Sex and death have always been a highly marketable combination, so it’s no surprise that stories about so-called “jihadi brides” are attracting such strong media interest. Some flimsily sourced stories suggest that at least a few of the women are jihad sluts rather than brides, undertaking a series of temporary marriages in order to service multiple warriors. Young femme fatales defying their parents and government authorities by running away to offer themselves as wives and housekeepers in the service of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) — their black niqabs provide the perfect screen upon which to project our fantasies of the beautiful bad girl.

The participation of Muslim women in acts of violent extremism receives a disproportionate degree of attention because of its perceived aberration from both Islamic gender norms and universalist concepts of feminine disposition. Other cases of “home-grown” Muslim women extremists in the West include that of Samina Malik, the self-styled “lyrical terrorist” who wrote poetry in celebration of beheadings and whose conviction as the first woman found guilty under the United Kingdom’s newly introduced anti-terrorism laws was eventually overturned, and Roshonara Choudhry, a young British woman who stabbed Labour MP Stephen Timms after “self-radicalising” under the influence of Islamist websites. In Australia, Rabiah Hutchinson, “the girl from Mudgee” who had converted to Islam as a student and was married to a member of al-Qaeda’s governing council. Hutchinson, who was running a women’s health clinic in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, had her passport confiscated by the Australian authorities and was placed under surveillance by ASIO.

However, none of these earlier cases have carried the sensational impact as the recent stories of a wave of women and girls absconding from various locations in the West to marry the jihadi warrior of their cyberdreams in the killing fields of Syria and Iraq. There was the story of the “former private schoolgirl” from Glasgow, the 16-year-old twin sisters from Manchester, and of course Gold Coast-raised Amira Karroum, who was executed alongside her Adelaide-born husband just two days after her arrival in Syria. Still to be accounted for is Tara Nettleton, who is assumed to be in the Middle East with her husband Khaled Sharrouf and their five children. The Sharrouf family achieved global notoriety after Sharrouf tweeted a photograph of his seven-year-old son clutching a severed head.

“Of course, public discourse on jihadi brides is more interested in their sex lives than in their combat role …”

Neither Nettleton nor Kharroum fit the jihadi bride template of the girl who marries a near-stranger upon entering the battlefield. They married their Australian husbands prior to leaving for the Middle East, and rather than supporting IS, Kharroum seems to have been executed by them after throwing in her lot with rival faction Jabhat al-Nusra. But their cases have been bundled into the jihadi bride narrative and dissected for insight into both Western and Islamic gender norms.

Women and girls appear to be playing a particularly strong role in the social media campaign of IS. Some of those posting under female usernames could turn out to be “gay girl in Damascus goes Jihad Jane“, but others have been linked to missing daughters-of-the-West and mined for insight accordingly. How can a young woman tweet her grief for a missing kitten one minute and praise the execution of Syrian soldiers the next? How can a young British woman write about wanting to see her Prime Minister’s head on a spike? And always the underlying question: why, why, why would young women raised in “freedom” choose to pledge allegiance to patriarchy in this most violent of manifestations?

American writer and psychologist Phyllis Chesler speculates that these women have chosen “unfreedom” in response to a surfeit of choices offered to them in the West. Over on the Quadrant blog, economist Peter Smith writes that Amira Kharroum’s story illustrates that the “moderate Muslims” extolled by multiculturalists are a myth.

However, Australian researcher Dr Nelly Lahoud, now based at the United States Military Academy at West Point, warns against such hasty analysis. She says that it’s too “early to tell what’s going on with women travelling to Syria”. Their tweets suggest “a vulgar criminal inclination”, but official IS channels do not indicate that they are open to receiving women in combat. Lahoud’s previous research shows that:

“[J]ihadi ideologues have not permitted women to take part in jihad/combat, therefore limiting their role to promoting jihad by inciting their brothers, cousins etc … and for sticking to traditional (mothers and wives of jihadis) or conservative ways of promoting jihad (such as writing, raising money and the like)”.

Kharroum may have been the exception to this rule, with the Australian Federal Police’s counter-terrorism manager stating that Kharroum and her husband were actively involved in combat. But of course, public discourse on jihadi brides is more interested in their sex lives than in their combat role (if any). Somehow going to bed with a killer is regarded as more deviant and disturbing than doing the killing yourself — and a more profound betrayal of your home country.