Living under religious fundamentalism often means that women are treated as second-class citizens – relegated to household work and raising children without the opportunity to pursue higher education, paid employment and activities of their own choosing.
Those who are born into, or otherwise follow, the preachings of violent groups that proclaim to practice a particular religion can be subjected to dehumanising conduct and even violence, including sexual assault, by leaders and other group members.
History gives us many examples of “religious” groups engaging in such violence, including the Ku Klux Klan, Al Qaeda, Branch Davidians (David Koresh), People’s Temple Agricultural Project (‘Jonestown’), Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate and now ISIS.
So why on earth would any female from a ‘liberated’ Western country choose to travel to countries like Iraq and Syria to become part of extremist organisations like ISIS which have committed the most despicable atrocities against other people?
Perhaps many young Western females have been conned into expecting an idealistic life under the Islamic State. Like the literature of many other groups, the IS publication “Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study” paints a picture of a harmonious society where everyone has a part to play, free from the vices of Western civilisation.
But disturbingly, many who seek a new life under IS are actually aware of the group’s violent side; and some have even identified this as one of the reasons they joined the group. Some female IS recruits have even praised the group’s inhumane acts on social media, commenting about how much they enjoy engaging in violence. One even asked for more videos of violence to be made.
Whether the praise is genuine or forced is another question, as many who travel to join IS are faced with a very different situation than the utopia they expect.
Most of the Australian women who join IS, like those from other Western nations, are recruited online. They are given a contact name and number and asked to head to Turkey, which is the route by which nearly all foreign fighters make their way to join IS.
Once they arrive at the border of Turkey and Syria, they are divided up – some being sent to serve in all-female units and others becoming brides to the terrorists.
It is estimated 500 women from Western nations, including up to 40 women Australian women, have fled to Syria to fight, have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for terrorist groups, and that females now make up one-fifth of all foreign fighters. ISIS is believed to be recruiting more girls than any other group.
One Australian who went overseas to join the terrorists was Amira Karroum. She was a 22-year-old Australian woman from the Gold Coast who made the decision to become a foreign fighter, and was killed within days of her arrival.
Karroum went with her husband Tyler Casey after being radicalised and moving in with like-minded relatives in Western Sydney. They made the fateful decision to travel to Syria to join Al Qaeda in its battle against ISIS.
Many don’t know that despite both Al Qaeda and ISIS being radical groups that proclaim to follow Islam, they are also sworn enemies. Karoum and Casey were ambushed by ISIS and gunned down inside the home they were living in at the time.
The daily life for girls who make the journey and survive in Iraq and Syria is not what the propaganda makes it out to be; and with all the media about IS and the risks faced, it seems incredible that women and girls are choosing to leave the prosperity of Australia to engage in violence and face the very real risk of abuse and death in unsanitary conditions overseas. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the females are from loving homes with parents who vehemently oppose radical groups.
There is little doubt that the social media campaign operated by IS is efficient, effective and deadly. And while many recruits have vowed to stay in the middle east, others have become disillusioned and expressed a desire to return home. For them, the journey back is daunting in itself – as returning fighters can expect to face heavy penalties including up to ten years imprisonment.
Despite the threat of imprisonment, 30 foreign fighters have already returned to Australia, choosing to face prison rather than the horrors of their decision to engage in horrific acts in a war-torn land.
It is clear that we need to prevent young people from becoming radicalised in the first place, and it seems that our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is on the right track when she urges friends and families to reach out to young people who may be at risk.