Reading about “Jihadi Jack” yesterday, the radicalised teenager who missed doughnuts but not his parents when leaving home to fight the “holy war”, got me thinking how vulnerable teenagers are when they think they discover that powerful thing – someone that understands them. As an isolated Muslim teenager growing up in Oldham, the highlight of my life would be to go into my bedroom, close the door, turn on Piccadilly radio and read a Mills & Boon.
I wasn't allowed out like my brothers, so the only time I had away from family was in this world. I'd read my selection of Mills & Boon books and fantasise that one day a doctor would come into my parents' kebab shop (where I worked) and a romance would erupt between us. He'd steady his gaze with mine as I asked if he'd like his kebab with hot or mild sauce, and then our fingers would touch when I passed him the paper bag with his wrapped up kebab.
I would have done anything for that doctor.
Today’s teenagers aren’t just flicking through the pages of fiction in their bedroom – they are looking at Facebook and other social media platforms on their phones as they talk to their parents or work in the shop and they are finding live versions of their Mills & Boon heroes online, and they are talking directly to them. These heroes are telling them how beautiful they are, and sending pictures of themselves – tall, lean, ripped biceps – a true warrior. These warriors are telling girls they want them, need them, want to marry them – day in, day out the attention, the messages, the pictures, all for me. They understand the oppressive parents, the boring routines, the rules and regulations – you’re better than that, they say. It’s intoxicating, it’s addictive and it’s the stuff of teenaged dreams.
“Let's get married, you are my perfect wife to give me warrior sons,” he says. What an honour. The teenager's family don't know about him, nor would they understand anyway. “Don't worry,” he replies, “I'll arrange for some sisters to meet you after school in a cafe and they will have a passport made for you.”
Jihadi Joannas are the new wave of radicals hitting the west. Many have gone unseen, only a handful reach the media because only a selection of parents come forward filled with shock, dismay, anger over these external influencers who have stolen their babies. They beg the police to find their daughters but many fall silent because they are worried of the shame it might bring on their family. People would point their fingers at the parents and say “where were you when she was talking to these boys? In the same room? Call yourself a fit parent?”
I recall one of the first group of Jihadi Joannas to get media coverage heading to Syria from East London. They looked so much like me when I was their age – evolving into women, having a sense of themselves, their femininity, their hormones ready to explode – and yet they couldn't express any of this. They weren't allowed to. No one asked or cared, except these warriors, their heroes. Little wonder they went one night with a plan, holding a small bag in one hand and their passports in the other, heading to freedom on a coach.
But little did they know this “freedom” was not quite what was sold to them online. Where was that chap I spoke to for many weeks online? My husband to be, the one who said I would have his babies and we would live a happy life together.
The Jihadi Joannas’ journey was not as expected. In their first months in the city the girls were not trusted by Raqqa’s Isis rulers, and were forbidden to leave their apartment without their chaperone, and were all forced to wear face-covering niqab and black. They probably never even met their warrior.
Was this better than the life they had in Britain? Now they can't return to Britain: their families may not accept them and the government is coming down heavily on citizens who go out to Syria and Iraq to fight. But they went out there for love, not to fight. They're just confused teenagers. The biggest fear for any parent whose daughter has gone out there is that they might become sexual jihadis. “Sexual Jihadi” is controversial practice where women within some Wahhabist groups provide sexual comfort roles to men fighting for the establishment of Islamic rule. In Britain we would call it kidnap, abuse and rape.
How do we stop this terrifying practice becoming the norm?
UK politicians, community leaders and imams should come forward and address these issues openly with parents and children. They should be going into schools, community centres, mosques and talk to teenaged girls who are coming of age and may be vulnerable and isolated. They need to talk frankly about the world they think they are getting and the reality of what they actually get.
Perhaps allowing the girls back into this country after their dreams have been shattered could be a good idea – how does it help to keep them out? We can rescue our children back and they can help deter other potential victims. The worst thing we can do as a community is sit tight, button up and say nothing. That gives those online, radicalising, presences the power.
Let’s take back that power, and start talking.
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