FIVE hundred and fifty young Muslim women have left Europe to join Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, and many of them have married fighters.
The women are well-educated, middle-class, born and raised in Europe. They were not deeply alienated from society, nor women who could have been easily radicalised. Why would young women leave London, Glasgow or Vienna to join a group that is anti-woman in its policies and behaviour? Why would they go to so much trouble to reach countries where their freedom of movement and expression will be severely constrained?
The reasons, say analysts, are the same as for men. Some are alienated from European society. Others are angry at inequality. Still others are looking for adventure or have a romantic idea of wanting to help the Sunni community in the Middle East.
But something else is likely going on. If women are joining because they are alienated, poor or angry, why aren’t Muslim women of all ages leaving Europe for the Middle East? These feelings must extend throughout the community. But all the women are aged between 15 and 19. Why?
Late teens and early 20s are the times when many young people begin to plan their future — what jobs to take and who to marry. And these women have good reason to think they may have difficulties getting what they want. An extensive study of religious discrimination in Britain, from 2000-2010, commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, found that Muslims in Britain “experience discrimination of a greater frequency and seriousness than other religious groups.” By their teens, many have realised there is little they can do to remove it.
Late teens and early 20s are also when women are naive and inexperienced and believe promises made by recruiters on the internet. When they are told things are better in Syria and Iraq, many believe it.
Yet the answer may have more to do with the job and marriage markets in Europe. Young Muslim women are traveling to the Middle East to join fundamentalist groups because they are convinced this offers greater financial security.
The more anxious Muslim women were about their economic future, according to a multi-year survey conducted by Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer, the more likely they were to turn to religious fundamentalism. Economic insecurity was the best predictor of whether a woman would support fundamentalist beliefs.
Muslim women in Britain are up to 65% less likely to be employed than white Christian women. Even if a young woman receives straight As from a good school — as was the case with the three women who recently left London for Syria — she is still more likely to face unemployment, job discrimination and low pay.
Marriage to a young Muslim man in Europe does not offer better economic prospects, because job opportunities for young Muslim men are worse. Muslim men in Britain were up to 76% more likely to be unemployed than white male Christians of the same age and with the same qualifications. Neither a job nor marriage in Europe ensures financial security for young Muslim women.
There is, however, an alternative. Young Muslim women might decide that they can, instead, enter the marriage market in Syria and Iraq. Young European women are told by recruiters that they will have their choice of spouses, that their spouses will be able to support them and that they will be taken care of and treated well.
Tweets reputedly posted by women living under Islamic State rule describe how the militant group will supply housing and food, even a monthly stipend.
The value of European women in the Syrian and Iraqi marriage market is also presented as higher than that of local women. Blondes, for example, are in demand. To some young women, it might appear as if they have gone from the bottom of the pecking order to the top.
This does not mean that these young women are making a smart choice. They clearly are not making a fully informed one. Recruiters have incentives to portray life within a fundamentalist group as more secure and honourable than life in Europe, even if it isn’t true.
They also have incentives to downplay or ignore the dangers these women are likely to encounter in their new world.
Does this mean that all women joining the Islamic State are heavily influenced by financial motives and a desire for a reliable social safety net? No.
Some are driven by ideology, anger or a desire for adventure — or any number of motives.
But some are driven by strong economic and social incentives, which partly explain the appeal of becoming a member of a fundamentalist group. Current economic conditions have led some young women in Europe to place their trust in what they believe will be a more secure future elsewhere.
They are wrong, but it helps explain why they are so willing to leave.