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Gone with the “Flow.” An analysis of the psychological drivers of Western women’s radicalisation

Anna Zizola

From the book “Women on the Verge of Jihad. The Hidden Pathways towards Radicalisation” by Anna Zizola and Paolo Inhilleri

Disclaimer: the information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission.

As a teenager, I remember how I liked to go through my parents’ collection of classic movies and always pick the most controversial ones. And when, like many Italian cinephiles I fell in love with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s movies, I decided to face his cruellest one: “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (adaptation of 1785 Marquis de Sade’s book “The 120 Days of Sodom”). The movie shows very graphically how a group of fascist sadists rounded up nine teenagers in a villa and forced them into 120 days of mental and sexual torture. What shocked me the most about those ruthless scenes was the full genuine pleasure portrayed on the face of female torturers. The passion and excitement in their look while they ruthlessly tortured their victims was in complete contrast with the innocent, angelic image of women we are often presented with culturally.

It was then that I realised how women could be violent and cruel just as much as men are capable. Women should not always be perceived as submissive, innocent, naïve. As Speckhard points out, most of us were raised to a large extent by women and under their power as children and retain a childlike denial of the potential for female violence as to admit it induces anxiety versus the calm that comes from idealizing women as the perfect maternal and nurturing objects we all wished to have experienced in childhood. Personally, I believe in the value of fighting for equality, and I believe in feminism, but there cannot be equality if our societies do not overcome the bias concerning the passive role attributed to women when it comes to endorsing and committing acts of violence, even sadistic torture.

I have dedicated the last eight years of my professional career to policy and research work on terrorism. In that context, once again, I had to face the fact that the role of women involved in terrorist groups is underestimated and misunderstood.

In the book “Women on the Verge of Jihad”[1], which I co-authored with Prof. Paolo Inghilleri from the State University of Milan, we analysed cases reported in academia, in the press of Western women, who chose travelling to Syria to join a misogynist terrorist group (the Islamic State) over the promise of equality and freedom in their countries or origin. Why? What did IS offer them that they could not find in our society? This is what we tried to explain from a socio-psychological point of view.

In our introduction to the subject, we provide evidence that contradicts the myth that women are not capable of violence. From women involved in the atrocities carried out in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, to the killings and torturing perpetrated by women within criminal and terrorist groups, we underline how women can actually be deeply engaged in violent actions despite the common tendency of depicting them as “innocent angels”. In a second moment, we provide an overview of how women tend to be perceived within the main jihadi terrorist groups. We highlight the contradictive and opportunistic nature of Al Qaeda and IS’ view regarding what women’s role should be. Eventually, the most important part of the book is dedicated to the analysis of socio-psychological drivers leading to the radicalisation of Western women who joined and supported Jihadi terrorist groups like IS. What we decided to highlight in our study is the illusion of empowerment that ISIS managed to transmit to Western women and which resulted as the strong point that they ended up finding more attractive than feminism.

When analysing the psychological drivers that can lead women to embrace the political cause of jihadi movements it is important to leave aside all prejudices and consider looking at the phenomenon from different angles. And different angles do exist: what we perceive as negative and reproachable terrorist actions, are often perceived by their perpetrators and their supporters as positive heroic actions.

From the perspective of Islamist radicals, jihadi terrorism is seen as a heroic action against the “infidels” (kufr), or simply against “Western oppressors”. [2]

Our analysis demonstrates that what the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as Flow of consciousness[3] or Optimal Experience does not only apply to individuals carrying out what we see as good, brave actions, but also to individuals perpetrating violent or unlawful activities that often require a great level of involvement.

What is the flow of consciousness? How does it play a role in the process of radicalisation? The psychological experience of the Flow of consciousness, also known as Optimal Experience, is a specific state of consciousness that occurs when cognition, emotions and motivation combine themselves to function  in an integrated and interactive way.[4]

The Flow is that state in which a person feels fully alive and completely absorbed in an action to the point that nothing else matters. For the flow to occur, all the attention must be focused on what is happening at that moment, when the person knows exactly and without cognitive efforts what must be done and the situation provides immediate feedbacks, clear signals. Often these involve situations into which the person has put considerable learning, effort and commitment and where attention is heightened by some sense of risk. Likewise, it may be deepened if there is a religious element where suspension of judgement and timeliness is allowed to occur. At the moment where flow occurs, there is total fusion between the self and the environment and absence of self-observation and prejudices. [5]

When the Flow occurs, the attention is focused on what is happening at that moment, the goals are clear as the person knows exactly and without cognitive efforts what must be done, while the situation provides clear feedbacks and perception of how things are. Another important component is the absence of self-observation, followed by a sense of orderly and reversible conscious fusion between the Self and the environment, as well as balance between challenges and skills: the opportunities for actions of the outer world are perceived as balanced with personal capability.

Women who are joining the IS are often looking for heroic adventures, in order to feel in harmony with the environment they live in and the way they have come to view the world, including for religious women their place in the here and now as well as in the afterlife. Group dynamics and mentors are important enablers of the Flow. This has been reported by women who experienced Optimal Experience in protest movements, who claimed they felt empowered by the movements they were fighting in.[6]

When it comes to supporting or perpetrating violent actions, just like the women in Pasolini’s movie, Western women who joined IS were so absorbed in their optimal experience that they never expressed any form of compassion nor condemnation for the violence inflicted by the terrorist group to their enemy, even when the victims were women.

The famous Italian jihadist Maria Giulia Sergio, aka Fatima, and her equally radicalised sister Marianna Sergio show no compassion when they talk[7] about the Jordan pilot burned alive by IS and refer to it as the “simple and justified” result of the “law of retaliation”. With full rationality, they justify and praise all the killings of those they call “infidels” perpetrated by the Islamic States. Maria Giulia, married to a mujahidin in Syria’s IS-occupied territories in 2014, gave clear signs of being in a state of perfect balance between herself and the surrounding environment. She insists that the Islamic State is a perfect state, a place of justice and freedom, where human rights are respected. When she mentions beheadings she says: “when we cut someone’s head off”[8]. She says “we” because she feels part of that “collective effort of killing the infidels”[9], even if she did not have a role in carrying out the execution.  In many ways these women not only reflect what we see as a state of Flow, but also what Scott Atran[10] has labelled as fusion with the group, a state in which the individual can no longer seem himself as separate from the group and its terrorist goals.  Likewise, at the time when they are showing this fusion with the group they are also heavy aerial bombardment threatening women and children as heavily as the male fighters, events which likely fuse them even tighter to the group and its view of outsider attackers as the “infidel” enemy.

The excitement and high level of commitment for the creation of an Islamic State and the fight against the infidels (under the ideological binary view of us versus them) make many radicalised women indifferent towards all sorts of atrocities, while their desire for violence and death grows stronger. Feeling part of the so-called Islamic Community (Umma) reinforces their level of commitment and therefore, their optimal experience when witnessing or perpetrating violence against those outside of it.

After the publication of the book, Prof. Inghilleri and I continued our investigation into the gender dimension of violent extremism, which will be further explore in upcoming new publications.

So far, what I perceive as particularly urgent is the need for a more inclusive approach towards gender equality in Western countries. Our study revealed an imbalance in the perception of gender equality within different local realities, religious groups and social environment. These revealed women deprived of opportunities or trapped into submissive situations in which they are not in a position of developing intellectual skills are at risk of being lured into violent contexts, in which they are given the illusion of playing a meaningful and more exciting role.

Discrimination is another important subject that policy makers need to address. Traumatic experiences generated by discrimination, polarisation and prejudices against women or, more often, against women belonging to cultural minorities or of low social status, easily lead to a search for and consolidation of identity and belonging, which terrorist groups like IS promise them that they will find within their ranks.

Women who are not given the opportunity of experiencing optimal experience in positive, peaceful and healthy environments, run the risk of entering the orbit of easier-to-reach violent milieus, where terrorist and extremists will offer them to fill their emotional/experiential gaps through actions that will make them “fully alive” through the activation of the Flow of consciousness.

UN resolution 1325[11] developed on the assumption that peace is inextricably linked with equality between men and women. In societies where gender equality indicators are higher, women are less vulnerable to violent extremism. In our book, Prof Inghilleri and I have underscored the need to work harder on the implementation of the women and security agenda and urge for stronger female representation in senior positions in political, peace and security-related institutions[12].

Reference for this article: Zizola, Anna (March 3, 2021). Gone with the “Flow.” An analysis of the psychological drivers of Western women’s radicalisation. ICSVE Brief Reports

About the Author:

Anna Zizola is a research fellow tracking for ICSVE Belgian men and women who have become involved in ISIS. She is an open sources and policy analyst, cultural journalist and editor specialized in analytical work related to terrorism and radicalization. She is currently working at the European Commission in Brussels, at the DG Migration and Home Affairs. Her first book on the radicalization of Western women, “Women on the Verge of Jihad”, will be published by Mimesis in September 2018.

[1] A. Zizola, P. Inghilleri, Women on the Verge of Jihad. The Hidden Pathways towards Radicalization, Mimesis, Milan, 2018

[2] A. Zizola, P. Inghilleri, Women on the Verge of Jihad. The Hidden Pathways towards Radicalization, Mimesis, Milan, 2018

[3] M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row, New York, 1990.

[4] P. Inghilleri, Phenomenology of Positive Change: Social Growth, in P. Inghilleri, G. Riva, E. Riva, Enabling Positive Change: Flow and Complexity in Daily Experience (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2014), p.11

[5] M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row, New York, 1990.

[6] A. Zizola, P. Inghilleri, Women on the Verge of Jihad. The Hidden Pathways towards Radicalization, Mimesis, Milan, 2018, p. 52

[7] Data retrieved from wiretaps authorised by the Court of Milan (Tribunale di Milano)

[8] M. Serafini, Italian Woman Jihadist Speaks, Corriere della Sera, 7 July 2015.

[9] A. Zizola, P. Inghilleri, Women on the Verge of Jihad. The Hidden Pathways towards Radicalization, Mimesis, Milan, 2018, p.89

[10] S. Atran, The Devoted ActorUnconditional Commitment and Intractable Conflict across Cultures, 2016 The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.


[12] A. Zizola, P. Inghilleri, Women on the Verge of Jihad. The Hidden Pathways towards Radicalization, Mimesis, Milan, 2018, p. 108

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