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Opinion: What is the lure of IS for western girls and women?

Why would a western woman – who enjoys the freedom to vote, drive, and wear what she wishes – subject herself to such an apparently patriarchal culture?

Gary Keogh

ONE SEEMINGLY PECULIAR feature of the recent media coverage of IS and other jihadist campaigns in the Middle East has been the willingness of western women to take up arms for their fight.

A number of young western women have abandoned their lives in the west, opting instead for radicalisation. Such headlines are shocking and unsettling for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that these women are from the apparently free, liberal, democratic world seems strange: IS’s fight is not their fight.

Also, Islam is usually presented (or misrepresented) to the west as a misogynistic, patriarchal culture that mistreats women, denying them the freedom to express their sexuality, professional ambitions, and so on. There is more than a glimmer of cultural bias in such portrayals, and usually there are vested interests in presenting a picture of ‘East-as-Enemy’. It often serves political purposes well to sway public opinion in favour of such demonising, exemplified in Bush’s infamous ‘axis of evil’ comment.

So why would a western woman who enjoys the freedom to vote, drive, and wear what she wishes, subject herself to such an apparently patriarchal culture – and in its extreme forms, no less?

Existential angst and the psychological appeal of religion

The attractiveness of IS seems incomprehensible to many, but it is not too difficult to see why it has such a seductive lure to western women. IS identifies itself as a religious group, so let us acknowledge the psychological appeal of religion in general. Religious beliefs have been prevalent throughout human history, emerging and re-emerging in every human civilisation in some form or another. Their success and prevalence is not based on an arbitrary appeal but, rather, because they satisfy deep-seated fundamental needs of human beings. They provide meaning, a sense of belonging, a clear moral code, a sense of nobility, and answers to perplexing existential problems such as ‘why are we here?’ Psychologically, we crave religiosity.

The processes of western secularisation has left a God-shaped void for many. The comforting rug of religion has been pulled from beneath our feet, leaving us in a purpose-seeking limbo. Reactionary attempts to fill this void are being attempted by the adoption of holistic spiritualities, universal laws of attraction, horoscopes, religions without the religion, and so on. These replacements for religion, though, are feeble compared with the rich traditions of institutional religions, and the remnants of more orthodox traditions leave us with a luke-warm Christianity that cannot fulfil our needs: we are fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with the happenstance and superficiality of the world – we need there to be something more, and the secular world denies us of this need.

The role of women in the west is in flux 

In the post-secular setting, many find enough purpose in the day to day tasks of work, relationships, children, Manchester United, and beers at the weekend, and therefore find it difficult to empathise with those who struggle with existential angst. Yet for some, western secularity seems vacuous: a culture more concerned with Kim Kardashian’s new nail polish and Starbucks than the search for meaning.

Moreover, at the risk of sounding patronising, for young women, the social landscape of western secularity is particularly difficult to traverse. The struggles of gender oppression have seemingly been overcome in the west but at the cost of clarity. While the early feminists knew what they were fighting for, in the break from patriarchy, young women are now faced with new, more ambiguous problems – the pressures to look like Britney Spears, take on the titans of industry, and manage a household, as well as not knowing whether Beyoncé is a part of the problem or solution. What is female liberation and where are the lines drawn between sexual expression and sexual objectification?

For some young women the perils of this confusion may lead them to see the merits of more traditional values like Islam. It may look on the surface to be a submission or regression to patriarchy, but at least their role is clear, and, into the bag, they are provided with the answers to those existential questions that are absent from western modernity.

Romanticised ideas of jihad

Once the decision to convert to Islam is made, these westerners are as exposed to the psychological seduction of IS as any other Muslim, perhaps even more so. The fact they have made a conscious decision to be Muslim rather than being Muslim out of the chance process of being born to Muslim parents, means that they will likely take the religion more seriously. Consequently, they would be more susceptible to the poisonous nonsense of romanticised ideas of jihad, and more cognisant of the historical political and cultural oppression of the Arab world.

The seeming nobility of killing and dying for one’s people and one’s God becomes attractive and, as an added bonus, the fight is largely against those western secular values which they found so distasteful in the first place. A holy war sounds noble, dramatic, epic, and gets confused with indiscriminate slaughter.

So whilst such headlines are disturbing and confusing at first glance, it is, in fact, relatively easy to see the lure of IS for impressionable young women searching for meaning.

Dr Gary Keogh is a researcher at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter @g_keogh

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Gary Keogh

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