Why might a young Christian woman from Tennessee travel to Syria to join ISIS, embracing an ideology that calls for her own subjugation?
Desperate for ways to combat the terror group and its recruitment efforts, U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday convened to discuss the women of ISIS.
"This violence against women is almost without parallel, from widespread rape and trafficking to forced marriage and murder," said Rep Ed Royce, who will hold a series of hearings on the status of women around the world. The graphic episodes of abuse presented at the House Foreign Affairs Committee make the success of ISIS' female recruitment strategy all the more puzzling. Members expressed their confusion and shock over and over again, asking the same question in different ways: "What motivates the women who join the ranks of ISIS?"
Social media's power to rally impressionable individuals to a cause was a central theme. "The 'caliphate' offers adventure, belonging and sisterhood, romance, spiritual fulfillment and a tangible role in idealistic utopia-building. Very few youth subcultures or movements can claim to offer so much," said Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has researched the social media activity of Western women who have joined ISIS. According to Havlicek, these women play a crucial role in projecting the images and ideas of the "caliphate." On Facebook, Twitter, Ask.fm, Instagram, and Tumblr, ISIS's Western female recruits act as prolific propagandists, pulling in other women, goading young men into the fight, and boosting troop morale. Over 550 women from Western countries including the U.K., France, and Sweden have traveled to join ISIS, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization.
The fact that some women have voluntarily left behind lives of European privilege is an enticing marketing point for ISIS, Havlicek argued. "The media has disproportionally covered this story of Western girls, so they know that they are high PR value." Unmarried women who have fled to ISIS also appeal to foreign fighters who like the idea of marrying a Western woman, she said. And as a long-term state-building strategy, these women will help raise the next generation of radicals.
"ISIS needs women, needs to control them, to establish its caliphate and give rise to the next generation of ISIS," said Royce. "And that is why ISIS is investing heavily in recruiting foreign women to join its ranks. And with each girl who becomes brainwashed, ISIS has a new poster child for its jihadi girl-power propaganda."
During the hearing Havlicek emphasized that the Western women of ISIS do not come from a particular background; many do not claim Muslim heritage. "They don't lend themselves easily to profiling," she said. "They are very diverse in terms of their socioeconomic background, in terms of even their religious backgrounds, and in terms of their educational attainment." Two trends that Havlicek did note were the younger ages of female recruits — which she said is explained by male fighters wanting unmarried girls — and a high proportion of religious converts, which is common among radical groups.
Among both male and female ISIS members, justifications for joining the group include narratives of global persecution against Muslims and feelings of isolation. Specific to women, however, is an argument about sexual identity. According to Havlicek, the Western women of ISIS see the project of European and American female emancipation as a ruse, a form of enslavement to sexualize and control the female body. For them, ISIS represents an escape from the tyranny of objectification.
The incongruity of using 21st-century communication tools to promote a puritanical vision situated in the distant past was not lost on Rep. Gerry Connolly. "I wonder if the cruel irony of that has struck anyone," he said.
Echoing a Senate hearing held in May, in which the State Department was criticized for not doing enough to combat ISIS social media, Rep. Brad Sherman said the agency is "fumbling around in the dark." He accused the State Department of enacting ineffective and unfair hiring practices whereby only with the right combination of "Western academic brownie points" can a person get a job within the agency. He said the the State Department is now left without talented individuals who could otherwise untangle the ideology behind ISIS.
"Myth-busting doesn't work for young people in this space," Havlicek said, mirroring comments made by Sen. Cory Booker at the Senate hearing where he contrasted ISIS's "fancy memes" with "crude" messaging from the State Department. "What is drawing them in is the incredibly emotive material that they are being exposed to on a 24-7 basis in these social media environments," she said. "And we can't come back with a set of facts. We need emotive stories to counter that."