The term “Jihadi Brides” has been stamped across the front pages of our newspapers since 2013. The phrase is used to refer to western women who have left the “west” to join ISIS. Media outlets jumped on what appeared to be a phenomenon. Moreover, having gained popularity in the media, the usage of the term “brides” perpetuates the assumption that many of the 550 women to have travelled to Syria have done so to seek companionship with ISIS soldiers. While a husband does facilitate their presence within ISIS-controlled territories, it is not their sole rationale behind joining the terror organisation. Also, the term “brides” deprives these women of their agency, binding their identity with men, and in a sense, absolving them of the accountability of their actions.
Additionally, for many it appears incomprehensible as to why western women would flee the comforts of their homes to join a conflict zone. As a result, recycled gendered stereotypes regarding female combatants are often spewed. Cloaked under the veil of feminine stereotypes, “jihadi brides” are generally viewed as misguided and impressionable victims. This is further compounded by the orientalist notion of Muslim women as oppressed, a view projected by many media outlets. In addition, the cultural stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman and angry Muslim man continues to shape how we view Muslims and Islam. What these beliefs can cause is a sense of lack of belonging, amongst many in a society they have grown up in. The marginalisation of Muslim women because of these views can push those on the cusp of radicalisation to join. Unless such views become out-dated amongst the masses, tackling radicalisation becomes ever more unattainable.
Furthermore, a recent study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue entitled “Becoming Mulan”—the reference to the Disney film was a result of a tweet by female ISIS recruiter Umm Ubaydah—lists out reasons why western women have joined ISIS in Syria. They conclude that women travel (1) to join their husbands; (2) because they believe the Ummah is under attack; (3) to build the caliphate and (4) due to a sense of religious duty. What this illustrates to us is that the rationale behind western women joining ISIS resembles that of their western male counterparts. Thus, it is misguided that we should be surprised by women joining ISIS. Throughout history and till the present, women have had diverse roles in conflict. Neglecting this would be foolish. For example, Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1840–October 17, 1921), the Queen Mother of the Edweso tribe of the Asante (Ashanti), what is now modern Ghana, was an extraordinarily fearless fighter who, in March 1900, raised and led an army against the British colonial forces and successfully recaptured the Golden Stool, the Asante spiritual symbol of unity. While there is no comparison between Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa and the “jihadi brides” who have travelled to join the evil and repulsive ISIS, it is important to note that confining “jihadi brides” to the realm of gender stereotypes is ineffective.
Therefore, when attempting to find a solution to stem the exodus of “jihadi brides,” it becomes unproductive to retreat to out-dated stereotypes regarding gender and culture. “Although statistical data on Jihadi brides is tenuous, an estimated three thousand Westerners have travelled to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria, of which more than 550 of them are women and girls, according to a report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in 2015.”1 Viewing many of the women who have travelled to Syria as victims disregards their agency in conflict, including their roles as recruiters and suicide bombers. Moving away from such stereotypes enables us to understand the thought process and motives of extremists, aiding in our combat against extremism. Recognising diverse roles can thus resolve conflict.
By Chawahir Yussuf
1 Jacoby, Tami Amanda (2015), “Jihadi brides at the intersections of contemporary feminism,” Intersectionality for the Global Age, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 525-542.