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Why do Western women join the Islamic State? Open in fullscreen

Brenda Stoter

Why do Western women join the Islamic State?

We underestimate the personal factors that lead women to the ideology of IS [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 June, 2016

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Comment: Observers have tended to fall back on simplistic theories to explain why at least 600 Western women have joined the Islamic State group, writes Brenda Stoter.

A video shows Helen, a slightly insecure looking Dutch teenager, during the quarterfinals of a talent show on national television.

Dressed in a hip-hop sweater, with her long hair in braids and sneaker on, the 19-year-old is rapping. The song is about how angry she is - she mentions that she has nothing, that the girl inside her is gone and that she doesn't take any crap from anyone anymore.

A member of the jury doesn't find it very convincing. "I don't believe it. You're just a sweet girl. Try to find your own story," he says.

Helen takes it like a champ and says: "I will definitely work on myself."

In the months after her performance, Helen indeed started looking for herself. Her personal search started with the Bible and ended with the Koran.

After she converted to Islam, Helen soon started to wear the face veil and gloves – she wanted to be fully covered.

Roughly seven months later, after an argument with her father about her radical thoughts [she defended terrorists], Helen left home to join the Islamic State group.

Now Helen is one of the at least 600 Western female jihadists living in the so-called caliphate, where she got married to a foreign fighter.

Why do Western women and girls like Helen join IS? Analysts have come up with many push and pull factors that help explain the motives of the Western women who have joined.

One of the most prominent theories is that they are being lured into extremism by recruiters with the goal of marrying a jihadist.


One of the most prominent theories is that they are being lured into extremism by recruiters with the goal of marrying a jihadist.

Another theory which is well-shared in the media is that they are being driven away by feelings of exclusion caused by intolerant Western societies.

Over the past two and a half years, I have spoken to Dutch family members of women who have joined IS, and I followed many of their social media accounts.

The factors mentioned above were also given as reasons by their parents. Yes, some fell in love with a fighter or were lured in some way.

However, a factor that was mentioned much more often was their own personal struggle, which led them to search for purity and the expatiation of their previous sins.

It seems that IS became a magnet for converts, especially females. A recent study by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism estimated that between 6 and 23 percent of the foreign fighters - men and women - are converts.

In France, one-third of the female recruits are converts to Islam, rather than born Muslims. In my own research into Dutch female jihadists, I counted that at least 20 percent of them were converts to Islam.

Most of them come from lower to middle class, non-religious backgrounds, drank alcohol, visited night clubs and sometimes used drugs.

Some families told me that their daughters had been involved in prostitution or had been sexually or physically abused in the past, while others were involved in petty crime.

In Helen's case it was a combination of coming from a broken home, experimenting with drugs and hanging out with the "wrong crowd".


Others mentioned that the girls experienced something traumatic before, such as the near death of a family member, or that they come from broken families.  

In Helen's case it was a combination of coming from a broken home, experimenting with drugs and hanging out with the "wrong crowd". She was always looking for something, a purpose maybe, especially when her mother became very ill.

According to family members, these personal experiences made them want to escape their former lifestyle or past. They were looking for approval and a higher purpose.

What attracted them in Islam in the first place was that it offers them strict rules on how to lead their lives and a clear moral framework, that meticulously distinguishes between right and wrong, as well as the promise that all their previous sins would be forgiven.

Another factor mentioned by family members was that Islam allowed them to feel part of a larger group of sisters.  

Of course, this does not imply that conversion to Islam necessarily leads converts to join IS - only a small percentage of converts take this radical turn. Nevertheless, when they do take that turn, they often walk down a remarkably similar path.

Through online or real-life networks, the women all got in touch with supporters or members of IS, both male and female.

Within a few months they all became convinced that they cannot live a proper Islamic life in the West.

They started to believe that IS-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has restored the caliphate, came to see jihad as a religious duty and were attracted to the idea of living in a land where Sharia law is implemented.

we have tended to underestimate the personal factors that lead women to the ideology of IS, especially when we are talking about converts.

The more radical their daughters became, the more convinced they were about how the "West is waging a war against Islam", parents said.

All of a sudden their daughters started talking about the suffering of Palestinians and Syrians - things they were never really interested in before. They also started to show support to cruelties committed by terrorist groups such as IS.

"I had the feeling she was repeating what she read online or heard from her new friends," a mother of a female jihadist told me.

IS also constantly seeks to convey the idea that women, by joining the organisation, are able to reverse the ills they face from marginalisation and "oppression", whether they are based in Saudi Arabia or the United Kingdom, as the Quilliam Foundation mentioned in a recent report.

In the course of my own research, I could find little evidence of oppression prior to conversion. Most only started talking about oppression after they converted, especially if they wore a face veil.

However, in many cases the women started to segregate themselves from their surroundings as well. Many gave up their jobs or their old friends, saying it was at odds with their religious beliefs.

"Helen said it was impossible to be a good Muslim in the 'depraved and sinful' West, and that she could only be good Muslim in Syria," her father explained.

Although external factors like marrying a fighter or discrimination help explain why Western women join IS, I think we have tended to underestimate the personal factors that lead women to the ideology of IS, especially when we are talking about converts.

For a lot of them the main reason is not to escape from discrimination or to simply marry a foreign fighter; it is a rather more complex combination of personal issues.  


Brenda Stoter is a Dutch journalist who writes about the Middle East, with special attention to women and children and Western female jihadists. Her articles have been published by Al Jazeera English, Al-Monitor and Middle East Eye as well as featured in Dutch and Belgium national newspapers and magazines, including De Tijd, Trouw and De Groene Amsterdammer. Follow her on Twitter: @BrendaStoter

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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