Studying the women of the Islamic State

St. Thomas professor Dr. Alexandra Bain is on the frontier of her field with her Women and Religion course. Each student of the class is following a woman living in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on social media. Every student has signed a strict research ethics agreement not to contact the people they follow.

Bain said she wants to give her students the opportunity for a hands-on experience with this moment of history and learn about a belief from the people who believe it.

“That kind of learning never goes away,” Bain said. “It’s not like an exam you cram for and then immediately forget all this stuff. You remember doing this. You remember the relationships you made [in class].”

But, she stresses it is an analysis only, like looking at public documents.

This class study follows after Bain’s own research. She has been in contact with young men and women who have left the West to join ISIS and other Jihadist groups fight the Syrian army and is trying to collect their narratives. She wants to know what their lives were like as children, in high school, where they come from, the stresses of their lives, successes, and why they chose to take that step to leave their homes to fight with ISIS and such groups and probably die.

Bain said there’s a lot of research being done on radicalization but they are missing the primary research: the voices and stories of those actually involved. Studying movements like this from the point of view of the people who believe and practice the ideology themselves is something Bain has always thought was essential to understanding what is actually going on.

“You can’t really comment about a movement or ideology without having heard from the people themselves,” Bain said.

The Women and Religion course focuses especially on the social media of the women of ISIS. Bain has only recently begun contact with women in her own research. It is more difficult to contact and study women as they have less access to Internet and less freedom of movement than the men, as the women need a male family member or a group of women to go out and spend an afternoon tweeting.

Bain primarily uses social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Kik to talk to the men and women, sometimes Skype. But with Skype it’s hard to set up time to talk as the Internet is not always available there. Twitter is much easier as it’s in and out.

It’s also difficult to be granted a conversation sometimes.

“They want to know the person they’re talking to understands them. And is not going to trick them and genuinely wants to hear what they have to say,” Bain said. “It takes a while to get through on that level.”

While Bain is dedicated to her research, she says she has favourites, and genuinely cares for some of the men who have left the West she’s talked to.

“I have become very fond of some of these young men. They’re very earnest. They truly believe in what they’re doing. Their understanding is that they have gone to protect women and children who are being bombed daily by the Assad-government.”

Bain says she’s checking almost daily to see if these men are alive via Twitter. If she hasn’t heard from them in a while, she’ll send them a tweet asking if they’re all right.

Bain’s father fought in World War II and she knows it makes young men enthusiastic to join wars without thinking always. These men are the age of Bain’s own son so she feels for them. But that’s all.

“I draw a barrier. I can sympathize with many of them, I can tell them I’m praying for their safety and the safety of their loved ones, I can pray for them for the success of their intentions. But I can’t help them in anyway,” Bain said. “There are limits.”

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