The story of three British teenage girls who left what were by all accounts comfortable and promising lives and joined the Islamic State (IS) has become a media sensation and spawned numerous analyses of what motivated their decision.
These girls are not an isolated case. Multiple incidents of young women in their late teens and early twenties leaving their homes and joining or attempting to join IS have been documented in the media. As someone who studies Islam and is interested in issues of gender in IS and the role of women in Muslim societies, I have been following these cases.
I became engrossed by a series of articles detailing the Twitter communications of some of the young women who are recruiting for IS online. Something about the way they talked and described their lives connected with a much younger, much more discontented version of myself.
Unlike these young women, I am not a Muslim, nor am I a member of any ethnic or racial minority. But, I once was a teenage girl who lived a middle class life, got good grades, and had a promising future. I was also pathologically unhappy, physically and socially awkward, and spiritually lost. My unhappiness stemmed, in part, from the fact I was a smart girl with a deeply repressed rebellious streak, living in a provincially minded suburb. Despite having good friends and a caring family, I felt suffocated. I yearned for independence, new experiences, and a fresh start in a place where no one knew me.
Antithetically, perhaps, independence and acceptance may, for a teenage girl, be part of the appeal of leaving home to live in the Islamic State. The group’s female recruiters describe a place where a tight-knit community accepts people of all ages, races, and nationalities. Thanks to mandatory veiling practices, there is no worrying about body image and beauty issues, which plague many teenage girls. Men cannot harass or lust after you because of your physical beauty.
Marriages in IS are also described in impossibly romantic terms as a deep connection between two souls. Teenage girls are given a promotion of sorts to the status of woman and are no longer subject to the constraints imposed by family and age in the West. All women are equal in IS and all have an important role to play, even if it is not the same role as men.
I do not deny religion plays a role in motivating girls to join the Islamic State. The chance to live in a place that says it will take your religion, your devotion, and spiritual equality seriously is a compelling proposition IS recruiters offer young Muslim women. Like many young, male Westerners who join the Islamic State, young female recruits often come from either less devout Muslim or convert backgrounds. IS offers them the chance to be “real” Muslims without ever asking for their religious bonafides. It does not matter if you were not raised Muslim, did not practice Islam until recently, or have a history of un-Islamic choices, such as drinking. For them, joining the Islamic State is a fresh spiritual start.
The reality of life for a woman in the Islamic State is, of course, much less picturesque than described. However, this does not mean teenage girls who join the group are duped by things like Nutella and kittens. Nor are they worried about more adult concerns, like their statistically smaller marriage and job prospects in their home countries. These girls have intelligence and agency and are making their decision based on what they feel to be real intellectual and spiritual reasons. But, they are also just teenage girls and were likely suffering from the ennui, emotional insecurity, and vulnerability plaguing almost all teens. Their agency does not preclude the fact that they have been emotionally manipulated because of their youth and sheltered backgrounds.
Luckily, my teenage self managed to make it through high school without engaging in any grand acts of rebellion. I got my fresh start by purposely choosing a college outside my hometown, which no one else from my high school was attending and have been much happier for it. I am not trying to reduce the reasons young people join IS to teenage angst; clearly the reasons for any one individual are complex.
Nor does youth excuse the fact that these people are aiding and abetting a terrorist group, one responsible for horrific crimes. Being able to understand a person’s psychology does not mean you condone their actions. What is important to realize is that not all people who join IS are doing so because they love killing, hate all non-Muslims, or are otherwise violently unhinged. The Islamic State is offering a peculiar kind of utopia that to some alienated, but intelligent young Muslim women, promises to fulfill certain needs. For better or worse, the girls who join or try to join the Islamic State are in many ways just regular teenage girls.