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One-Way Journey For Jihadi Women
Western Women Defy Stereotype
PARIS, May 28, (Agencies): When three British schoolgirls trundled across the Syrian border; when a pregnant 14-year-old ran away from her Alpine home for the second time; when a sheltered girl from the south of France booked her first trip abroad — they were going to a place of no return. Only two of the approximately 600 Western girls and young women who have joined extremists in Syria are known to have made it out of the war zone.
By comparison, as many as 30 percent of the male foreign fighters have left or are on their way out, according to figures from European governments that monitor the returns. In interviews, court documents and public records, The Associated Press has compiled a detailed picture of European girls and young women who join extremists such as the Islamic State group — a decision that is far more final than most may realize.
The girls are married off almost immediately, either in Turkey or just after crossing into Syria. With an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters — among them 5,000 Europeans — in Syria, there is no shortage of men looking for wives. That number is expected to double by the end of the year. Once among the jihadis, the women are not permitted to travel without a male chaperone or a group of other women and must remain fully covered outside, according to material published by Islamic State and researchers who follow the group. Otherwise, they risk a lashing or worse.
European women who blog about their lives under Islamic State tend to be chipper about the experience, but reading between the lines of an e-book of travel advice shows a life that will be radically circumscribed, with limited electricity, lack of even the most basic medicine, and practically no autonomy.
Women do not fight, researchers say, despite the Hunger Games-like promises of recruiters. “The lives of those teenage girls are very much controlled,” said Sara Khan, a British Muslim whose group Inspire campaigns against the dangers of extremist recruiters. “I don’t think that discussion ever comes up. It’s so romanticized, the idea of this utopia. I don’t even think those young girls have necessarily considered that there’s no way back now.” The two exceptions to the rule of no return are perhaps most revealing in the very paucity of details about their journey — driving home how murky life is behind the Islamic State curtain.
Sterlina Petalo is a Dutch teenager who converted to Islam, and came to be known by the name Aicha. She traveled to Syria in 2014 to marry a Dutch jihadi fighter there and managed to return months later — apparently making her way to the border with Turkey, where her mother reportedly picked her up and brought her back to the Netherlands.
Back home, she was immediately arrested on suspicion of joining a terror organization. Her family, lawyers and prosecutors refuse to discuss the case. She was released from custody last November and has not been formally charged. Meanwhile, Western women joining Islamic State are increasingly from comfortable backgrounds and often well educated with romantic notions of adventure often quickly dispelled by the harshness of life as a “Jihadi bride”, according to a British research report.
Some 550 women from Western countries have left their homelands to join Islamic State, which has captured swathes of Syria and Iraq, said the report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London.
However, very little was being done to explain why there had been this “unprecedented surge” to Islamic State, also known as ISIS, or to take preventative action. “Western female recruits to ISIS are breaking previous stereotypes about who is ‘at risk’ of radicalisation into jihadism and violent extremist networks,” said the report titled “Till Martyrdom Do Us Part”. It said female recruits were increasingly younger, some from comfortable backgrounds and often well-educated, and were playing “crucial” propaganda and recruitment roles.
Based on the social media activity of more than 100 Western women who are thought to have joined the militants, researchers said there were many differing reasons why women join. “The assumption that females join ISIS primarily to become ‘jihadi brides’ is reductionist and above all, incorrect,” said the report. Like Western men who have joined ISIS, the women felt socially and culturally isolated, believed Muslims were being persecuted and were angry that nothing was being done about it.
They were also attracted by an idealistic view of religious duty, a sense of sisterhood, and the romance of the adventure. However, life under ISIS was far from the image they saw portrayed online. Conditions were harsh and some became widows at a young age.