Editor’s Note: Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst with the Co-Existence team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where he focuses on Islamist extremism. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
The fate of Shamima Begum, the British teenager who fled the UK to join ISIS, appears to more unclear than the fate of the so-called Caliphate itself.
Reduced to a fraction of the territory it once controlled, the group that once swept across Iraq and Syria now faces total territorial annihilation.
What once felt like a deluge of foreign fighters flooding from all parts of the world across the Syrian border to join ISIS eventually became a trickle. Now, the likes of Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana, the US citizen President Donald Trump says cannot return home after joining ISIS, represent an altogether different current.
Destitute and desperate to return to countries they once called home, they now form part of a growing number of women facing an uncertain future. Effective statelessness, banishment and imprisonment all seem plausible outcomes. A far cry from the vision that once attracted them to the caliphate.
While states consider the fate of these women, with both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Home Secretary Sajid Javid taking steps to try and prevent individuals returning to the US and UK respectively, further reflection is needed on why these women, and girls, left in the first place.
The outcry following some of the interviews with these women has largely centered on whether they should be considered victims or villains. Should they be afforded support and assistance, or be locked up for their crimes? The reality is that they probably deserve elements of both.
While recognizing the relative sophistication and creativeness of ISIS’ propaganda factory, what has been concerning is the number of people reducing the participation of these women in ISIS’ state-building enterprise as a result of being groomed or brainwashed.
The insistence on their experience being the result of grooming or brainwashing diminishes the role of the individual’s own agency. The passive portrayal of the likes of Begum and Muthana, who were undoubtedly misled, relegates them to being unthinking, senseless vessels waiting to be filled.
This articulation reeks of the kind of stereotypical depiction of Muslim women that has too often permeated Western societies: one of submission, obedience and lack of personal agency. Conversely, ISIS offered these young women something that recognized their agency.
Not just homemakers and housewives, but combatants and propagandists, ISIS recognized that women had a role to play in their state-building project. The journey to jihadism for these women was not about coercion, but rather about participation.
There remains a great urgency to help debunk the myths surrounding how and why women become involved in terrorist activities. From combat roles to suicide bombers, policymakers must recognize women’s agency in terrorist organizations and how gender roles function within groups.
Raising awareness about online grooming and the dangers of extremism are important steps, but they form just part of how to ensure that we do not witness a mass mobilization of young men and women traveling to join terrorist groups far from home.
In the milieu of rising anti-Muslim discrimination, by which women are disproportionately affected, continued disparity in the gender pay gap, and a lack of diverse representation in public and private institutions, society needs to be better at offering opportunities to young Muslim women than ISIS.
The potent, perverse and pervasive ideology of ISIS and its ilk does not operate in a vacuum. Conditions and circumstances that affect individuals’ sense of identity and belonging are not created by terrorist groups, they merely exploit them.
A comprehensive approach that acknowledges the relationship between empowerment and increased resilience to destructive ideologies is essential. Deepening our understanding of the challenges, real and perceived, facing young women is critical.
Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana packed their bags and traveled across the world not just because they were hoodwinked into believing the caliphate project, but because they felt it offered more to them than was available in their lives in the West.
Preventing another generation of young women from pursuing the same fate will require serious rethinking. Affording opportunities and empowering individuals must be at the heart of the West’s response.