Why do European Muslim girls look to Islamic State for marriage material?

March 4, 2015
Handout CCTV image shows British teenage girl Amira Abase walking through security at Gatwick airport before boarding a flight to Turkey

Left to right: Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase, Shamima Begun. The British teenagers walk through security at Gatwick airport before boarding a flight to Turkey, Feb. 17, 2015. REUTERS/Metropolitan Police/Handout via Reuters

Over the past few years, approximately 550 young Muslim women have left Europe to join Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, often marrying fighters.

Many are well educated, from middle-class families, born and raised in Europe. They do not appear to be deeply alienated from society or women who could be easily radicalized. Why would young women leave London, Glasgow or Vienna to join a group that is considered anti-woman in its policies and behavior? Why would they go to so much trouble to reach places where their freedom of movement and expression will, at best, be severely constrained?

The reasons, according to analysts, are roughly the same reasons as for men. Some are alienated from European society. Others are angry at the inequality they see and experience. Still others are looking for adventure or have a romantic idea of wanting to help the Sunni community in the Middle East.

Female school students wearing a full veil (niqab) walk along a street in the northern province of Raqqa

Female school students wearing a full veil (niqab) in the northern province of Raqqa, controlled by Islamic State, March 31, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

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 virtually all the women are between ages 15 and 19. Why?

One reason is that late teens and early 20s is the time 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 the time they are teens, the study shows, many realize there is little they can do to remove it.

Late teens and early 20s is also the period when women may be naïve and inexperienced enough to believe promises made by recruiters on the Internet. When they are told things are better in Syria and Iraq, many seem to 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 in part because they are somehow convinced that this offers greater financial security. The more anxious women were about their economic future, according to a multiyear survey of Muslim women conducted by Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer, the more likely they were to turn to and support religious fundamentalism. The report found that economic insecurity was the best predictor of whether a woman would support fundamentalist beliefs.

Veiled women walk past a billboard that carries a verse from Koran urging women to wear a hijab in the northern province of RaqqaIn fact, young Muslim women in Europe have every reason to be anxious about their economic future.

One reason is that Muslim women in Britain are up to 65 percent less likely to be employed than white Christian women. Even if a young woman receives straight A’s 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 also does not necessarily offer better economic prospects because job opportunities for young Muslim men are even worse. Muslim men in Britain were up to 76 percent 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 to young Muslim women living there.

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 honorable 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 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.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

He throws rocks at girls, cuts off heads and has a sixth grade education?

Hubba hubba. Is he single?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I won’t shed a single tear for any of them when a drone pilot takes each one of them out from his desk in sunny Florida

Posted by TheAntidote | Report as abusive

Looks like the sweaty, stinky uni-brow snackbars really know how to talk to girls ;)

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

So many ?? how many …How do u know they are going to Syria to join isis?? There are other fighting groups in Syria ..And how many girls do you think left UK to join isis?? Also, i think our main stream media have provided America’s mad dog isis with the biggest free publicity package ever ..

Posted by FairanSquare | Report as abusive

And I thought fast cars and jewellery were the way to impress girls, I should try cutting a few heads…

Posted by LeeXC | Report as abusive

I hope these girls know that the Islamic fighters probably already have many sex slaves they’ve abducted from the villages they’ve pillaged. And if they hope to marry these Islamic fighters in Heaven, well, that’s where Allah grants the males 72 underage virgins to rape, so, they’ll be out-of-luck there as well. Poor girls! They should go back to Europe.

Posted by NataliaSF | Report as abusive

The bigger question is: Where are these girls’ morality that they would choose to join barbarians who enjoyed committing so many atrocities on innocent human beings?

Posted by Lilydaisy | Report as abusive

The bigger question is: Where are these girls’ morality that they would choose to join barbarians who enjoyed committing so many atrocities on innocent human beings?

Posted by Lilydaisy | Report as abusive

I suspect these are actually clever girls who are mocking their Muslim parents. The parents wanted them to break off a relationship with a Jewish or Catholic boy, and “Find a nice devoted Muslim man.”

Well this is what you get for saying that. Tina runs off to ISIS. Which is an epic move in such a dispute.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The article is written with a basic Darwinian, financial approach. Too simple a thinking. The question to ask is why does a drone pilots kill civilians and children when they can see them? Why do they and their supervisors engage in double tap strikes to kill the rescuers? How many marriage parties been blown up with missiles?
Are there not girls who marry drone pilots? Millions have been killed in the middle east by folks who know exactly what they are doing.

The greater good is a logic, anyone can use to their advantage. As long as there are people pretending not to be Goliath they will keep finding people who pretend to be David.

Posted by American213 | Report as abusive

“I used to like this guy from ISIS, but then he turned out to be a total daesh-bag.”

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Two words: Natural selection.

Posted by piXelicidio | Report as abusive

they all heard that they have such huge AR’s…….

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

The issue here is choice. These girls made a choice. The author says they are wrong.

I believe this is a perfect encapsulation of the problem between the West and Radical Islam. Each side believes they are ‘right’. And each side refuses to acknowledge that their beliefs, their morality, is subjective and not a universal fact. Each side is entitled to their own morality, their own beliefs. And those within each society have to observe those beliefs and agree or protest accordingly. Things get out of control is when one society believes their morality/beliefs are universal and thus seeks to impose them on others.

Many here, including the author would no doubt respond that IS imposes their beliefs on all. Yet, does the author, and commenters, acknowledge that we do the same?

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about the #GulenMovement you can visit us at http://gulen-movement.net/

Posted by johnthomas19 | Report as abusive

“Young Muslim women are traveling to the Middle East to join fundamentalist groups in part because they are somehow convinced that this offers greater financial security.”

The prospect of greater financial security isn’t a big motivator at that age. This is the equivalent of running off to join the circus or becoming a rock musician groupie – a way to repudiate your parents boring preoccupation with financial security.

Posted by kpop | Report as abusive

….40,000 Rally Against Netanyahu in Tel Aviv
But have informed their readers that Madonna has purchased
a $20 million condo in Tel Aviv.

Posted by 99andahalf | Report as abusive

so basically… give them jobs yeah?? right.

Posted by Evzi | Report as abusive