What Makes Girls Get Radical?

A jihadi couple in Syria (Illustrative photo: Reuters)

Farhana Qazi, a Muslim-American woman, has spent the last 17 years of her life trying to understand “why Muslims kill in the name of Islam.”  

She has worked as counter-terrorism analyst at the Counter Terrorism Center in Washington, D.C., a U.S. military instructor and a researcher-storyteller, experiences that give her great insights into the inner working of Islamists.

In a recent interview with the online publication, The Algemeiner, Farhana shared some of these insights giving particular focus to women who are radicalized.

Having moved to the United States from Lahore, Pakistan at the age of one, Farhana grew up with an appreciation for the freedom that being an American gave her.  

“My father often tells me he came to the U.S. for me; because I would not have had the same opportunities in life had I live in a country with patriarchal norms, age-old customs and traditions, most of which deny girls and women their basic rights.  Culture trumps religion in Pakistan.  But it’s not true in America, where I can practice my faith openly or privately.”

This lack of freedom and unchallenged status of old patriarchal customs and traditions is also a pillar of Islamism and is something that Farhana believes should cause people to wonder why women still join Islamist groups.

She argues, “I’ve come to learn that while terrorists claim to empower women, the reality is that women are cannon fodder for them.  In the end, women don’t matter…”

But while female Islamists don’t matter to their male counterparts, they are still formidable terrorists, Farhana notes, being the first to predict a series of bombings by women in Iraq.  She also says that many attacks by women are unreported, and that through US military contacts, she has learned that there were many Afghan female suicide bombers.  

But even given all this information, Farhana still thinks the greatest concern regarding women Islamists is their role in raising children to be terrorists.

For those still wondering about why it is that Western women become radicalized, Farhana has answers.  “The main concern for a Muslim girl or woman in the West has to do with identity.  Often, girls who join ISIS are trapped between two opposing cultures and societies — their life at home and their life outside the home [i.e., school].

Many Western Muslim girls think that groups like ISIS will empower them because they “are still bound by cultural rules and have little freedom outside of their home environment.”  

Furthermore, Farhana believes “the teachings of Islam [that of] peace, compassion, and mercy, are not preached or taught at home.  When Muslims have spiritual pride and believe that God’s love is only for a select few, then this teaching restricts children in many ways; they are unable to cope in a Western society and [are] compelled to stay within their own communities, which make girls more vulnerable to extremist recruitment and makes them feel that they do not belong.”

Farhana also emphasizes that while motives vary from individual to individual, patterns don’t lie.  There are factors that increase the likelihood of turning to violence. These factors include a girl’s exposure to violence, trauma and abuse in her home; “her access to violent online messaging and the time she spends reading and engaging with violent individuals in the digital [world]; a personal tragedy (did she lose someone to violence?) and much more.”  

Farhana has learned that instead of there being just one “aha moment or trigger point,” there is typically a series of such events that lead a girl to a life of violence.

The good news is that since radicalization is often more complicated than the media makes us believe, this means there are actually many opportunities to prevent the process of radicalization from reaching its completion in such girls.

  

 Codi Robertson is a contributing editor to ClarionProject.org