The reported death of Kadiza Sultana, a 17-year-old student from Bethnal Green who joined ISIS in Syria last year is a tragic reminder of the role of women in the group's 'caliphate.' After travelling to Syria without her family's knowledge with two school friends, details have now emerged of her disillusionment with life in Raqqa, and her desire to return to Britain.
At the age of 16, Kadiza and her friends were radicalised online, persuaded to leave their homes, and marry ISIS fighters. In the digital age, radicalisation no longer necessitates physical access to extreme preachers or getting hold of jihadi material. Recent research by the found that access to extremist content, ranging from ISIS magazines, beheading videos, and jihadi manuals, is no more than a Google search away. Counter-narratives to such propaganda are failing to compete. As a result, young, impressionable internet users like Kadiza are left vulnerable to dangerous ideologies, even in the supposed safety and security of their own bedrooms.
According to her family, Kadiza was a very bright student with wide opportunities open to her. Extremist ideologies are powerful, not because of the current grievances, but because they seem to offer a utopia. Women all over the globe have been radicalised by ISIS, and there is a considerable amount of diversity in their profiles. The notion that all the western women that travel to join ISIS are migrating with the sole intention of becoming 'jihadi brides' is misleading.
ISIS portrays a perfect state, offering solutions to all the world's problems, and a role to its adherents. Women have been called to join ISIS by the 'caliph', Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, himself, and are offered an important and active role in society. When women feel a disconnect with their current situation or a lack of belonging, a plea to join speaks volume.
However, in reality, women are constrained to domestic isolation. ISIS dictates the identity of women, declaring how they should live and what role they should have. They must raise children and tend to the house while men are at work; they must not engage in combat, unless attacked; and they should not try to emulate men, nor rule over them. In a recent edition of ISIS' English-language magazine, Dabiq, an article condemns the supposed perversion of the western way of life, stating that it has destroyed modesty and chastity, causing women to abandon motherhood, wifehood, femininity, and heterosexuality.
ISIS ensures this identity is indoctrinated from a young age. In ISIS-controlled schools, boys are trained to become jihadi fighters. Girls, on the other hand, are taught how to cook, clean, raise children, and support their 'heroic' husband in his combat. These restricted opportunities channel boys and girls down different routes from a very young age and thus dictate their futures. Although Kadiza was not educated by ISIS, this is the role that she is likely to have played in the 'caliphate.'
Images of women seldom appear in ISIS propaganda, reflecting their restricted function in the state. They have no public profile as ISIS' depiction of modesty confines women to the house. Male foreign recruits, even children, have appeared countless times, actively participating in the undertakings of the state. The Bethnal Green schoolgirls, however, appeared to vanish into the abyss after they landed in Turkey, never starring in propaganda videos or demonstrating what they were doing there. Where female recruits do appear in ISIS propaganda such as in the group's magazine Dabiq, it is to write articles condemning western decadence, or glorifying their new home, but rarely to describe the realities of day-to-day life.
Shortly before her death, Kadiza is said to have called home and expressed feeling fear and a desire to return. This demonstrates her disenfranchisement and lack of fulfilment. Given the utopia she was promised was so distant from its reality, it is no surprise that she yearned to leave. Kadiza did not get the chance to return to her family, learn from her decisions, or spread that message to others. But perhaps her story will save more girls like her.