Why Muslim women are leaving Europe to join militants

MISGUIDED? British teens (from left) Shamima Begun, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana walking through security at London's Gatwick airport before boarding a flight to Turkey on Feb 17. They were believed to be headed for Syria. Current economic conditions have led some young women in Europe to place their trust in what they believe will be a more secure future elsewhere.


    Mar 06, 2015

    Why Muslim women are leaving Europe to join militants

    OVER the past few years, approximately 550 young Muslim women have left Europe to join Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, often marrying fighters.

    Many are well educated, from middle-class families, born and raised in Europe. They do not appear to be deeply alienated from society, or women who could be easily radicalised. Why would young women leave London, Glasgow or Vienna to join a group that is considered anti-woman in its policies and behaviour? Why would they go to so much trouble to reach places where their freedom of movement and expression will, at best, be severely constrained?

    The reasons, according to analysts, are roughly the same reasons as for men. Some are alienated from European society. Others are angry at the inequality they see and experience. Still others are looking for adventure or have a romantic idea of wanting to help the Sunni community in the Middle East.

    But something else is likely going on. If women are joining because they are alienated, poor or angry, why aren't Muslim women of all ages leaving Europe for the Middle East? These feelings must extend throughout the community. But virtually all the women are between ages 15 and 19. Why?

    One reason is that the late teens and early 20s is the time when many young people begin to plan their future - what jobs to take and who to marry.


    And these women have good reason to think they may have difficulties getting what they want. An extensive study of religious discrimination in Britain from 2000 to 2010, commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, found that Muslims in Britain "experience discrimination of a greater frequency and seriousness than other religious groups". By the time they are teens, the study showed, many realise there is little they can do to remove it.

    The late teens and early 20s is also the period when women may be naive and inexperienced enough to believe promises made by recruiters on the Internet. When they are told things are better in Syria and Iraq, many seem to believe it.

    Still, the answer may have more to do with the job and marriage markets in Europe. Young Muslim women are travelling to the Middle East to join fundamentalist groups, in part because they are somehow convinced that this offers greater financial security.

    The more anxious women were about their economic future, the more likely they were to turn to and support religious fundamentalism, according to a multiyear survey of Muslim women conducted by Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer. The report found that economic insecurity was the best predictor of whether a woman would support fundamentalist beliefs.

    In fact, young Muslim women in Europe have every reason to be anxious about their economic future.

    One reason is that Muslim women in Britain are up to 65 per cent less likely to be employed than white Christian women. Even if a young woman receives straight As from a good school - as was the case with the three women who recently left London for Syria - she is still more likely to face unemployment, job discrimination and low pay.

    Marrying a young Muslim man in Europe also does not necessarily offer better economic prospects, because job opportunities for young Muslim men are even worse. Muslim men in Britain were up to 76 per cent more likely to be unemployed than white male Christians of the same age and with the same qualifications. Neither a job nor marriage in Europe ensures financial security to young Muslim women living there.


    There is, however, an alternative. Young Muslim women might decide that they can instead enter the marriage market in Syria and Iraq. Young European women are told by recruiters that they will have their choice of spouses, that their spouses will be able to support them and that they will be taken care of and treated well.

    Tweets reputedly posted by women living under the rule of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) describe how the militant group will supply housing and food, even a monthly stipend.

    The value of European women in the Syrian and Iraqi marriage market is also presented as higher than that of local women. Blondes, for example, are in demand. To some young women, it might appear as if they have gone from the bottom of the pecking order to the top.

    This does not mean that these young women are making a smart choice. They clearly are not making a fully informed one. Recruiters have incentives to portray life within a fundamentalist group as more secure and honourable than life in Europe, even if it is not true. They also have incentives to downplay or ignore the dangers these women are likely to encounter in their new world.

    Does this mean that all women joining ISIS are heavily influenced by financial motives and a desire for a reliable social safety net? No. Some are driven by ideology, anger or a desire for adventure - or any number of motives.

    But some are driven by strong economic and social incentives, which partly explain the appeal of becoming a member of a fundamentalist group. Current economic conditions have led some young women in Europe to place their trust in what they believe will be a more secure future elsewhere.

    They are wrong, but it helps explain why they are so willing to leave.