Independent on Sunday, 31 May 2015
The phenomenon of teenage girls lured by the prospect of meals by candlelight and bathing in the Euphrates
Just over a year ago, an Australian woman called Tara Nettleton flew to Malaysia with her five children. From there she made her way to Raqqa in Syria, where she was reunited with her husband, an Australian jihadist called Khaled Sharrouf. Last summer, Sharrouf posted a photograph on Facebook of the couple’s seven-year-old son holding the head of a Syrian soldier. Their daughter, Zaynab, was 14 when she was married to her father’s friend Mohammed Elomar, a former boxer from Sydney.
Last week, reports in the Australian press suggested that Ms Nettleton is trying to return to Australia with her children. According to a police source, her decision to leave Syria is linked to harsh living conditions in Raqqa, a fact which certainly isn’t reflected in her daughter’s online pronouncements. A couple of months ago, Zaynab posted a picture of five veiled women posing with guns in front of a white BMW. The caption read “chillin in the khalifah [caliphate], lovin life”.
Zaynab is not the only Western schoolgirl who appears to have turned her back on gender equality to live under the “caliphate”. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has just published a report called “Till Martyrdom Do Us Part”, around 550 women and girls from Western countries have been recruited by Isis. Many have ended up as teenage widows, boasting about the deaths of their husbands in messages posted on social media. “The Islamic State treats us sooo full with love and respect,” a young British widow posted on Twitter.
It isn’t always the case that girls run away to become brides, but it’s what happens to many of them. The family of a teenager from east London, who disappeared to Syria with two school-friends in February, revealed last week that they had heard from her; the girl said she was safe and well, but little else is known about her fate or that of her friends. The disappearance of the girls – two aged 15, the other aged 16 – caused astonishment when their images were captured on CCTV at Gatwick airport. They flew to Turkey and took a bus to the border with Syria, where they were met by a female member of Isis who has since defected. Last week, she described the girls as naive and said they were unprepared for life under Isis, where “you cannot have a mind of your own”.
Some commentators have suggested that girls who run away to join Isis know what they’re doing and have only themselves to blame. But the phenomenon of teenagers being lured from their homes by a terrorist organisation is not something we should regard with indifference; apart from anything else, it suggests a worrying ignorance or distrust of conventional news sources. Human Rights Watch published two reports last year, describing how Isis fighters repeatedly raped hundreds of Yazidi women captured in northern Iraq. And just over a year ago, the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria by Boko Haram, a terrorist group which has now affiliated to Isis, was widely reported in the West.
Can teenage girls heading off to join Isis really be unaware of these dreadful events? It seems more likely that they have been offered an alternative narrative by people they have come to trust, as last week’s report confirms; it describes how young women have been lured by the prospect of sharing meals by candlelight, bathing in the Euphrates and admiring each other’s new-born infants. At one level, it is a modern version of the “mysterious” East which inspired hundreds of Victorian paintings, but with the addition of what the authors call a “warped” form of feminism. Isis uses female recruiters who target girls who feel alienated from Western culture, romanticising the role of wives and mothers and assuring them that women are valued by Isis.
This is a perversion of the truth, which is that many Isis fighters appear to have been attracted by the opportunity to carry out rape on a grand scale. It suggests there’s an urgent need to teach children how to spot jihadist propaganda online instead of reading it uncritically; they also need to be told the truth about conditions in areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by Isis, which have been described by Yazidi women who managed to escape as harsh and violent. Sadly, some teenage girls in the West are too young and inexperienced to recognise that far from the romantic notions they are being offered, they will face tough lives as widows and single mothers in a culture dominated by ruthless men.
The jihadists do their best to prevent this reality appearing on social media, but it is beginning to emerge as female recruits become disillusioned and try to leave. MsNettleton is a case in point, with some of the Yazidi women held captive by her husband and son-in-law reporting that she found life in Raqqa hard to bear. They say that far from “loving” their new roles, Zaynab Sharrouf and her siblings begged to go back to Australia, lending credence to reports that the family is trying to negotiate a return.
While the children may be regarded as victims of their father’s brutality – photographing boys with severed heads and marrying off underage girls is clearly child abuse – their mother’s role in taking them to Syria may open her to charges. But the family’s disillusionment, if genuine, could help answer questions about the apparent ease with which girls living in the West have been radicalised.
Perverted ideas about female solidarity and motherhood can be countered but that requires very different messages from the anti-radicalisation programmes currently directed towards young men.