European Youth Media Days 2016

Katherine Brown: “Presenting Europe as perfect for women compared to Islamic State is not helping to stop radicalisation”

Text by Elisenda Rovira, Spain


Hundreds of Europeans have left their countries in recent years to join Islamic State, and one in seven western militants are women, a report by New America, which describes itself as a non-partisan public policy institute, states. Dr Katherine Brown, a lecturer in Islamic Studies in the University of Birmingham, has studied the relationship between gender, politics and religion for more than 10 years, and she specialised in gender and jihadi ideologies, as well as the impact of counter-terrorism efforts on religious women’s rights and Muslim communities.


Is there a common profile among young Europeans joining Islamic State?

Unfortunately, we can’t stereotype a profile of people. All we can say is that they are young people who have interest in politics, in religion, and are questioning their future lives. Unfortunately for us in Europe, they think that a better future can be had in Syria. So I think one of the interesting questions we have to ask is why there are young people who think that there is a better future there than here. And that’s about politics: inclusion, give a people a confidence for the future, make sure they genuinely believe their voices and experiences and that they are not part of the problem but part of the solution. Apparently, a lot of the debates are about framing young people as problems that we adults need to solve. Actually, young people need to be framed also as the solutions for their own futures.


What role does identity play in radicalisation?

It plays a very important role. When someone moves towards a more radicalised position, there is always an outward identity: it has become much firmer, more restricted and very exclusive. Radical groups try to isolate the individuals and to present their identities in black and white: “you are with this or against this.” And they say: "Well, those around you do not really understand you. How could their understand you? They do not listen to you. We do listen. We are your community, your only friends. Begin to rely on us and we will provide the things that can help you sort out your identity.” In some cases that means also providing material things. There is a case in the United States where a woman had been receiving books and sweets and gifts from a radical individual who was trying to encourage her to travel to Syria. He believed that giving her things was a demonstration of her value, in a small community where she was lost and ignored. He tried to isolate her even further and then say to her: “Look, we care about you, no-one else does.” So I think what is really important is looking at the individual, the community and those around them.


The factors are the same among girls?

It is very interesting that when you talk to young women about why they are joining ISIS or why did they return, they mention very similar stuff to men: politics, oppression, violence, the way in which the West is harming innocents in Iraq and Syria, they talk about wanting to be part of a new future… These are the same things men talk about. But they do talk about it in a slightly different way: women talk in terms of empathy and caring, whereas men tend to want to become a hero, to have an adventure. For young men often the adventure is traveling and the excitement of participation, whereas for women is about supporting and building up a new future, and that is it. We do hear a lot about romance and the idea they are being groomed. For some women, there is an element of romance, an idealised notion of what it means to be a wife and what a good Muslim is. And the propaganda is saying to some extent that Muslim men in Europe are not real men: they cannot be, because the state oppresses them, because they are constantly being put down, because they are not given the opportunity to be breadwinners, because they are not properly respected in the community and other women have undermined them. So there is a real backlash against womens rights. They are talking about a different idea of masculinity, about what makes a good husband and they say that a good husband is going to protect them, to give them financial security.


Why would a European girl want to join Isis?

One of the things we come across is that idea that in the West, the lives of women are brilliant. We have rights, freedom of work, freedom of movement, sexual harassment does not take place, we do not have to marry or have kids, and we can do what we want: everything is fine. And we contrast that with images of Islamic state where women are restricted in the sense of the things they are allowed to do and the freedom they have. Why would you give up all these brilliant things for a more restricted life? The difficultly we have is that we need to question: how is life like for women in Europe? Those dreams – equal access, equal opportunities, no sexual harassment – are not actually real yet: domestic violence has not gone away, the conviction rates in rape cases are really low, we did not reach equal pay… It would be better to work together on what we can improve, but presenting Europe as perfect when Muslim women and other women know that it is not is not helping us. We think that this other future for women in Islamic State is very restrictive but they might feel even more free: you are not going to get harassed at the street, you can practise your faith and your politics, you can become part of a big adventure… that, in that kind of logic, is very powerful.

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