« Djihâd », does it have a gender?

How can we explain why a group of women engage in jihadist movements, with all that it entails in terms of the asymmetrical relations and balance of power between men and women? This commitment is often explained by considerations such as emotion or stereotypes such as submission, without being regarded as a conscious choice in response to calculations in terms of opportunity, risk, gain and loss, or simply the belief in a given (meta) political or geopolitical vision. This can partly be attributed to the purely statistical and quantitative approach that is taken (they are minorities). To this must be added the favourable labelling of women and the nature of their universe: “closed and private” in conservative societies, and often “ambivalent” in liberal societies.

This intervention will focus on jihadist women as the dominant agents (the least studied).

Can women participate in political violence?

The history of political violence demonstrates the involvement of women in revolutionary or guerrilla movements, sometimes in their most radical forms. An obvious example would be Sofia Perovskaïa who was behind the assassination of Alexander II of Russia (March 1881) or Fusako Shigenobu the former head of the Japanese Red Army, who was behind various deadly bombings, hijackings, hostage-takings, etc. Guerrillas are generally rational and pragmatic movements. These groups are by definition limited in terms of their size, so it is quite predictable that they would include women in their ranks, as was the case in the rebel movements in El Salvador, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, during the Spanish civil war, the wars in Algeria and Vietnam, and we see it today with the soldiers of the PKK, YPG, etc.

Djihâd, does it have a gender?

Neither Islam nor the misogynist and patriarchal nature of Middle Eastern societies have excluded women from armed action, yet many consider for example the latest videos from Daesh[1] showing women in niqābs in the process of handling Kalashnikovs and advanced weapons as an evolution of the role of women in the group, in which their participation has evolved from simple logistics to operational functions (handling arms or committing suicide bombings). However, this is nothing new in the history of jihadist movements. Here, we must break away from the image of the Epinal print, which makes Muslim women out to be simply submissive. Certainly there is a very discriminatory language used against them that derives its legitimacy from canonical norms as well as customary rules. However, there is a paradox when it comes to radicalism: the more radical the group, the more detached it is from the rest of society, and the more it considers itself to only consist of elites (al-Khassa), so that a woman jihadist is considered as a chosen person in her field, making her not only a valuable member, but also superior to non-jihadist men in terms of her courage and nobility. Similarly, within the organization, a woman on the list of future perpetrators of suicide attacks commands much greater respect than a simple soldier. Also, as in any social group, there are some symbolic considerations that completely go beyond the gender issue, and that may affect the position of women; there is a possible analogy here with bourgeois women in misogynistic societies and their superiority over working class men, with those women belonging to a jihadist aristocracy (from an important jihadist family, the wife of the emir, caliph, etc.) being regarded with great reverence by the group and according them an irrevocable trust.

Daesh, which is dubbed the modern day neo Khawarij / Kharijites, shares some common features with its predecessors. Historically, the Khawarij, including the Azraqites and Chibanites, have always attached great importance to the mobilization of women. The Chibanites, for example, lent their allegiance to Ghazala, the widow of their former leader, Shayb ibn Zayd Ibn Naim al Shibani.

Ghazala (born in Mosul in Iraq and died in 696 a.J / 77 H), fought alongside her husband in a fierce rebellion against the powerful Umayyad caliph, Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan (Caliph 685-705). It was a very turbulent time, marked by uprisings, repressions, and the terrible reign of Hajjaj Ibnu Yusuf al-Thaqafi (661-702 - Iraq) in Iraq, and who despite his legendary tyranny had to turn back when faced with Ghazala and her colleagues. The sect of the chibanites did not reject the possibility of entrusting the Imamah or even the caliphate to a woman.

Furthermore, the original Islam was in no way opposed to the participation of women in the fighting; during the Battle of Uhud, Nusayba Bintu Ka'ab (Um Ammara) remained to defend, with the sword and saber, the prophet’s camp against seemingly inevitable defeat.

Today, al-Qaida, the Mujahedeen Khalq, the black widows (women kamikaze of the Caucasus), Boko Haram, the former GIA, Daesh, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade[2], etc., call for the mobilization of women and offer them selective gains and a new representation of the feminine ideal.

Women: a reserve army

In principle, under biological pretexts, the natural place of women is in the reserve army. Today, in the light of technical progress, the nature of war has changed and, therefore, the conditions as to the gender of the warrior. Today, it is no longer necessary to have a Herculean corpulence to make war.

We can consider that there are three categories of women jihadists:

  1. The dominant: they are a minority; they even dominate men; they have significant decision-making power and influence; they are often of a certain age and belong to a long tradition of jihadists. Often they are married to jihadi cadres.
  2. The dominant dominated: These have limited roles; they exercise control over the other women, but remain subject to orders from men. They can for example lead the “Harem”, the female police, etc.
  3. The dominated: They constitute a simple instrument, which makes their situation ambiguous. The women here can be likened to what Marx called the lumpenproletariat, a category of sub-proletarians without any political conscience, and which constitutes a sort of extra force against the bourgeoisie. Here, women are ruled by a false consciousness that leads them to accept their domination by male officers. They include two categories of women: the younger ones and the less educated, who are fragile and accept minor roles, sometimes the most despicable and most demeaning (sexual role, domestic servant, etc.).

The role of the jihadist[3] woman

Their function is determined for example by the availability of technical skills and knowledge: Expertise in the medical field, technology (IT), the evolution of the war, their resources, the economic conditions, the balance of forces, etc.

It can cover the following tasks[4]:

  • They participate in the production of propaganda and counter-propaganda: destroy prejudices about the misogyny of the group, give back to the Jihad a-Nikah (sexual jihad) its sacred dimension. They play a role in the mediatisation of the group; the majority of the hacktivists in Daesh are women.
  • Give fervour to the fighters: their presence is an important element in encouraging the men and pushing them to engage in war.
  • The classic roles: logistics (health, food).
  • The monitoring of prisoners
  • Finance, money laundering (mainly abroad), etc.
  • Recruitment (like the Saudi Hiba al-Kassir)
  • Specific tasks: explore women only areas, steam baths, etc.
  • Religious police: monitoring the public behaviour of women: They ensure the implementation of the Sharia, the prohibition of the mixing of the sexes, the observation of modesty, the presence of a Mahram, etc.
  • Torture[5], information, imprisonment of women: katibats[6] are organized with hierarchy up to the rank of Major General (Liwa)
  • Traffic and transport of arms.
  • Transmission of messages / instructions.
  • Monitoring the case files of prisoners[7].
  • Terrorist attacks: suicide[8] or car bombing (perpetrated mostly by women - in Iraq), planting of mines, etc.
  • “Humanitarian” and “didactic” missions: They look after the families of the “martyrs”. The guest houses in the countryside around Baghdad, run by women, ostensibly to run orphanages, they harbour charitable associations, religious institutions, etc.
  • They participate in the fighting when necessary.

    What benefits for the group?

    How can we explain the interest in women of the Djemaat, the Islamist and jihadist movements? It has been observed, for example, that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have a tendency to showcase women during protests.
  • The recruitment of women is less expensive for these organizations.
  • This is a powerful element of marketing, advertising or pressure (one is less inclined to fire on a crowd composed mainly of women, as in the case of the demonstrations by female students and schoolgirls, which actually threaten those responsible for maintaining the public order in democratic countries)
  • Their discipline and excessive zeal: They fall within the psychology of good students.
  • Their universe is closed, inaccessible, and less exposed to the outside world, especially in the Arab-Muslim world, which represents a pledge of protection of secrecy, giving them a great deal of mobility, in that they are less controlled, less likely to suspected, etc.
  • Their ability to plant and spread the dogma within the family, beginning with the initiation of children to the jihadist ideology. There are examples of women who participated in the radicalization of their husbands.

Mobilization of resources, differential propaganda

Jihadi organizations, especially terrorist groups (Mujahid and jihadi, two concepts often confused, but which it is absolutely necessary to distinguish), produce incentives for participation; they also produce goods that are only available to those who participate.

One might suppose that the origin of jihadist action is in the process of radicalization: the knowledge and incentives are distributed in specific networks:

  • The Internet
  • In prisons
  • Magazines: in September, 2004, Al-Qaeda launched its electronic magazine dedicated to women, “Al-Khanssa” (produced by the Office of Feminine Information in the Arabian Peninsula)
  • Religious centres and charitable associations
  • Television (Al-Zawra TV, etc.)

These networks exercise control over women, who internalize unevenly what they are supposed to learn, based on their trajectory; they are not all predisposed to become jihadists, although there is equality in the face of this proselytism and in the manner and degree to which they react to it: some will exude a kind of excessive zeal, while others will limit themselves to the strictly theological aspects.

  • The seduction has to be adjusted to the culture, environment, socioeconomic background, etc., of the recruits by translating the general jihadist grammar and formulating a suitable discourse. Thus, the discourse differs depending on the origin of the recruits: this is where the question of emotion, the role of iconography and symbolism come in for them to fit into this cause. Add to this the outright assertion of a dogma, the constant repetition of this dogma (the rejection of secularism, the obligation of jihad in Syria incumbent on all men and women, the “commodification” of the woman by the consumer society, etc.), and the use of pictorial formulas; these are the same mobilization techniques used by union leaders. Very often they are convinced by a man who combines beauty with refinement of voice and speech, power of argument, a manipulator, a seducer, or by a woman who embodies a certain maternal or fraternal authority (depending on her position, mistress or friend).
  • Local women: the bait is very often economic or rational, they are often attracted to money or driven by the possibility of revenge or the need to protect themselves; they choose the strongest group of the moment.
  • Western women: Often very young, they are easy prey and succumb to the romantic speech (figure of the poet knight[9]), the charm of the rebel transgressor, the gang leader or Robin Hood. Here, there is a subtle mixture of ideology, idealism, and sale of a fantasy, a virility that appears reassuring (I will protect you; you are the apple of my eye, etc.). This can be explained by the erasure of sexual otherness, and what some see as the feminization or at least the “matriarchalisation” of Western society and the weakening of the family institution. It is to be found in the fundamentalist discourse, a captivating power; the power of the word is creative.
  • Central Asia and Caucasus: They are receptive to the ideology[10] and extremely sensitive to the situation of Muslim minorities. They are also animated by the instinct of revenge.
  • The representation of the jihadist woman: A chaste woman, strong, firm, dignified, protected and treated like a queen (she has slaves, etc., in her service).

    The motives and causes are of different natures, they can be:

  • Ideological.
  • Socioeconomic, such as poverty and ignorance (there is a real link between poverty and political violence). When participating in armed jihad, the women have their share of the war booty alongside their male coreligionists.
  • Psychological, such as frustration, fantasy, the need for revenge. They also derive a sort of pride in contributing to history in the making, by dedicating themselves to the Caliphate project. It also offers them a symbolic advantage in being able to exercise power over other women.
  • By pure reactionism: Reaction to supposed anti-Islamic laws, reaction to secularism, to the reversal of values, reaction to the established order, to the dictates of the consumer society, to post modernism.
  • Ecological: geographical isolation and the absence of the State (the French suburbs, the Waziristan area, the Qindil mountains, etc.).

Ms Bouchra Belguellil

Author: Ms Bouchra Belguellil

Researcher, Institute Perspective & Sécurité en Europe, Paris, France

Ms. Bouchra Belguellil is an associate researcher at the Institute for Prospect and Security in Europe. She holds Master degrees in Law and Political Science from Sorbonne University, and has worked on trans-national conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. She is currently preparing her doctorate thesis on women, gender, and islamist organisations.

 


[1] Some names of jihadist women of Daesh:
- Um Miqdad: a 35 year old Saudi, nicknamed Amîrat-u-Nissâ' u-Dawlat al-Khilâfa – the princess / mistress of the women of the Caliphate - is active in the area of al-Anbar (Iraq); she deals with the recruitment of women.
- Um Muhajer: Chief of the “Katibat ul-Khanssâ” Brigade and of Tunisian nationality, she moved with her husband to Syria after leaving Iraq. She is close to the reins of power of the Caliphate, especially since the marriage of her daughters (married to the cadres of Daesh).
- Um Laith: A migrant from England, she is responsible for foreign girls and counter-propaganda.

[2] With the creation of an elite brigade, made up exclusively of women (300) to carry out suicide attacks

[3] Jihad in the broad sense (not only military)

[4] Daesh created the Institute al-Zawrâ’, which aims to prepare “Muslim” women for jihad. This is a multidisciplinary training center: cooking, first aid, data processing, the art of combat, introduction to the use of firearms, theology courses, needlework, etc. (see: https://www.facebook.com/pages/مؤسسة-الزوراء/562333503900184)

[5] Katibat el-Khansa: flagellation (40 lashes for wearing high heels)

[6] Daech created two exclusively female katibas (brigades), namely al Khanssa and Um Rayhan. The choice of names is not trivial; al-Khansa is the name of a famous Arab poetess (born in the ante Islamic era / died at the time of the third Caliph of Islam). Besides her legendary eloquence, she was known for the dedication and the love she vowed to her brother, Sakhr (see Ši'r al-wa-l-šu'arā 'Ibn Qutayba), upon whose death she cried until she became blind. These brigades are recruiting single girls aged between 18 and 25 years, whom they pay up to $ 200 / month.

[7] The files of women jihadist prisoners are very important for these groups. It is a means of mobilizing and pushing men to commit “heroic” acts (avenge their sister). Several declarations, communications, videos, etc., of these groups show their commitment to their feminine elements. C.f. the series “al assirât” (the captives): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuFrjM4vTy8

[8] In 2004, the suicide bombing, al-Qa'im (Iraq), was perpetrated by a woman. Until Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi came to power, al-Qaida prohibited the participation of women in “operational” missions.

[9] The Khawarij composed beautiful poems in tribute to women.

[10] We must absolutely not minimize the role of ideology: the more extremist the group, the more simplistic and Manichaean its discourse and thus easy to understand and difficult to refute (sophist), as in the case of fascist and totalitarian ideologies.

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