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To the caliphate and back: French women under the Islamic State group


Who are the French women who have left to join the Islamic State group abroad? Journalists Céline Martelet and Édith Bouvier attempt to answer the question in their new book, “A Scent of Jihad”, which details the lives of 15 women in Iraq and Syria.


Lola spends her days baking in the heart of the Islamic State (IS) group’s self-declared caliphate; Cécile stays awake at night, counting Russian air strikes, while Léa has given birth to three children in as many years.

In their new book, “A Scent of Jihad”, Martelet – a senior reporter for France’s RMC radio – and Bouvier – a freelance journalist based in the Middle East – share the stories of 15 women who left their homes in France to join the IS group in Iraq and Syria.

What emerges is a clearer picture of the specific role these women played within the organisation, as well as the French government’s haphazard attempts at deradicalising them.

FRANCE 24 spoke with Martelet about these young women, whom she refused to describe as jihadists because “unless proven otherwise, they never took up arms to fight”.

FRANCE 24: In the first two chapters of your book, which are titled “Shopping Queens” and “Desperate Housewives”, you describe Léa, Cécile and Stéphanie’s daily lives in the caliphate, which revolve largely around cooking and fashion. Why the attempt to make their lives seem so ordinary?

Céline Martelet: When we first began talking with them, there was no question of talking about propaganda. Our job as journalists was to find out who they were, what they did. Our conversations were centered around their daily lives, and in Léa’s case, she cooked a lot. We were a sort of window onto another world for them, because they were mostly used to talking among themselves or crying with their families. The reality is that they’re just young women.

Did these interviews, which took place over three years, allow you to establish a profile of the type of young French woman who is prone to joining the IS group abroad?

It turns out there’s no standard profile for girls or for boys. Many are converts, others were raised by non-practicing Muslim families but later radicalised. Some grew up in wealthy areas around Paris, others in small towns near [the central town of] Tours, or Nice [in the south of France]. They aren’t just girls from poor neighbourhoods. Whether they’re in Syria, have returned to France or have attempted to leave, they could all be our sisters, our cousins or childhood friends.

They all seem to have experienced what you describe in your book as a “rupture”.

Some don’t have a father, others have mothers who smothered them or who abandoned them after remarrying. There are some who come from dysfunctional families with parents who are constantly fighting. Others confided that they had been victims of sexual abuse, often at the hands of a family member, but had never spoken about it before. They only felt free to discuss it after their return. I want to be clear that it’s not a way of excusing their behaviour or turning them into victims. We just communicated facts.

To finance their trip, almost all of the young women applied for a personal loan or used money from welfare or unemployment benefits. It’s a real affront to the French government, which has been slow to react to people leaving to join the IS group.

Between 2013, when the Islamic State group was founded, and 2015, when the attack against [French satirical newspaper] Charlie Hebdo happened, the authorities were unaware of the waves of departures, regardless of gender. During this time, numerous young girls left their homes, including the 14-year-old Soraya. She boarded a plane in September 2014, crossed five borders, cleared five customs and landed in Syria without anyone stopping her, despite the fact that back in France her mother tried to move heaven and earth to have her arrested.

When we started our investigation, the police asked us, “Why are you interested in these girls? They’re just sex slaves.” We also heard two girls who had left to go to Syria referred to as “nothing more than two sluts on the other side of the border”.

When did the Interior Ministry become aware of the phenomenon?

The catalyst was when they discovered a car filled with gas cylinders parked near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in September 2016. It was an attempted attack that had been conceived and put into motion by women. At that moment, the authorities’ view shifted, on both the judicial and police level. We no longer saw these women as the stupid or empty-headed victims of their husbands. We realised that they were just as much immersed in ideology as their partners, sometimes even more so.

You write that “the courts in Paris are profoundly sexist”. Why?

For the time being, not a single woman has been tried in court, which is not the case with men. Instead, they’ve been sent to prison for association with terrorist criminals. But we’ve noticed that the sentences are becoming longer and longer: Granny Jihad, who travelled to Syria three times, was given 10 years in prison, while earlier this month a 24-year-old named Maeva was sentenced to eight years.

The justice system is just beginning to understand that they’ve really embraced the ideology and that some have taken on the role of recruiter. In fact, they are all [recruiters]. As soon as they arrive [in Iraq or Syria], they talk with other girls in France and try to convince them to come out. You have to understand it’s not a role that they’ve been assigned, they do it of their own accord: They become enablers. The justice system seems less susceptible to the image these young women initially project of being victims.

The IS group has lost a significant amount of territory in Iraq and Syria. Are there still as many young women leaving to join the group?

The IS group’s territory hasn’t been reduced to nothing. They still have a long tract of land that extends along the Euphrates River from Raqqa to the Iraqi border. The young French women there are still in touch with their families, to whom they say everything’s fine, that they’re not being bombarded like before. They often use the Internet. I think we’re talking about at least a hundred people.

A few weeks ago, a 21-year-old woman was arrested in Afghanistan while trying to join an organisation linked to the IS group. Their territory might be smaller, but the ideology remains the same. That’s what we need to fight against, and it’s going to take a lot of time.

You write that the real danger are the women who stay in France. Why?

In the end, the caliphate was just a pretext that gave shape to an ideology that is still very strong. The women who are still in France were either unable to leave or they’ve been detained. Those being held at prisons in Fleury-Fresnes [in the southern suburbs of Paris] say that they’re among sisters. We haven’t been able to break this bond. Not to mention the risk that they might contaminate other detainees.

It would appear French authorities have bungled the deradicalisation process…

Some cases have been taken over by RIVE (an organisation committed to combatting extremist violence), which was launched in 2016. The idea was to deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis, because it appears it’s the only thing that works. They’ve mobilised non-profits and psychologists, it just takes a long time to train them. Under RIVE, each person must report to eight case workers once released from prison. It requires an enormous amount of resources, but it works! We have to start from scratch.

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