LONDON — Western women in the Islamic State are playing a crucial role in disseminating propaganda and are not simply flocking to the region to become “jihadi brides,” according to a new British research report.
The view that women are joining the Islamic State primarily to marry foreign fighters is “one-dimensional,” says the report, published Thursday by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. Women are drawn to the Islamic State by a number of factors, including a sense of isolation, a feeling that the international Muslim community is under threat, and a promise of sisterhood, which was especially important for teenage girls, the report says.
“Much has been made of romantic notions in motivating people to go, but we know that reality is very different,” Melanie Smith, one of the report’s authors, said at a news conference here.
The researchers said that about 550 Western women are living in territory controlled by the Islamic State, where their main responsibility is to be good wives and mothers. Some women have expressed a desire to fight on the front lines, but that is not allowed under the interpretation of sharia promoted by the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. Nevertheless, Western women are playing a significant role in propaganda and the recruitment of other women.
“ISIS have allowed for, and even relied upon, a decentralised network of messengers to carry and promote their propaganda and proliferate their world-
vision,” the report says.
The document highlights the case of Salma and Zahra Halane — the teenage “terror twins” from Britain — who encourage women to migrate to the territory and avoid censorship by changing Internet user names and employing “ ‘shout-out’ tactics” to retrieve their networks of followers after changing their user handles. They also answer questions from would-be migrants. Salma, for instance, advised a woman on Ask.fm that she should marry as soon as possible after arriving in Islamic State territory.
Smith, the researcher, said the longest known period of a woman living unmarried in Islamic State territory is two months.
Women are also aware that their marriages may not last long, the report says, highlighting the case of “Shams,” a Malaysian doctor who is prolific on social media and whose husband proposed on the day they met. She posted a picture of her wedding, where she wore a white niqab, and wrote a caption on the picture: “Marriage in the land of Jihad: ‘Till Martyrdom Do Us Part.’ ”
Using social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Ask.fm, the researchers monitor about 100 women from 15 countries who they believe are living in Islamic State-controlled territory. Most are in their late teens or early 20s, with the youngest being 13.
And although the researchers said marriage was not the only reason women were joining the Islamic State, it was still a factor, they acknowledged. “Online, images of a lion and lioness are shared frequently to symbolize this union. This is symbolic of finding a brave and strong husband, but also propagandises the notion that supporting a jihadist husband and taking on the ISIS ideology is [an] empowering role for females,” the report says.
The report also highlights discrepancies between the utopian society presented through Islamic State propaganda and the reality. Women have been increasingly raising concerns, albeit indirectly, about issues including inadequate health care and shortages of electricity and clean water. Some were “considering climbing pine trees to gain Internet reception,” the report says. One woman reported having a miscarriage in a hospital after she was unable to communicate in a common language with her doctor.
But such complaints are the exception. The report says the hashtag #nobodycaresaboutthewidow was “drowned out by overwhelmingly positive accounts and resultant propaganda.”The researchers also suggested ways to counter the recruitment of women to the Islamic State. They said that highlighting the reality of life under the Islamic State — puncturing holes in the utopian propaganda — would help to deter young women from going to join the militants.
They also recommended boosting the number of female mentors and caseworkers assisting vulnerable young women, noting that there is a lack of persuasive female voices reaching these women.