"You can find shampoos soaps and other female necessities here, so do not stress if you think you will be experiencing some cavewomen life here. …And lastly for the married sisters or soon to be married, bring makeup and jewellery from the West because trust me there is absolutely nothing here. …Unless you plan on looking like a clown ting."
These are the words Umm Layth published on her Tumblr, "Diary of a Muhajirah," meaning one who has made the "hijrah," or journey to the Islamic State. Umm Layth is a blogger from the north of Britain who is now living in the Syrian town of Manbij. She is one of a growing number of Western women who have gone to Syria to pledge their lives to ISIS — and the men of ISIS. Manbij, her new home, is a small town in the Aleppo governate, where images show squat concrete buildings adorned with the extremist group's black-and-white logo. ISIS has controlled the town since January 2014.
Sometimes Umm Layth's posts are more philosophical:
"We are created to be mothers and wives — as much as the western society has warped your views on this with a hidden feminist mentality."
Another woman, who goes by the name of Umm Muawiyah, arrived in the area controlled by ISIS on Oct. 8, tweeting:
"Alhamdulillah [thank God]. I have made it to Dar al-Islam and am finally living under the shade of the Sharia. Join me my brothers and sisters."
Prior to the first photo from her travels into Syria, her Twitter timeline was a mixture of discussion about ISIS and jokes about having to study "the stages of a break up" for her A-levels, exams British students typically take when they reach 18 years old. On Sept. 21, she tweeted:
"Psychology a2 is so buff, guys."
ISIS has proved to be adept at using social media, and the group's female followers, particularly those from England, are no exception. Glancing at assorted tweets, Tumblrs, Instagram, Ask.fm pages and Facebook accounts of ISIS supporters, it's initially tricky to distinguish between the online white noise of 15-year-olds in Wigan, an English town, who want to seem edgy by supporting the group, and genuine followers on the ground.
A closer look, however, shows a cadre of real ISIS followers who have made the hijrah and are leaving an online account of the day-to-day workings of life under ISIS. By adopting a more everyday, accessible approach to their posts, the women have carved out a social media niche, composing listicles like "10 Marriage Facts From the Islamic State," which was published by a blogger who goes by "Bird of Jannah," referring to the Islamic name for heaven. The list includes details such as how the Euphrates is every newlywed's favorite date spot, and how married mujahideen are given seven days off, and a gift of $700 by ISIS.
The women broadcast their realities through social media much like anyone of their generation, using the platforms to make sense of their lives by sharing personal details and reflections in public. Their ability to be relatable has made these women a crucial part of the ISIS media machine. And just like their male counterparts, the women are fighting a running battle with the Twitter police, who frequently suspend their accounts.
Until the recent capture of Mosul and large swaths of Iraq, ISIS had a reputation as bandits, even among the Syrian rebels — and the group confirmed that reputation via social media. Rap videos, not religion, seemed to be their main inspiration. Instagram in 2013 was awash with pictures of ISIS fighters showing off their loot, from the mansions they'd occupied to pictures of automatic weapons captioned "rolling wit d chromey homey."
The ISIS women on social media cut through that machismo. While the men have made their posts increasingly violent, the women show the world that their "state" is functioning like a normal society.
As Umm Layth writes:
"Our role is even more important as women in Islam, since if we don't have sisters with the correct Aqeedah [conviction] and understanding who are willing to sacrifice all their desires and give up their families and lives in the west in order to make Hijrah and please Allah, then who will raise the next generation of Lions? …Sister's [sic] don't forsake this beautiful blessing being able to raise the future Mujahideen of Shaam."
The British government estimates that around 400 of its citizens are currently in Syria — and research groups that track extremism like the Quilliam Foundation estimate that roughly 20 percent of them are women. "These are unlikely to be young women who've traveled by themselves before. For them, this has a similar kind of appeal to taking a big gap-year trip," explains Dr. Erin Saltman of the Quilliam Foundation.
Women like Umm Muawiyah are continuing to join ISIS, despite reports of ISIS' fondness for extreme sexual violence against women — and not just those who are considered enemies. A former member of the group's feared Khansa'a Brigade (the women who patrol the streets of Raqqa to check that women are keeping to ISIS' rules about clothing) gave an interview to CNN on Oct. 7. She said, "The foreign fighters are very brutal with women, even the ones they marry. …There were cases where the wife had to be taken to the emergency ward because of the violence, the sexual violence."
Despite ISIS' violent image, the group's followers on social media — male and female alike — claim they've found a sense of community and belonging that they previously lacked. On one blog, a writer who calls himself the "Paladin of Jihad" writes:
"I am not exaggerating when I say that each and every day, I go through an experience after which I stop and think to myself, 'subhān Allah, this is real brotherhood!' …I really felt like…like at long last, I 'belonged' to something, to a project, to a cause."
The women talk about the connections they build with other followers and during their time spent in the Makkar, a house where the Bird of Jannah says new women stay before they're given a home or taken to another city.
This sense of community is extremely important, not just because you need friends to survive living in a war zone, but also because banding together is a response to the alienation that some Muslims report feeling where they grew up. "Young Muslims still have a profound and consistent sense of being demonised by society, and as creating a source of fear," writes Afua Hirsch, a filmmaker documenting the root causes of extremism. ISIS offers a kind of freedom from this particular pressure. Bird of Jannah explains that people no longer mock you because you're wearing traditional Muslim clothing. Instead, she says:
"They respect and honor you. People take your advice and don't tell you not to judge them. When they see you commit an err [sic], they advice [sic] you with love."
Analysis by Reuters suggests the desire to join ISIS is linked to a loss of what psychologists term "personal significance," meaning "the desire to matter, to be respected, to be somebody in one's own eyes and in the eyes of others." Bird of Jannah later lists experiences with racism and a lack of religious freedom as two of the things motivating men and women to join ISIS.
The sense of purpose for men is more immediately clear: ISIS represents an opportunity for fame and fortune, fulfilling your destiny as a noble fighter. It all adds up to an opportunity to reclaim lost masculinity. But the motives of women seem harder to understand, as their role may look stifling from the outside — even to their own families back home. Here's Umm Layth:
"Sister's [sic] a little note: many people in present day do not understand and cannot comprehend at all why a female would choose to make this decision. …They will point fingers and say behind your back and to your families faces that you are taking part in 'Jihadul nikaah' or 'sexual jihad' and many many more vile terms. It hurts because these words will come from perhaps some of your closest relatives."
The notion that women are off on a "sexual jihad" has been frequently disproven, but what seems more likely is a desire for a caricature of lost gender identity roles — a place in which men are hyper-macho and women are completely submissive. "You will often see female IS supporters on social media talking about how they want a real man, a fighter," explains Dr. Saltman, using the group's preferred moniker.
This doesn't mean the women lack education. Research by Quilliam and others show that female jihadis tend to be well-educated. For example, it has been reported that Umm Layth, aka Aqsa Mahmood, is a trained radiologist. In one post on Tumblr, Bird of Jannah reveals herself to be a highly trained doctor who was offered a job in an ISIS-run hospital.
Despite this intellectual independence, getting married remains an important form of social currency — many jihadis online will openly advise women to try and arrange a marriage before they even arrive in Syria. With no hint of irony, Bird of Jannah mentions at one point that she took a copy of Pride and Prejudice with her to read in the Makkar.
Umm Layth is up-front on this topic:
"The reality is that to stay without a man here is really difficult. …I have stressed this before on twitter but I really need sisters to stop dreaming about coming to Shaam and not getting married."
Umm Layth and Bird of Jannah both mention not being able to leave either the Makka or their eventual homes without the permission, and sometimes accompaniment, of a man. As such, marriage takes place at warp speed, explains Bird of Jannah, usually the day after the brother comes and sees the bride. Remarriage once a husband has been killed in battle is expected.
The question remains as to whether this all adds up to a grand recruiting ploy. There are certainly plenty of instructions — but the only real breakdown of how to get to ISIS-controlled territory comes from male bloggers who ply the routes regularly. Instead, Umm Layth, Umm Muamiyeh and Bird of Jannah use social media more as a perverse form of advertising. Some answer questions from potential recruits on Ask.fm, and all make their usernames on the instant messaging service KIK freely available for those who want to ask questions — although none responded to requests for comment on this story. The reality is that any specific advice on making the journey to join ISIS is likely to exist only in private messages.
This story was originally published on Vocativ.com: How the brides of ISIS are attracting Western women
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