How the myth of the ISIS "Jihadi bride" draws from Western culture

The idea of women giving themselves over to dangerous men is deeply entrenched and popular, featuring in everything from romance novels to horror

November 03, 2017
Sally Jones poses for a photo aping the cover of "Divorcing Jack". Photo: YouTube screen grab
Sally Jones poses for a photo aping the cover of "Divorcing Jack". Photo: YouTube screen grab

Over the past few years, the Western media have been fascinated by the stories of so-called ‘Jihadi brides’—the women who have given up their lives in Europe to marry ISIS fighters and bear their children in war-torn Syria and Iraq. From Austrian teenagers to Glaswegian students, they have generally been characterized as weak, naïve and misguided.

Sally Jones a.k.a ‘The White Widow’ was arguably the most iconic of the ‘jihadi brides.’ Reportedly killed in an American drone strike a few weeks ago, her rumoured death came as no surprise: she had spent the past four years depicting herself as Romantic figure, always flirting with death for the sake of rebellion (and love).

Formerly a beautician and a musician in a punk band, whose father had committed suicide when she was ten, and whose first husband had died of cirrhosis of the liver when her first child was only three, Jones’ life already had something of the ‘Romantic’ about it even before she married the teenage ISIS hacker Junaid Hussain.

An early recruit, joining her husband and the ‘caliphate’ with her young son in 2013, she quickly became a symbolic figure. When her young husband died, aged 21, in 2015, her narrative was further romanticised—most often by herself. Her last words on Twitter were: “I’ll never marry again. I’ll remain loyal to my husband until my last breath.”

Sally Jones’ life history had became a focus for the public relations of ISIS, which Jones herself clearly encouraged. Using numerous Twitter accounts over the years, and posing with a Kalashnikov and a pistol in various photo-shopped images, Jones helped ISIS put forward the image of a Romantic, noble cause, designed to tempt new followers, to convert from Western ideas and expectations of women to those of ISIS.

And yet the gendered narratives used to recruit these individuals employed motifs thoroughly entrenched in Western culture. Although the ‘martyrdom’ narrative used frequently by ISIS has clear precedence in previous political situations such as suicide bombing in Palestine, and the Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland, the self-sacrifice of ‘Jihadi brides’ (whether or not they die) reveals an awareness of wider cultural tropes. Indeed, the phenomenon of selfless ‘Jihadi brides’ owes as much to gothic novels like Dracula, and the idea of the vampire’s bride, as it does to a familiarity with religious martyrdom.

The idea of women giving themselves over to dangerous men is a deeply entrenched (and popular) idea in Western culture, and yet in the context of the supposed submission of women to ISIS fighters, the Western media cast it as a sign of weakness and lack of agency. Whether or not women are indeed ‘submitting’ in this political situation, and on whose terms, there is a double standard in the sense that such behaviour is demonised in this particular context, but not in every other story of women giving themselves up to the ‘bad guy’.

The idea of romantic self-sacrifice was not the only draw. As Sally Jones was well aware, dressing up as a nun holding a pistol played with motifs as disparate as the slightly gothic adverts for Scottish Widows, images of witches in film and art, and even kinky nun outfits. She played the rock star (flirting with death) as well as the groupie; the femme fatale as well as the doting wife. This was all in line with ISIS’ wider approach to propaganda, which has been rooted in pop culture from the beginning, with persistent appropriation (or subversion) of motifs from Western horror films, particularly.

The image we see of individuals like Sally Jones is, moreover, an interesting interplay of seemingly clashing narratives about women from both sides, with the Western media tending to depict women radicalised by ISIS as “brainwashed,” “seduced” and “victimised,” and influencing public opinion accordingly.

While the narratives are gendered on both sides, they are rooted in the same key stories: the Western media has rerun the story of the passive, seduced victim of the bad, foreign man. ISIS have been a little more creative: they have subverted Western cultural tropes to persuade women (and men) that there is a better alternative to those familiar Western ways—a Romantic, noble, and exciting conversion to a better way of life. As such, it has been estimated that approximately 850 British citizens have travelled to Syria and Iraq to support ISIS groups.

What is truly tragic about this story, however, is how delusional this vision is for those who join the caliphate. Whichever way the story is told, what meets them is oppression, hardship and often death. The reality does not, for many, meet up to expectations. These individuals neither resemble the image put forward by the Western media, nor that held up by ISIS. They are merely people who have, for various reasons, made decisions heavily influenced by stories—by propaganda that functions by subverting Western cultural tropes in an appealing manner, but which is, at heart, a fiction.