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Women and Jihad: Sociology is Not Always Enough to Explain It

Foreign fighters have been the subject of studies and dossiers by highly accredited institutions. Yet there is a risk that this analysis, although very complex, has stopped at the sociological explanations, which are necessary but not sufficient to explain the phenomenon to its full extent, because the thrust of the religious motivation can not be avoided. The history and the facts require it.

In the era of global jihad, the number of Western Muslims leaving their country to join the cause of the Islamic State is constantly growing. According to some recent estimates, today the Caliphate has attracted 20,000 foreign fighters including more than 550 Western women. On the one hand these numbers reveal the black flag's unprecedented power of attraction, and on the other the effectiveness of the internet propaganda by the Caliph's media streams. Thus far, no jihadist group, not even al-Qaida in Afghanistan, has been able to mobilise so many volunteers.



Because of this, some authoritative institutions, such as the International Center for the Study of radicalization at King's College London and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies of the University of Massachusetts, have recently tried to investigate the phenomenon of neo-jihadist women.



These new fighters who emigrate to the Islamic State claim to be muhâjirât in memory of the women from 622, the year of the Hegira, who moved from pagan Mecca to Medina together with the Prophet and his companions, and who rose up in defense of Muhammad during the first battles. But who are these citizens of Old Europe who are deciding to join the ranks of the jihadists? In recent days, the issue has returned to the foreground with the delirious statements of Maria Giulia Sergio – Fatima, the Italian jihadist who fled to Syria – and the marriage of Amira Abase – the student of Ethiopian origin who left Britain last February to join the jihad – to Elmir Abdullah, one of the best-known jihadists of Islamic State.



Outlining their profile is difficult, and identifying the reasons for their shift to militant jihadism is even more so. As noted by an article published by the researcher Anita Perešin on Perspectives on Terrorism, the muhâjirât are most often young women between 16 and 24 years, daughters of the second or third generations of Muslim immigrants, or more rarely they are sometimes also converts. In general, they are cultured and wealthy people raised in families above suspicion.


According to this study, the women's desire to move to the Caliphate is fuelled by a combination of factors. The religious motivation, which is always present but in itself not sufficient, is thought to be enhanced by the desire for personal fulfillment and to feel part of a project, the will to fight for a cause and, not least, the will to subvert the Western order, which is considered the cause of all evil. For some women a crucial role was played by the Caliph’s call inviting Muslims around the world to contribute to the emergence of the new Caliphate; for others Islamic State is synonymous with justice, a safe place where they can practice their faith freely, without being subject to the restrictions imposed by Western governments. In some cases a humanitarian factor is involved. Moved by a sense of compassion, the result of a deep identification with the suffering of Syrians and Iraqis, and by aversion to the foreign policy adopted by their country of origin in relation to the Middle East, the muhâjirât hope to bring aid to the theatre of war. Islamic State also holds a strong appeal for the very young, as teenagers who are often dissatisfied and looking for an alternative life allow themselves to be seduced by the charm of the black flag in the illusion that participating in the project to construct the Islamic State and its ideology will guarantee them a sense of belonging and constitute an ideal worth fighting for.



The web is the arena in which the recruiters act by launching propaganda in French and English tailored to potential recruits from the West. The platform of choice seems to be Twitter because is the social network that best allows users to conceal their identities and open new accounts easily, followed by Facebook, Instagram, Kik, WhatsApp, YouTube, SureSpot and Tumblr.



Islamic State guarantees the new recruits operational support right from the beginning: encrypted channels for those who seriously intend to move to receive the necessary information, legal advice for resolving bureaucratic problems at the border, and a list of people to contact once they reach their destination. On location, every woman receives a home, a few dollars for living and a jihadist groom.


The high expectations that drive women before departure are not reflected in the reality and they are often disappointed. The muhâjirât migrate with the desire to fight and die as martyrs, but for the moment Islamic State does not attribute this role to women and therefore does not allow them to fight. Their task is to procreate, raise a new generation of jihadists and educate them to fight in the name of God, as explained, for the avoidance of any doubt, by a statement issued by Islamic State in January 2015.


According to these and other sociological readings, therefore, the decision to take part in the jihad is primarily dictated by reasons of a social, or at the most psychological, nature. And yet they do not seem sufficient to justify the process of radicalisation taking place. While sociological surveys explain the phenomenon in this instant by investigating the lives of neo-jihadists, they fail to also explore the religious dimension of their choice.



In fact, the jihadist option implies commitment to the Islamic State project, to fighting on the path to God, faith in the reward of Paradise promised by the Qur’an to those who die a martyr, to fighting for the application of sharî'a all over the Islamic world and the commitment to converting or killing unbelievers. These choices are hard to justify without contemplating a form of quest for the absolute, however perverse and deviant.