A World Without Teenagers: Jihadi brides in Syria

Arriving in Syria, three London schoolgirls will find themselves in a ‘medieval’ world where the teenager is an unknown concept.

Worlds apart: women window-shop in Aleppo, Syria, 2008.The flight to Syria of three London teenagers in a bid to become ‘jihadi brides’ has prompted a storm of media coverage in Britain. The reasons for their choice are complex and may never be properly understood but the lure of a bad boy with a gun (and a religiously sanctioned bad boy at that) to girls from devout families should not be underestimated. They are said to now be living in ISIS-held Syria, which has, to put it mildly, very different attitudes to teenage girls than those evident in Britain, attitudes that have been characterised in the popular press as ‘medieval’ in a pejorative sense. With regard to the view of ISIS concerning girls and young women, however, the comparison is not entirely redundant, when one considers certain aspects of women’s lives in medieval Europe. The modern concept of a teenager as we understand it in the West holds little or no sway over there. 

The term ‘teenager’ itself is a post-industrial construct that emerged in the last century in western nations, most notably in the US. This idea that childhood stretches into post-puberty, when one ‘becomes’ a teenager, is one that would not only be alien to the jihadists of Syria but, until fairly recently, would have been unknown in Europe itself.   

Although debate still rages over the meaning and understanding of medieval concepts of childhood and adolescence, there certainly was not the same understanding and empathetic attitude towards adolescents and teenagers as exists today. To a large extent, children were seen as ‘proto adults’ and the rush was on to join the adult world. This rush was facilitated and encouraged by the age at which marriage was deemed appropriate by the Catholic Church in the medieval West: 12 for girls, 14 for boys. Well-known examples of young brides include Margaret Beaufort, who was married at 12 and became a mother at 13, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was married at 15 to Louis VI of France. 

By the age of 15, better-off girls certainly might have been expected to have a reasonable expectation of marriage. Lower down the social scale, marriage generally took place slightly later due to economic concerns about the raising of a dowry and establishing a household. Certainly though, if a girl was not to be married off young, then from puberty onwards (around the ages of 12-14) she would be expected to work and help sustain the family unit. Young teenage girls might even emigrate into larger cities and towns and work as servants or apprentices in order to save for a dowry and marry. When viewed in a certain light, the three London schoolgirls’ eagerness to become brides as soon as possible – marry a fighting man, set up their own households and bear his children (all tinged with a strong element of religious fanaticism) – is somewhat ‘medieval’ in terms of life goals.  

They have journeyed to an Islamic state, however, in which these life goals are perfectly comprehensible and seen as particularly attractive. This (to western eyes) recidivist outlook is reflected in a recently released manifesto entitled Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al Khanssaa Brigade, which is a detailed exposition of behaviours expected from women and girls in ISIS-held territory. In these lands, the extended childhood of modern western youth, with which the three girls are familiar, does not exist. Childhood (for a girl) does not last long at all, as marriage is allowed from the age of nine onwards. Marriage and child-rearing are presented as the normative, indeed required, state for girls and women. Girls and women are entreated to lead ‘quiet’ lives, implying a restriction to gendered spaces which are familiar to historians of women in medieval Europe. 

The journey to Syria for these girls is, in a way, a journey back in time. They will experience modes of living that would have been familiar to women in medieval Europe. In the most general terms, for most of our recorded history, wives and mothers were young and their children were required to grow up quickly, much like they are in ISIS. During the Middle Ages in Europe, girls’ and women’s places were deemed to be in those spaces approved of by their men, in the home and around the farm or wherever the family worked. This is the world that the three girls are travelling to; a society in which medieval concepts of girlhood and womanhood reign and which in some ways are even more restrictive than those of medieval Europe. In ISIS there appears to be no room for women to work, for example, or to operate – as they did in the Middle Ages – as femmes soles under the law with attendant rights. These East London schoolgirls are now living under a cultural system that imposes an idea of what ideal womanhood should be that echoes the words of European medieval thinkers on the subject, but which can be even more misogynistic and hardline on female rights than manifested in our medieval past and which clashes profoundly with what being a teenage girl can mean in a post-feminist West. 

The schoolgirls have discarded an idea of teenagerhood which allows for growth, development, experimentation and amounts of freedom. By refusing this path to adulthood they have chosen another, which is sharper and more brutal. It recalls a time in our past when girls became women almost overnight and were valued for their homemaking skills and childbearing potential. For those three young girls their journey to Syria really is a journey back in time. As in medieval Europe, Islamic State views 15-year-olds as women, ready and able for marriage, motherhood and the rigours of life in the new Islamic State. One hopes that their path has not been too dangerous thus far; judging by what can be discerned from ISIS teachings on women, however, their path into the modern Middle Ages is likely to be both a frightening and disorientating one.

Gillian Kenny is an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College, Dublin.