The prospect of voluntarily travelling to a war zone with your young children is not one which most British women would ever even consider. Yet it is thought that may be precisely what Khadija, Sugra and Zohra Dawood did last week, leaving their homes in Bradford and taking their nine children, aged from three to 15, to join Isis on the bloody battlefields of Syria.
For most of us, it is impossible to comprehend why anyone living in a safe country such as Britain would want to put themselves and their families into harm’s way. And we are at a loss to understand why any young woman would give up the freedoms she enjoys in a Western country to willingly subjugate herself to the whims of jihadist murderers.
But if these three sisters, all in their thirties, have indeed done so, then they are not the first British women to flee to join Isis and they won’t be the last. Indeed, some 60 British women – two dozen still in their teens – are known to have travelled to Syria since the advent of Isis.
Such women, we are told, are radicalised by British foreign policy blunders, indoctrinated by Isis propaganda on the internet, motivated by hate preachers, or pressured by their own families and friends. The Dawood sisters, after all, have a brother, Ahmed Dawood, who is believed to have been fighting with Isis in Syria for more than a year, we are told.
But what if women are actually driven to join Isis by factors that are even closer to home? What if they are motivated less by all that Isis promises them in Syria than by a feeling that life in Britain has little to offer them? While men running off to join Isis are written off as terrorists, we often assume the women who do the same must have been duped or brainwashed because, while guns and violence might appeal to angry young men, no woman in her right mind (least of all a mother of young children) would want to go anywhere near those savages, would she?
Women such as the Dawoods must have been tricked into believing that the militant fighters offer a better way of life. But what if this is precisely what the Islamic extremists do offer to women? What if the biggest driving force for some women fleeing to Syria is not their anger at Western foreign policy or any other external “pull factors”, but the “push factor” of their own unhappy UK home lives?
That is the explanation being offered by Kalsoom Bashir, the co-director of Inspire – a counter-extremism and human rights organisation which tackles the inequalities faced by some British Muslim women. With her extensive experience working with young, radicalised Muslim women, Bashir believes that it is often their lives here which drives these women to join extremist groups.
Many young Muslim women in Britain live, by Western standards, remarkably controlled lives, unable to choose what they wear, where they go, who they are friends with and even who they marry.
For some, every moment of their lives is dominated by fathers, mothers and brothers who expect them to live in a Western country without enjoying many of the freedoms and pleasures of the Western lifestyle, such as drinking, social activities and boys. They are then expected to agree to arranged marriages, often to men from overseas with outdated views on the role of women.
Again and again, women born and raised here tell Bashir that they don’t feel welcome in their own country. If they go to Syria, they don’t think they are leaving the safe haven of Britain to travel to a war zone – they believe they are already victims of oppression at home.
Isis targets these young women, isolated from their families inside their homes but also alienated from the liberal Western world outside their front door, and offers them a way out. What Isis offers these women and girls is not death and devastation but a unique opportunity to live freely, with brightly coloured propaganda videos showing a happy Islamic state a long way from the war-zone reality.
If what Bashir says is true, far from being an irrational choice to travel to Syria, it may make more sense for a young Muslim woman to join Isis than a young Muslim man. Compared with her brothers, she may believe she has far more to gain and, crucially, far less to lose.
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