The last months, the international news has been dominated by rapports on ISIS and the role of international, western fighters in the greater Syrian region. Increasingly there are reports about women who undertake the trip to Syria to join the jihad. Even though the word jihad is largely interpreted as ‘holy war’, its literal meaning is struggle, not necessarily confined to the battlefield. Women can therefore feel the obligation to join the jihad just as strongly as the men do. Many view their contribution is just as valuable. Still, what drives these women to give up their comfortable, safe lives to undertake the journey to a country torn by violence?
The answer to this is complicated by several factors. The propaganda machines of the different actors involved in the conflict operate on an exceptionally high level. This, in combination with the few independent media reporting from the region due to the specific targeting of journalists makes that there is extremely little data to work with. Formers and their families could also feel reluctant or ashamed to talk to authorities, researchers or journalists because they fear they will incriminate their son or daughter. In addition, speaking out could mean risking to be stigmatized. Nonetheless, there are some anecdotal sources that give us a first insight in what motivates these (often young) women to leave for Syria.
First, these women do not make any reference themselves of being forced or manipulated to travel to Syria and none (of whom who spoke out so far) seem to express any regret for going. Often these women stress they feel discriminated in Europe, they feel they are being treated as second-class citizens because of their religious beliefs and their choice to express their convictions, for instance by wearing a niqaab. The recent ban on wearing a face-veil in France is often cited as a manifestation of this mistreatment of European Muslims. These women state that they believe that living in an Islamic caliphate will set them free. Another possible reason women undertake the journey is their desire to find a good jihadi husband in Syria. It is even said that brokers exist who mediate between international fighters in Syria and devout Muslim women in the West. Lastly, humanitarian motives are often cited by women to explain their motivation; they want to contribute to the jihad against Assad and the cruelty committed against their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters.
Increasingly, more information about what motivates these women becomes available, especially with cases like that of a fifteen year old girl from Hilversum in the Netherlands. More research is needed and will offer insight in related issues, such as the actual role of these women in jihad, once in Syria.