An estimated 4000 westerners have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. More than 550 of them are women and girls who have travelled across the globe to become the wives of ISIS soldiers.
While the men become fighters and seek out battlefields in areas like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, the women support the groups' state building efforts adopting the role of wives, mothers, recruiters and sometimes online cheerleaders of violence.
Most of the girls that travel to join the Islamic State are quite young, usually in their teenage years or 20s. Their profiles differ in terms of socio-economic background, ethnicity and nationality, but they are usually more educated and studious than their male counterparts.
Security officials are starting to believe they pose a greater threat to the West than the men. The girls are less likely to be killed in combat and more likely to lose a spouse, therefore they have a higher chance of returning home, indoctrinated and embittered.
Images from recordings at Gatwick Airport show, from left, Khadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase passing through security before flying to Turkey | Source: New York Times
A number of girls from western nations have left their families behind only to become wives of jihadists and bear their children. The most recent case is of three teenage girls from London.
Khadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum were best friends and did every thing together, including running away from their home in Bethnal Green, London, to join the ISIS in Syria.
The girls were said to be exceptionally bright students who always performed well in school. "They were the girls you wanted to be like" said a 14-year-old girl from the grade below theirs (as quoted by New York Times ).
They lived in an area in London that was largely populated by Muslims and of the particularly conservative class. Even the school they went had a majority Muslim population.
Women in ISIS | Source: Reuters
Since they played the roles of the ideal high school students- respectful, devoted to their families and religion, smart, dedicated, and A grade students - it is no surprise that their teachers and families missed the many signs that foreshadowed their sudden departure.
If their families did notice odd changes in their behaviour they attributed it to the whims of a teenager. All the while not knowing that these teenagers were living in a parallel world, in which rebellion takes the form of extreme religiosity that begs them to question their surroundings. In this world instead of belly rings and tattoos, girls subscribe to head scarves and prayers. Islam is the new cool and beards are sexy.
Today Muslim girls living in the Western world are subscribing to a totally different lifestyle. They are no longer attracted to the good looking white boys, rather the deeply religious Muslim boys that take their faith seriously. " Girls used to want someone who is good-looking; nowadays, girls want Muslims who are practicing," said Zahra Qadir, 22, who does deradicalisation work for the charity, Active Change Foundation.
These girls are from conservative community and live in the neighbourhoods where the lines between religion and extremism are often blurred. The challenges they face are very different to their male counterparts, and ISIS has tapped into that.
Bethnal Green Academy, the school the three girls attended | Source: Google Maps
By appealing to their vulnerabilities, frustrations and dreams, ISIS is able to lure young girls into their cause, and the West has failed to address this problem. Muslims in the West have had a deep seeded loss of identity ever since the 'war on terror' began. They don't subscribe to the ideals of western liberties that their parents sought. They see the West as an immoral society and therefore go in search for religious virtue and meaning.
What is odd about this particular case is that the signs were clearly present. From their proclamations on social media sites to the deterioration in their grades and studies, these girls made it abundantly clear that they were up to something. The teachers failed to inform their parents that their grades had fallen and their homework was getting poorer day by day.
What is worse is that the girls had another friend who had earlier run away in a similar manner and joined ISIS. The girls were questioned by the police, but their parents were never informed. This clearly shows a lacklustre attitude by the police towards this case and others like it.
ISIS | Source: Reuters
Since their departure the girls seemed to have settled into their lives in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic caliphate set up by the ISIS. They have been married off to western jihadists and seem busy recruiting other girls to come and join the cause.
They have had some contacts with their families back home in Bethnal Green, however, they have shown no indication of wanting to return to their former lives.
Due to the extreme Islamophobia that is prevalent in western societies it is no wonder that young Muslims feel extremely out of place. They are vulnerable and the ISIS taps into this by offering them a place where they can feel comfortable and they can be themselves without fear of persecution.