Losing Islam: When Female Radicals Join Violent Groups

Bob Shacochis fictional book, set in Haiti and the rumination of death, can easily be used to describe the hundreds of girls and women who joined the Islamic State or ISIS. Did they lose their soul? Or just want to belong to something much bigger than themselves? A cause greater than life, itself? So much of my research over the past 15 years on why (Muslim) women kill or join violent groups has suddenly invited scholars, terror analysts, government agencies, and other researchers to probe more deeply into the who, what, and how these seemingly innocent looking females can subscribe to a movement that counters everything I know to be true about Islam.

Radical women look like normal Muslims. They believe in God. Read the Quran. Fast during the month of Ramadan. They pray. Some wear the Islamic dress. Others are in jeans and a headscarf.

But unlike the majority of peaceful Muslim women, radicals support, sympathize, and side with ISIS men. For them, violence is the answer. Girls and women join ISIS for restored societal and personal honor. 

“They have lost the essence of Islam,” Zufie told me, a practicing Muslim woman in her 30s in East London. “Because they don’t understand Islam, they have recreated it.”

Islam has strict rules for warfare or fighting, called qittal, which is not to be confused with the sacred concept and word, jihad–the word “ja ha da” is literally to struggle, to strive, to do good by following God’s order. I created the following slide to explain jihad to my students in the U.S. military. From one word are several other words that are related in meaning.


Screenshot 2015-02-18 21.16.00

In the ever-changing world of counter-terrorism, analysts and agencies are now trying to identify and better understand the female radicals, an age-old problem. The push and pull factors of what drives a woman to the path  of violence is an ongoing study. Even when some common patterns and trends exist, different research institutes look at radical women from a unique lens. Some blame the men. Others blame Islam. Few blame foreign policy adventures or missteps.

A Mini-Look At Female Radicals

This summer, an event held in London called “Queens of Jihad” brought together former radical Muslim women. Hosted by Tazeen, an investigative reporter and documentary-maker for the BBC and Channel 4, the female participants told a receptive audience why and how they joined violent groups.

Guardian Live event in London hosted by Tazeen Ahmad

Guardian Live event in London hosted by Tazeen Ahmad


Note: The following profiles of five girls and women is a snapshot only of the different kinds of radicals.  Only Salma and Yasmine were at the Guardian Live event. The other girls / women are from my own research findings. All names are alias except the last girl, Hoda.

Meet Salma

Once a member of an extremist England-based group, Hizbz-Ul-Tahrir (HT), Salma began to radicalize in the 1990s. Once a friend of Anjum Choudhury, Salma promoted ISIS in her community and appeared on Sharia TV, a late-night program on Channel 4. Today, she works with young people in her community to deradicalize them.

Meet Yasmine

In a multi-colored hijab, the former HT radical said she sympathized with ISIS and other groups fighting in Bosnia, Palestine, and Somalia. A former recruiter, she believed in creating an exodus for Muslims and establishing a global caliphate, until she left the movement when she realized ISIS had distorted Islam and failed to restore a woman’s honor.

Meet Sadia

A suicide-bomber-wannabe, Sadia told me she wanted the world to pay attention to the conflict in which she lived. Kashmir. Instead of detonating, she joined an all-female movement and led protests in the streets, leading to several arrests. Each time, she was released and seemingly more determined, until her marriage to a man in Mauritius, where she currently lives.

Meet the Somali Girls

Two Somali girls in a suburb of Denver, Colorado were caught trying to join ISIS. Because they were minors, local authorities released them back to their families. The girls returned to school and promised to stay away from ISIS propaganda.

Meet Hoda Muthana

From the southern state of Alabama, a young woman of Yemeni parents studied business at the University of Birmingham. Those who knew her say she had few friends, enjoyed reading and memorizing the Quran, and preferred jeans instead of the full-cloaked Islamic dress, which her non-English speaking mother forced her to wear. Married at an early age to a man of her choosing, Hoda left for Syria under the cliche alias, Umm Jihad and is believed to be in the city of Raqqa.




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