A 16-year-old German schoolgirlwho ran away from home to join the Islamic State has been captured alongside members of the terror group’s all-female police force – some of whom were wearing suicide vests.
It is a shocking scenario, particularly given the fact that Linda Wenzel, who grew up near Dresden, was just a normal European schoolgirl. Her decision to run away and join the terror group seems to have come from the fact that she fell in love with a Muslim man she met online, who persuaded her to join him in Syria.
Her story is, unfortunately, a common one. In 2015, a report found more than 50 young British women had been lured to join the Islamic State – becoming ‘jihadi brides’ – along with 500 women from other Western countries.
But while much of this initial group were lured over by men they fell in love with, just like Wenzel, many of them are now trying to encourage other girls – their ‘sisters’ – to join them.
One example is a pair of teenage twins from Manchester, Salma and Zahra Halane, who were said to be at the centre of an online recruitment drive to encourage girls to run away. The 17-year-olds, who left the UK in July 2014, were allegedly part of a widespread grooming campaign.
Some stress the importance of the ‘sisterhood’, while others appeal to identity complexes of British ethnic minorities. Many romanticise the idea of being a ‘jihadi bride’ married to a true jihadist fighter. Others opt for political tactics, telling young women that as Muslims they’re being persecuted by the West.
But it seems that right now, Isil women have another hook for enticing women to join them: a warped version of feminism.
It seems like an unlikely choice, considering that Isil life is as anti-feminist as you can get. Women are essentially baby machines, married off as soon as they arrived and then locked in the house, only able to leave with permission and a male chaperone.
Yet this outdated reality is exactly what female IS recruits are using as propaganda. Research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which followed the online activities of 100 British women who joined Isil, found that ‘reverse feminism’ is playing a major role in the propaganda.
Melanie Smith, co-writer of report ‘Til Martyrdom Do Us Part’, explains: “The narrative is about making the choice to be a stay-at-home mum.They’re saying, ‘the West tells you to have a career and not have children. But we won’t shame you for the decision to stay at home.’
“It’s empowering in such a warped, pseudo-feminist way.”
The female migrants have all come from Western countries that promote gender equality. Many have achieved it through laws but – like the UK – are currently trying to ensure that it’s enacted socially.
It’s ingrained in pop culture, with singers like Taylor Swift and Beyonce loudly identifying as feminists, and young girls in schools are being encouraged to be ambitious in their life choices.
But Isil is using this to promote a backlash amongst young women who favour more traditional female ideals.
It’s particularly concerning because, although it’s near impossible to find identifying patterns between female migrants (they range in age from 13 to 40), the one thing they have in common is that they’re generally intelligent.
Aqsa Mahmood, a Glaswegian who went to Syria to marry as Isil fighter aged 20, was privately educated. The Halane twins had 28 GCSEs between them. And the three young girls from Bethnal Green who joined Isil were all engaged with politics. Their social media feeds show they’re thinking about what it means to be a woman in the West – especially a Muslim woman.
The problem is, according to report co-writer Erin Saltman, that they’re asking the right questions, but being given the wrong answers from one warped side:
“They’re seeing propaganda online from [Isil] and they’re not seeing a counter narrative. They’re seeing reverse feminist propaganda.”
This propaganda is coming directly from Isil – but seems far more relatable through female migrants’ messages on social media.
Most of it is based on pop culture and is depicted in memes, tweets and Instagrams.
A popular one plays on the American make-up brand ‘Cover Girl’ but twists it to depict a positive image of women who, under strict Sharia, must be covered from head to toe. It reads: ‘Covered girl: Because you’re worth it’.
“The idea is that you’re refusing to be objectified by being covered up,” explains Saltman. “We’re seeing a lot of empowerment narrative. For jihadists you get a lot of lion imagery. For women you get the lioness.
“They refer to themselves as lionesses with their cubs, the strong family centre part.”
She says the women tweet heart emojis, images of martyrs and ‘sisters’ posing with AK47s they won’t be allowed to use. It’s all designed to feed in to the narrative that women can play an integral role in Isil and are empowered.
One woman, known as ‘Shams’ online, is actually a doctor who’s allowed to practise under Isil. It’s incredibly rare for a woman to have a profession in Syria, but on social media she calls out for more working women to join.
It’s part of a larger move on the part of Isil to attract female lawyers, doctors and professionals from the UK.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue report states that: “Increasing within [Isil] propaganda is this message: women are valued, not as sexual objects, but as mothers to the next generation and guardians of the [Isil] ideology. However, one can observe from social media that the reality of life within [Isil] controlled territory is significantly different from the utopian propaganda being offered to recruits.”
Saltman sums it up saying that the reality is: “more a desperate housewife situation where their empowerment is actually found online.”
Previous reports show that women are often left in incredibly vulnerable positions if they become widows, and many are not given decent medical care. One woman wrote about a Muhajirah (female migrant) who was miscarrying being ignored by doctors in a hospital. While many voice concerns about pregnancy and more basic issues like the excessive housework and freezing cold temperatures.
Those who want to return to the UK may not even be able to escape. “[Isil] has a tendency to destroy your passport on arrival,” says Saltman. “It’s also much harder for a woman to leave.” Strict sharia law means they cannot leave the house without a male guardian.
It’s why most of the ‘jihadi brides’ express themselves online instead. And much like life in the West – where people present airbrushed versions of their lives onto social media – they tend to present one false view: that ISIS will empower women.