Why would British schoolgirls run away and join misogynists?

Colin Randall wonders whether the radicalisation of some Muslim women in the West signifies the failure to give them a sense of “belonging, purpose and value as Muslims and citizens ".

A still from CCTV of Amira Abase, left,  Kadiza Sultana, centre, and Shamima Begum, at London's Gatwick airport. AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

The photographs are depressingly familiar. Relatives of three London girls glumly face the cameras, one father clutching a Teddy bear wearing a Chelsea football top. It was his missing daughter’s Mother’s Day present to his wife.

Whether or not 15-year-old Amira Abase realises it, there is a strong possibility she and her mother will never meet again.

With her school friends, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Shamima Begum, 15, she has run away to join ISIL, following the well-worn and curiously unhindered route of a flight to Turkey before an overland crossing into Syria.

To Aqsa Mahmood, another young British woman who has become notorious since enlisting with the extremist group in November 2013, turning their backs on their families is part of a necessary process.

Ms Mahmood, who has disowned her own family in Glasgow and was recently publicly criticised by her distraught parents as “a disgrace to your family and the people of Scotland”was contacted on Twitter by one of the girls. It is not clear where the conversation led. But in her encouragement of other female Muslims to choose ISIL, she has written: ‘”The family you get in exchange for leaving the ones behind are like the pearl in comparison to the shell you threw away into the foam of the sea.”

Behind the mildly lyrical prose lies the stark reality of what awaits the girls now starting new lives after evading flimsy Turkish border controls to reach ISIL-held territory.

According to the glowing portrait painted by Mahmood, it is a world of deep faith, courage and fulfilment.

It is as if the war crimes – the murders of captured enemies, the merciless killing of civilian hostages and the gang rapes and enslavement of women regarded as non-believers – never happened.

As intelligent girls, who were doing well at the Bethnal Green Academy in east London, Amira and her friends could hardly have been unaware of recent events.

Did they view the January attacks in Paris, when gunmen shot dead 17 people in three separate incidents, in as deluded a way as the killers? Did they see the horrific murders as noble acts committed in the name of Islam? Was the butchering of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach, or the burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot, a fellow-Muslim, the work of heroes, or of barbaric cowards?

The mind boggles at the thought of any modern teenage girl, whatever her background, supporting a group that reduces most women to servility. In a “manifesto” on the proper role of women in ISIL’s so-called “state”, Al Khanssaa female brigade describes a sedentary housebound lifestyle as their “divinely appointed right”. There is implicit endorsement of what most of the world would regard as child abuse in the declaration that girls can be married off “as young as nine”.

Clearly, the brigade’s existence suggests that a select band of women do not meekly accept domestic drudgery. According to a translation of the document by Quilliam, a UK counter-terrorism think tank, women may be exempt if studying theology, teaching, practising as doctors or called upon to fight.

It does not add up to a way of life designed to appeal to many girls brought up in the West. Therefore, the willingness of so many to embrace it is a huge worry for governments, intelligence services and moderate Muslim families.

The British media has quoted security sources as saying hundreds of British women have proposed marriage to ISIL fighters. Eight schoolgirls are reported to have left Britain for Syria since last summer, including another pupil from the school attended by Amira, Kadiza and Shamima. In all, about 60 British women are thought to have joined ISIL.

Dr Katherine Brown, a lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London, has examined the radicalisation of some Muslim women in the West and attributes it to the failure to give them a sense of “belonging, purpose and value as Muslims and citizens”.

Online testimony from female recruits may often have quotes from the Quran but Dr Brown says there is little real knowledge of Sharia or Islam.

The biggest challenge has to be for western Muslim communities and the authorities to stop bright young women falling for ISIL’s propaganda.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National