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Are Young Women at Risk for Radicalization?

Are Young Women at Risk for Radicalization?

ISIL, cults, gangs, religious extremists, white supremacist and other dangerous groups have similar things in common.  They seek to recruit, they target in a specific way, they are very convincing, and they serve a need or a longing in one who falls victim.

Recruiters are very good at exploiting a person’s vulnerability and drawing them in. Radicalization is the adoption of social, religious or political views which are extreme.

From bombing clinics and killing of abortion doctors by Christian religious extremists; the newsprint in the USA (calling on Alabama for the “KKK to rise again”, to shooters who kill dozens in churches, schools and night clubs, radicalization comes in many spheres and forms.  Radicalization of some sort seems to be rampant no matter where you look. Sadly, young women/children are at risk for recruitment. What makes our children vulnerable to join such groups and how can we help prevent them from becoming victims?

The Case of Shamima

In the case of British teenager Shamima, she was 15 years old when she was recruited by ISIL. It is still a mystery as to what led a seemingly normal 15 year old girl, who was doing good in school, had a stable homelife, to the folds of ISIL. This was not a solitary decision. She did not go alone.  Shamima and two other of her friends decided to go to Syria and join ISIL, and she was still considered a child at 15.

The case of Cyntoia Brown who was recently granted clemency brought international attention.  Cyntoia was considered a child at the time she killed a man who bought her for sex. Derri Smith, founder and CEO of non-profit End Slavery Tennessee stated  “because this teen may think that she decided this was her idea to be raped multiple times a day and give money to someone else, it’s pretty clear there’s an adult behind that who’s manipulating and exploiting her.” This statement is important. Whether it’s child sex trafficking, ISIL, gangs, or other religious extremists, the fact is there are adults manipulating and enticing young women-children.  We should not lose sight of this fact.

In one of her interviews , Shamima appeared non-emotional, distant and replied to questions with possibly pre-thought answers.  I can imagine her parents wept as they did not recognize their daughter. One thing that was significant, was her reasons for becoming attracted to ISIL. When asked this question, there was a faint light in her eyes “families and stuff in the park; the good life, me being a housewife and sitting at home”.  Is this one the reason some young women seek the dangerous affiliations of radical groups? The promise of family, fun, a husband and children? Or was this just Shamima’s “weak point” that they manipulated?

In Islam being married and having a family is highly valued. The promise of a “paradise” like situation may be too alluring for some young women to resist, especially if there are social and or familial factors which they may be struggling with as well. According to a Huffington Post article , cult leaders are “experts in psychological manipulation, prey on both the follower’s ability to believe and need to belong, with all of their rules and restrictions, laws and codes, ultimately cults are about grasping and preserving absolute and unconditional control.”

This tactic can also be applied to ISIL’s recruitment of the youth, particularly young women in regard to the eventual power and control.  As the internet can provide almost nonstop communication between a radical group and a target, once they arrive at the destination, they are already groomed.

Image source: BBC

Signs of radicalization

What are the signs of radicalization? Signs of radicalization can be complex or simple depending on the group and mode of grooming.  It also depends on the teen.  The British council.org states “There is no definitive list of clues or signs. A change in the person’s behavior is likely. Some things to look out for include (but are not limited to): isolating themselves from family and friends; becoming secretive and not wanting to talk or discuss their views; closing computers down when others are around; refusing to say who they are talking to; using technology such as anonymous browsing to hide their activity; and sudden changes in mood, such as becoming angry or disrespectful. Of course, none of these behaviors necessarily mean someone is being radicalized and, when displayed in children, could be a symptom of bullying or other emotional issues”.

However, parents need to remain vigilant.  Other signs may include a change in friends, change of clothing style, casually asking for passports or ID; sudden or new expression of anger, remorse, sadness concerning Muslims being killed in various countries; changes in mood, and so forth. Signs of radicalization may vary depending on the child.  These are only guidelines.

Protecting our Youth

How can we protect our young women/children?  From a young age we as Muslims can ensure that they know their value as girls/young women.We can begin by standing up to injustices and violence against females of all ages. This includes societal as well as familial. This is empowering. If we turn the other way when a girl-woman is assaulted, disgraced or otherwise harmed, we are giving her the message she is not worthy.  The prophet Mohammad (PBUH) would never turn away. He would have dealt with the injustice. An empowered young woman is less likely to fall victim or be manipulated.  Women/girls are told they are pearls of Islam. But are Muslima’s really treated as such?

As parents and a community, we need to talk with our children.  We need to talk about the true Islam and what it teaches, especially concerning violence.  We need to talk about violence against women. How can a young girl be subjected to violence and then not be expected to react in the same manner at some point?  We need to talk about radicalized groups and grooming techniques, so they know what to look out for.

We need to teach them how to be safe online and in public. We need to be there for them in a non-judgmental way so that they feel free to ask us anything. That may include hearing things we don’t want to, but in the end, it may save a life. We need to get to know their friends and make a connection and build a trust with them as well.  As we see, Shamima did not go alone.  Most important, we need to listen to what they are saying-or not saying.  What are our children’s vulnerabilities?  What could make them a target? We need to understand how they feel about their lives, future and sense of self.  Again, an empowered, knowledgeable young woman is a strong young woman. Let’s start here.


About Aisha Mohammad

Aisha received her PhD in psychology in 2000 and an MS in public health in 2009. Aisha worked as a Counselor/Psychologist for 12 years for Geneva B. Scruggs Community Health Care Center in New York. Aisha specializes in trauma, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, marriage/relationships issues, as well as community-cultural dynamics. She is certified in Restorative Justice/ Healing Circles, Conflict Resolution, Mediation, and is also a certified Life Coach. Aisha works at a Family Resource Center, and has a part-time practice in which she integrates healing and spirituality using a holistic approach. Aisha plans to open a holistic care counseling center for Muslims and others in the New York area in the future, in sha' Allah. Aisha is also a part of several organizations that advocate for social & food justice. In her spare time she enjoys her family, martial arts classes, Islamic studies as well as working on her book and spoken word poetry projects.

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