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The propaganda that IS circulates is not gender exclusive, as teenage girls are facing not radicalisation, but sexualisation.
The confounding reasons why young British Muslim girls, often of educated and middle-class backgrounds, slip away to join head-slashing fanatics from Daesh, or Islamic State, can be difficult to identify. Yet the rationale is surprisingly clear, when writer and comedian Shazia Mirza described it in a recent article, as a phenomenon not of radicalisation, but of sexualisation.
In this context, the photo of a group of young IS men has the same titillating effect as a promotional boy band poster. With bullet belts hanging off hips, their defiant faces and strong hands hold up weaponry and taunt with the detachment of rock-star pin-ups that little girls, dancing around in tutus, declare they will marry, in order of handsomeness.
Memories come to mind of the games that three eight-year-olds used to play growing up in 1960s Spain, enacting sequels to favourite, dubbed American TV shows, El Virginiano and Bonanza (pronounced Bonantha). Swanning in our mothers’ nighties, and smudged in their lipsticks, we would draw straws over Doug McClure, (the dishy Trampas), as a playdate husband, in a world in which age-old roles of female deference were yet to be consigned to relic status.
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The authoritarian culture of some British Muslim households can prolong the mental infantilism of their young women. Much of what constitutes emotional maturity is put on hold when obedience must be paid to the infallible doctrines of undisputed males.
Discouraging teenage women from developing friendships with boys, or from partaking of movie nights, sleepovers, and mixed-gender parties, as well as censoring elements of fashion, television, books, music, art exhibitions and the choice of friends on social networking sites, can also feed into an inbuilt alienation from the country of their birth. Barred from a culture they glimpse at peripherally and touch at their peril, neither do they belong to their former countries of origin, shangri-las kept alive by family folklore that gives rise to romanticised interpretations, in marked contrast to the drudge of schoolwork and early bedtimes in a dreary UK.
What three little girls playing dress-up felt forty years ago is no less relevant to what these British Muslim young women feel today; a frisson of fairytale protectiveness from macho men with guns, in a land far, far away. A hero’s assuredness, enhanced by the communication skills of physical posturing and simplistic messaging, allows innocent hearts to flutter with what the poet Paul Valéry described as, “the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance”.
So our eight-year-old selves would prepare meals for our brave cowboys and wait for their shadowed dude dominance under a dusty hat to push open the wood cabin’s front door, pulling on the cork of a whisky bottle with their teeth. It was visceral, unquestioning infatuation; an arousal from unfiltered, clichéd masculinity that empowered us with a sense of usefulness. Our defenders’ neckerchiefs wrapped around stubbled jawlines like the swathed faces of Daesh warriors battling, if not “Injuns”, then infidels.
The photo of a group of young IS men has the same titillating effect as a promotional boy band poster. With bullet belts hanging off hips, their defiant faces and strong hands hold up weaponry and taunt with the detachment of rock-star pin-ups that little girls declare they will marry.
What’s more, these British teenage girls replace one environment of men with another, without betraying their faith or breaking house rules; they marry a more exciting Muslim. And the mind-numbing effects of a life’s predicament are, in the words of painter Francis Bacon, “re-invented to convey the intensity of the real.”
Confusion over what is Islam – even my device auto-corrects the writer’s name Shazia to Sharia – might prevent non-Muslims from weighing in on the paradox of female religion-based radicalisation. But an impediment to independent thinking prevents any girl from growing up and moving on from idealised notions of love and purpose. So, when intelligent young women of today are left parked on the threshold of someone else’s decisions and of an east-west cultural divide, they remain children, susceptible to grooming from overt predators, a thousand miles away.
Their sexualisation is that of a wannabe Scheherazade whose notion of sacrifice is the Jungle Book’s dutiful daughter fetching a pail of water. Inspired by the pages of Facebook make-believe, these girls risk life and limb to play out a fantasy that soon becomes the reality of rape and widowhood, perpetuated in silence and endured in solitude. Unlike our young selves who graduated from childhood to find our own strengths, substance and free will, these girls are imported as saddle bags on the haunches of animals, to a set where no one ever yells, “Cut!”, except to sever the heads of those who undermine the cause or stop servicing it.