Renu Begum holds a photo of her younger sister Shamima, who is believed to have fled to Syria to join Islamic State
Say you’re a teenage girl in Australia or the United Kingdom or France or Germany, regarded by your family and teachers as intelligent and promising in every way. A bright future awaits you. If you do all your homework, you’re more than capable of getting into a good university course, where after another few years of diligent study you could become a doctor or a lawyer.
Or you could run away to Syria and become famous right now.
The three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in east London chose the latter option. Fame — or infamy — was probably not their prime motive for leaving their homes to sign on with Islamic State (sometimes called Daesh), but as a side effect it might not have been entirely unwelcome. It seems more likely to have affirmed their belief (and that of other like-minded young women) that they have committed themselves to something important, something worthwhile, something more grown-up than anything else on offer to them.
Most of the public messages from politicians, community leaders and counter-terrorism experts on the topic of so-called “jihadi brides” are not directed at the young women themselves. They’re directed at families, schools, travel industry employees, and anyone else who might act as gatekeepers. And politicians in particular are keen to reassure the punters that they’re keeping a close eye on the devious little minxes. In response to a Dorothy Dixer on the topic of the three British schoolgirls last week, Julie Bishop told Parliament that “the Coalition government is committed to countering the propaganda that terrorist groups are spreading online, but family and friends are likely to be the first to see changes in young people who are radicalising”. As to the issue of “why” young women might leave the comfort of their homes in Australia to join such a violently patriarchal regime, Bishop said that such a decision “defies logic”.
Yet the current default description of young women as unknowable, inexplicable and alien creatures “defies logic” on a level that is harder to excuse, even if it’s tediously predictable. Women and girls did not stop idolising football stars as stories emerged of the violent ways in which football’s misogynistic culture could manifest itself. They did not trust the messengers, or they were willing to play the odds, or they believed themselves to be competent to negotiate the hazards, or all of the above. In that regard, the “St Kilda schoolgirl” and the “jihad schoolgirls” have something in common.
And in both cases, it’s as much of a mistake to infantilise as to demonise. Bishop described the young would-be jihadis as having been “seduced by slick exploitation of social media to spread Daesh’s depraved narrative”, while Sara Khan from the UK organisation Inspire described them as having been “groomed” with similar techniques to those deployed by child pornographers. Like Bishop, she urges family and friends to act as guardians, telling parents to hide their daughters’ passports if they think that they might be tempted to leave the country. This message clashes head-on with that from women’s community organisations advising women and girls on how to protect themselves from various forms of domestic violence, who tell them to prepare for their flight by gathering together the kinds of personal documents that families are now urged to keep under lock and key, for the girls’ own protection.
In time — and assuming that they are fortunate enough to emerge intact — at least some of the women and girls concerned may come to view their experiences in a similar light. And Khan is correct in saying that the authorities ought to treat this as a child protection issue — not an easy stance to maintain when so much of the public discourse is describing them as witches to be burnt at the stake, rather than children to be protected. However, in speaking to and about them, we are much more likely to strike a chord if we regard them as young adults rather than as children, bearing in mind that those urging them to join the struggle in Syria have told them that they are adult women, old enough to marry, to have children, to dedicate their lives to a greater struggle and, if necessary, to die for it.
Khan also wrote a letter to young women who might be considering joining IS. Opening with “Dear Sister”, she introduces herself as a fellow Muslim and cites Islamic scholars and verses from the Koran to tell them that IS’ treatment of women and religious minorities is against the core principles of their religion. She closed by appealing to them to think of the grief that their disappearance and possible death would cause to their mothers. This appeal may well hit home with at least some of the girls concerned — or it may miss the mark completely. Mothers — even devoted mothers — may well be one of the factors that the daughters are seeking to escape. After all, they’ve been told that they are now old enough to become mothers themselves.