The east London jihadi girls are just part of a long line attracted to violent men, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
London - As I write this, the three Muslim teenage girls from east London are still missing. Shamima Begum, 15, Amira Abase, 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, are believed to have gone off to join Isis. A friend of theirs, another 15-year-old, took off in December and seems to have “inspired” them to do the same. In their photographs, they are dressed like average teenagers. These are academically gifted girls, whose parents are bewildered and distraught.
I used to teach English to young Bangladeshi and Somali mothers in this area. Denied education themselves when they were young, what they all wanted was for their daughters to become doctors, businesswomen and teachers, grab life chances, reach the top. One of them, Razia, gave me her purse to look after. It contained her savings and money from selling some of her wedding jewellery. She was building up a fund so that her daughter could go to college one day. Her husband was a boor and bully but she somehow kept her hopes and dreams alive for her children. When she finished the course, the purse contained almost £1 200.
I rang her to ask how she felt about these East End girl jihadis. “My daughter became a teacher. She can't understand. Allah, what is happening to them? The devil must have got into their heads. Or maybe they want to shock their parents. To be bad, not good.” Wise words.
Hundreds of impressionable young Muslim girls from around the world have been enticed to join Isis. Some have taken up arms, others have handed themselves over to some of the most violent men in the world today. A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found evidence that such groupies “revel in the gore and brutality of the organisation”. They seem willing to accept Isis's hardline code of conduct and want to submit to brute male power.
This phenomenon is widespread and not confined to fanatical Islam. Women and girls throughout history have been fatally attracted to fascists, communists, revolutionary armies and serial killers. Sometimes it is the cause that consumes them. I have just returned from Vietnam where, during the many wars that have beset that lovely country, beautiful, innocent young girls volunteered to fight with guerrilla forces and to die. In Cuba, similarly, teenage girls rushed to join the resistance armies. Much is made of their “beautiful sacrifice”. But did they even understand what they were signing up to? In her book, Women and Guerrilla Movements (2002), Karen Kampwirth suggests that some of the youthful volunteers “want to escape the tedium of their homes, to join another sort of family, start life anew”.
Then there are those who are drawn to monstrous men and extreme politics. Messianic fervour, millenarianism and magnetism can whip up female hormones alarmingly. In one of Sylvia Plath's last poems, “Daddy”, she delves into her complicated relationship with her German father. “Every woman adores a fascist/ The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you.” In the Thirties, fascist Oswald Mosley was one of Britain's most charismatic politicians. Joan Bond, a young poetess, glorified this nasty man who promoted the cult of motherhood and obedience. He married Diana Mitford, an aristocrat. The wedding took place in the living room of Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler was the only other guest. Diana remained loyal to her husband and other fascists till she died in 2003. Her sister Unity was besotted with Hitler and another, Decca, was lured by communism.
Mussolini had a limitless supply of nubile mistresses, many of whom described with pride the pain he inflicted on them. Teenage girls were recruited into Piccole Italiane, a training camp for Italian fascists. In Germany, the equivalent was the League of German Girls. When you look at pictures of the recruits, with ribbons in their hair and faces full of optimism, you wonder how this could ever happen. Just as we do now over the Isis handmaidens.
In the dark web of the female psyche lie these desires for pain, self-destruction and annihilation. And cravings, too, for notoriety, the thrill of transgression, of doing something seriously wrong. Those who court danger don't all go to join armies and cults. Some, for example, choose to befriend and even marry callous murderers. It is the ultimate romantic adventure. Denise Knowles, the Relate counsellor, believes: “These women crave recognition that comes from being attached to a gangster or dangerous criminal.” Sometimes it is an extension of teenage rebellion. Women who have had a sheltered upbringing are most prone to these liaisons. Within this spectrum, I would also include women who go for abusive partners and never break from the pattern.
The female Isis jihadis are no different from all those women who seem to go for men and messages outside the civilised norms. It may be madly exciting but, for most, anguish will surely follow and then death or desolation without end.
* Follow Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on Twitter: @y_alibhai