Al-Khansaa brigade, a police force that imposes Sharia law on women.
Why is Islam preferred in young women’s and adolescents’ jihadism? Firstly, due to the vacuum in violent extremism in the ideological landscape: Action Directe, the Brigades Rouges, the Baader-Meinhof group all belong to the past, and the extreme right does not have a religious ideology. It is a secularised vision of democracy, identifying the immigrant as the enemy to be defeated (3).
The jihadi version of Islam meets two contradictory needs in the young European middle class; it has an anti-imperialistic vision on the one hand, and a hyper-patriarchal vision on the other. Those who have had enough of the world order dominated by the United States find in it ideological resources, and those suffering from a crisis of identity with a need for absolute transparency find in it a bottomless source of repressive sacralisation. Young women, battling with post-feminism disenchanted with an existence in which they must earn a living and still keep the home fires burning, find in it a new life in which they are “complementary” to men. They can play the “noble” role of looking after the family without worrying about the finances, managed by the man. And above all, they are re-enchanted by the new role assigned to them as the mother of future jihadis, whose presupposed nobility reflects favourably on the women and their new social role.
NO UNIQUE PROFILE
Women are now part of jihadism in Europe. Adolescent or adult, middle or working class: there is no unique profile. Each type is responding to different aspirations, as explained in our latest book, Women’s Jihadism. They include the victims of family violence looking to forget by changing the world. They include those who want to measure up to men by assuming a role within a new, revised Muslim community (the “neo-umma”). They include women looking for heroes in unbridled romanticism. And they include women looking to break with a hopeless world, and find meaning in religious belonging, in a form that is as rich in meaning as it is more radical and repressive. Some characteristics correspond to those of men, but there are also entirely distinctive traits.
(1) David Thomson, Les Français jihadistes, Les Arènes, 2014; David Thomson, Les Revenants, Seuil, 2016.
(2) Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford and Ross Frenett, Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2015.
(3) Farhad Khosrokhavar, Radicalisation, Maison des sciences de l'homme, 2014; Olivier Roy, Le Djihad et la mort, Seuil, 2016.
“The Islamic State (ISIS) is everything but tender with women. [...] How then can the appeal it exercises on many young women be explained?” This is the paradox the authors attempt to decode in the eight chapters of their book. They studied the cases of around sixty (young) Jihadi women from two angles: sociological and psychoanalytical. The result? A deep (but not exhaustive) and disturbing analysis that explains - albeit in quite obscure terms - a phenomenon with multiple facets: rudimentary religiosity, parental malfeasance or negligence, the appeal of violence, etc.
D Le Jihadisme des femmes, Seuil, 112 p., 15 €.
Farhad Khosrokhavar is a sociologist and director of studies at the EHESS (School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences) and director of the Observatory for Radicalisation at the Paris Fondation de la maison des sciences de l’homme. His previous book was entitled Prisons de France (Robert Laffont, 2016).
Fethi Benslama is a psychoanalyst, professor of psychopathology and dean of the faculty of psychoanalytical studies at University Paris-Diderot. He is also a member of the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and Arts. In 2016, he published Un furieux désir de sacrifice (a furious desire for sacrifice) (Seuil).