Analysis and Opinion

Gender and Defection: Three Girls Flee to Syria

On February 17, three teenage girls left the UK in what authorities feared was an effort to cross the Syrian border and join the Islamic State terrorist group. Their arrival in Syria was confirmed in March when they were spotted in a Sharia camp.

This news analysis was written on February 20, 2015

On Tuesday, three teenage girls took a flight from London to Turkey after telling their parents they would only be out for the day. Authorities fear they intend to cross the Syrian border and join the Islamic State terrorist group. Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and a third unidentified 15-year-old girl attend Bethnal Green Academy in east London. They are friends with another 15-year-old girl that fled to Syria in December. Authorities are using social media to try to dissuade the girls from entering Syria. Several news outlets have covered the story, but the framing varies. BBC reports the issue as a social problem while Fox News reports it as a security problem.

The BBC article puts an emphasis on the growing trend of young women in the U.K. fleeing to Syria with “an interest in joining Islamic State.” The article discusses how the girls have been misled; apparently, IS propaganda recruits young girls under the ruse of a humanitarian effort. When the girls get to the IS-controlled region of Syria, where there is sharia law, they lose many freedoms they had back home. They generally cannot leave their houses, or at least not without a guardian. They cannot change their mind and return home.

Dr. Erin Saltman from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue is quoted in the article: “[The girls] are the wives and mothers of the future jihadists so quite a lot of dedication and time has been put into trying to allure these younger women to come and join in these efforts.” The article also says that “more than 20,000 people have gone to Iraq and Syria from more than 100 countries,” at least 600 of them coming from the U.K.

While the Fox article includes many of these facts, it pays less attention to the trend and more attention to how easy it is for young girls- and jihadis- to leave the U.K. Chris Hobbs, former Metropolitan Police border control officer blames airport security checks for departures and says “If you’re on a watch list then you will ping the system. If you’re not on the radar then the odds are you will get on the plane without too many problems.”

What is interesting is that all of the articles I read on this subject almost portray the girls as helpless victims. They are “recruited,” “misled” or “persuaded.” The media doesn’t give them agency in these articles. There is no mention of them making a conscious choice to leave, despite the fact that they were not abducted and left the country on their own volition. There is no implication in the media that they would face any sort of criminal charge or legal consequence if they chose to return to the U.K. The question is whether their age, their gender or both keep them from being responsible for their actions.

Would these articles read the same if it were three boys instead of three girls? If they were different, then that would mean that the media is making the assumption that females are gullible, unable to think for themselves, and innocent. It would be an application of 19th century standards for women- pure, pious, submissive and domestic- on teenage girls of the 21st century. While the girls are not currently criminals and probably should not be portrayed as such, they will become “the enemy” the moment they step foot into IS-controlled territory.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s