Women Combatants in Jihad under Islamic Law: Doctrines, Justifications, and Misconceptions – Part I

About the author(s):

Patricia Valencia is a LLM candidate at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. She holds a law degree from the University Pompeu Fabra of Barcelona. Her dissertation is entitled ‘The applicability of International Humanitarian Law to Armed Groups’ in Syria, published by the University Pompeu Fabra in 2021, and she has conducted research on foreign fighters in Northern Syria, and women’s participation in jihad under Islamic Law.

Introduction 

Following the atrocities committed by armed non-state actors (ANSAs hereinafter) in the Syrian conflict, Islamic Law is on the agenda for the promotion of peace and accountability. Moreover, the foreign fighters’ momentum raises many questions around the membership of women in ANSAs, particularly jihadi groups. Recent practices of States amending their legislation to broaden their extraterritorial reach or the terrorist offences’ scope make us wonder whether the narrative is shifting from women being perceived as victims, towards an understanding of women’s possible threat for their sole membership to an armed group. For instance, a UK national held in al-Hawl lost a case at the UK Supreme Court (Begum v Home Secretary, 2021) and her British citizenship was removed, therefore risking statelessness.

This two-part blog post focuses on women’s participation in jihad in Islamic-conflict-driven contexts and studies how this practice compares with the classical Islamic Law sources. It looks particularly at what Islamic Law has to say about the lawfulness of women’s participation in jihad, the interpretation of such sources by ANSAs and authors, and compares these sources to the reality on the ground. 

In this first part, I analyse classical Islamic Law sources and determine that despite the general discouragement for women’s participation, radical Islamist ANSAs construct arguments to justify a right or even a duty to wage jihad, and the participation of women in combat, or conversely – its prohibition. Therefore, there is an inconsistency between their arguments and the evolution of the law. In the second part, I compare the sources reviewed in the first part with practice on the ground. 

The methodology used includes the analysis of Islamic precedents, hadithsfatwas, the Qu’ran, and, particularly, scholarly writings and their interpretations by jihadis, as well as ISIS propaganda magazines such as DabiqRumiyah, and al-Naba’. Special thanks to Dr. Al-Dawoody who has supervised this research. 

The usefulness of studying and comparing Islamic Law on women in combat and its evolution

Both International Humanitarian Law and Islamic Law have traditionally perceived women as victims rather than participants in conflicts (Revkin et al, p.5). However, women’s engagement in conflicts is not new; it is increasing, it has different modalities, and it seems to have ‘come to stay.’ In fact, the participation of women in jihad has evolved throughout the years, distinguishing the traditional and the contemporary approaches. That is why it is useful to study and compare the classical Islamic Law position on women in combat and its evolution, and later interpretation by Islamist ANSAs. 

Discouragement towards women participation in combat

It has been said that ‘a woman’s right to join men on the battlefield is in sharp contradiction to the classical sources’ (Cook, p.383). This is because not all jihadis fight for the ‘inclusion’ of women; quite the reverse. While accepting that jihad is legitimate (for men) and sometimes even considering it a moral obligation, they advocate for women’s exclusion from jihad.

Traditionally, there is not much literature on women’s engagement in hostilities, but we see that, their participation in jihad, if not proscribed, was highly discouraged. There are some examples in hadiths or historical precedents of women fighting in jihad at the time of the Prophet. But, even though many of them are glorified by jihadis, they somehow come as outsiders, and jihadis generally do not accept women’s participation (Lahoud, p.787).

Regarding the lawfulness of jihad itself, Mohammad Khayr Haykal distinguished in his work two types of jihad: offensive jihadas fard kifaya, in which part of the Muslims are obliged to wage jihad; and defensive jihad as fard ‘ayn, where there is an individual obligation to wage jihad upon every Muslim, in defense of their territory and religion, and that obligation would extend also to women (Cook, p.379). Interestingly however, when Muslims invoke other Muslims’ obligation to wage jihad, they refrain from calling upon women, alleging that they may only travel in the company of a male mahram or their husbands. Nevertheless, this is in sharp contradiction to the defensive jihad and mahram doctrines since it does ‘not apply to the extraordinary circumstances of a defensive jihad when the duty of jihad becomes universal’ (Lahoud, p.783). 

In turn, we may ask, how can jihadis fail to explain why the current situation is so alarming as to justify waging offensive jihadand calling to take up arms among all Muslims, but it is not alarming enough for women to participate in the fight? (p.785). For instance, Hamas’ founder, Ahmad Yassin, said that no woman ‘should be allowed to go out for jihad without a male chaperone’ (Davis, p.55), but in 2012 he accepted that ‘women are like the reserve army, when there is a necessity we use them’(Davis, p.55). This position indicates a reluctance of deploying women as actual combatants while allowing them to carry out martyrdom operations, which does not necessarily mean that jihadis are adopting a more inclusive approach. 

On the other hand, in the 1980s, a fatwa of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam -considered the father of global jihad– cleared the theological way for females in jihad and the application of the defensive jihad doctrine contemporarily. But again, he contradicted himself invoking the mahram requirement, and claiming that ‘as to fighting [in the Afghan jihad], Arab women cannot fight because Afghan women have not yet done so’ (Lahoud, p.785). 

Finally, Ibn al-Nahhas al-Dumyati (d.1414), the author of one of the greatest jihad compositions, perceived women as one of the main obstacles for men in jihad (Cook, p.378), whose view could be linked to Yusuf al-‘Uyayri’s, the founding leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who claimed that women could either be the key of the Umma success or the reason for its failure (Lahoud, p.787).

Historical examples of women in combat: preached but not encouraged

Due to the lack of international legitimation and support of jihadist doctrines, most radical ANSAs have relied on classical sources of Islamic Law to justify waging jihad, particularly on the defensive jihad doctrine, which legitimizes a universal call to arms. Abdallah ‘Azzam claimed that ‘the participation of women in jihad is stated in the shari‘a but opening [that] door amounts to a great evil’ (Lahoud, p.780). While accepting that women joining jihad is lawful and could even be justified in the shari’a, many jihadis including ‘Azzam believe that it should be avoided at all costs. 

We do, however, find examples of women joining jihad. The first known shahidah (female martyr) is Sumayyah bint Khabbat (550-615 C.E) (Al-Dawoody, p.15). Many jihadis have relied on hadiths to legitimize women’s participation in the armed defense of the Umma, although there is not a consensus on the form of their participation. Um ‘Ummarah (Sister Al, p.3) and many other women listed in Aliyya Mustafa Murabak’s treatise, are examples of this. 

Analyzing the classical sources, we find many examples of women determined to join the battlefield. For instance, there is a renowned hadith in which a woman complained to Prophet Mohammad about not being able to take part in the fighting, to what the Prophet replied that ‘the reward given to men in jihad would be given to women if they obeyed their husbands and kept to their houses’ (Cook, p.377). But there is not much literature about what the reward for women is, and there is no single interpretation on what jihad itself constitutes for women. 

Regarding what jihad is for women, traditionally, it has been argued that women’s jihad is doing the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) (Cook, p.376, Lahoud, p.786), in order to avoid women actually fighting, and since the trip to Mecca was usually a dangerous one, which would eventually provide them with a reward. However, the Prophet’s view is more inclusive since he praised women who actually fought even if he did not allow for it. And even restrictive authors agreed that if the enemy attacks women they are allowed to defend themselves (Lahoud, p.786). Later, in contemporary ‘Islamic Feminism’, it is increasingly argued that jihad for women entails fighting like men. (Cook, p.378). The Islamic Feminism phenomenon seems to focus on the idea that not all women who are allies of terrorist groups do so as submissive individuals or with a passive role within the group. This is useful for counterterrorism initiatives, as it allows a more effective engagement with those women and to consider their reasons -both as similar to men’s and individually-.

On the other hand, jihadis have also relied on traditions included in classical scholarly writings. For instance, a Syrian scholar, Nawaf al-Takruri, accepts Haykal’s ideas and even emphasizes women’s active participation in hostilities. However, he finds an obstacle with the shari’a: the fight in jihad, for example, carrying out a suicide attack, would require women to dress in an ‘immodest fashion’(Cook, p.379-380), and he believes that he cannot mandate that even if sometimes the necessity of fighting jihad nullifies part of the shari’a

Unlike Cook, who thinks that the core argument is that women take also primary roles in combat, I believe that the essential part of al-Takruri’s argumentation is that he accepts that the shari’a can be ‘disregarded’ somehow when it comes to jihad. Moreover, his reasonings have also been interpreted in diverse ways, evidencing the misconceptions around this issue, in which the same person’s claims can lead to completely opposite interpretations. For instance, even though a fair interpretation could be that Islamic Law poses limits to women’s participation, conversely, current jihadis use al-Takruri’s words to justify women’s active participation in jihad.

Conclusion

We can therefore see that, classical Islamic sources either frown upon women’s participation in the fighting or they do not contemplate it. Even though there are some examples, these mainly became popular through their interpretation by jihadis attempting to legitimize women’s role in jihad. However, despite Islamic Law’s reluctance to regulate women’s participation in jihad, it is of utmost importance to study whether they in fact participate, and to distinguish legal justifications from the reality on the ground.

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1 thought on “Women Combatants in Jihad under Islamic Law: Doctrines, Justifications, and Misconceptions – Part I”

  1. Pingback: Armed Groups and International Law - Women’s Involvement in Jihadi Armed Groups through the Study of Armed Groups’ Practices: From Hamas to ISIS – Part II

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