Women’s Involvement in Jihadi Armed Groups through the Study of Armed Groups’ Practices: From Hamas to ISIS – Part II

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

This part of a two-part blog post tries to evidence the evolution of the perception of women’s involvement in armed non-state actors (hereinafter ANSAs) to engage in jihad. It contrasts with the first part, which analyses classical Islamic Law sources and their general discouragement for women’s participation in jihad -with any role-. This post tries to evidence discrepancies between the established theoretical framework of Islamic law and the reality on the ground, affirming that women do in fact participate in jihad as members of ANSAs, by studying the case of ISIS which clearly proves the inconsistencies around the issue. It further claims that understanding the arguments and reasons behind jihad is essential for counterterrorism purposes, and women are key players in this context.  

Contemporary evolution of the role of women in jihad: what roles do women take?

One does not need to go back to historical precedents to see whether women are joining the jihad. It is enough to look at the current foreign fighters’ phenomenon to notice that women are members of ANSAs transnationally and locally, and they may even have combat roles. 

The jihadi discourse has additional layers and has looked for ways to legitimize not only waging jihad but also the participation of women in such, both with an active and passive role. In fact, women’s contribution to ANSAs takes various forms.

Firstly, research indicates that the most predominant role is that of mothers and wives, as responsible for raising the next generation of fighters, and aider of their beloveds (deLeede, p.13). Additionally, their role as recruiters is highly popular nowadays, particularly as a key for disseminating the jihadi ideology among foreign fighters’ recruits (Perešin, p.110). We can even see women as facilitators of terrorist operations by carrying out bank transactions, smuggling weapons and explosives, or as logisticians (deLeede, p.7). For instance, in Hezbollah they have traditionally been couriers, messengers, and fund-raisers; in Hamas, active logisticians and facilitators; in Al-Qaeda, they have performed tasks such as opening bank accounts, or as translators; and in Al-Shabaab, they have mainly been fund-raisers. 

Finally, increasingly, and depending on the group’s ideology, strategy, and structure, women are also planners, plotters, attackers, and martyr operators. There are several examples of women with active roles in terrorist organizations, such as Ahlam al-Tamimi, who was a Hamas suicide bomber, Leila Khaled, who hijacked a plane, or  Roshonara Choudhry, linked to al-Qaeda, who attempted to kill a British Member of the Parliament (deLeede, p.7) because she took the hint of the defensive jihad (Lahoud,p.792). However, women are still largely excluded from leadership positions, except for Samantha Lewthwaite, who has been reported to be part of the leadership of al-Shabaab (deLeede, p.7).  

To what extent are roles played by women justified or encouraged by ANSA leaders?

One can affirm that the beginning of this inclusive ‘trend’ was mainly featured by Chechen separatist and Palestinian ANSAs, in the late 1960s (Davis, p.20). And by the 80s, women were deployed as suicide bombers, particularly in The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the PKK, which, alongside Boko Haram, are protagonists in the issue of women combatants (Perešin, p.107). However, modern jihadis and religious leaders are equivocal regarding the permitted role of women in jihad, and, while usually honoring the mentioned historic examples, they rarely explicitly encourage women to take up arms or have combat positions (deLeede, p.22). 

An exception is al-Zarqawi, the -at the time- leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who is arguably the only leader who has openly called on women to take up arms. For instance, Anwar al-‘Awlaqi addresses himself equally to men and women, but when it comes to fighting, he explicitly excludes women. Similarly, while only Boko Haram, Chechen groups, and al-Qaeda in Iraq allow women in military positions, others prefer using women solely for martyrdom operations, like Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (deLeede, p.22). 

Even accepting women’s participation in jihad, they were not immediately welcomed and, again, there are many contradictions. For instance, even though the Hamas Charter says that Muslim women have ‘no lesser’ role than men in ‘the war of liberation’ (Davis, p.55), article 18 emphasizes the importance of women in jihad, but as supportive actors. And, again, article 12 of the Charter says that ‘resisting and quelling the enemy become the individual duty of every Moslem, male or female. A woman can go out to fight the enemy without her husband’s permission […].’ Therefore, in the case of Hamas, we see that it is permitted, but it is not necessarily a duty for women to engage in combat operations. 

On the other hand, ISIS has held different views on the inclusion of women as members of the armed group. It is possible for ISIS to depart from other terrorist organization’s ideals because of the ambiguity of the classical sources on the role of women in jihad(Perešin, p.102), which they have taken advantage of in order to interpret in their own way. Before 2014, ISIS deployed women in combat, until they had advanced enough militarily in Syria and Iraq, when their participation became ‘unnecessary’ (Winter, p.8) or no longer defensive jihad. Additionally, in 2015 ISIS Zawra’ Foundation created a treatise accepting women’s use of armed force under some circumstances (Margolin and Winter, p.26), which evidences the fact that armed groups interpret Islamic Law to justify their practices. The circumstances are: i) ‘if a woman is raided in her house, she may defend herself;’ ii) if she is ‘in a hospital or a public place attacked by the kuffar […] and she has a [suicide] belt with her, she can detonate it;’ iii) ‘if she is in a solitary place and has been ordered by the amir,’ she may use a gun; and, iv) ‘martyrdom operations are permissible […] but only if the amir has permitted it, and it is for the public good.’ Moreover, ISIS’ magazines have discussed the role of women, evidencing a shift in ISIS’ 2017 strategy: from disregarding women to recruiting them. For instance, Naba magazine stated that ‘women were now obliged to engage in jihad on behalf of the caliphate’ (Winter, p.10), by analogy of hadiths. This was proved right since we have seen many examples of ISIS women in the battlefield playing both a passive and an active role.

The contribution of contemporary legal and religious literature and jihadi scholarship

On the other hand, it is useful to analyze the emergence of contemporary literature and subsequent practice of jihadis in order to perceive the contrast to the classical Islamic Law sources, which were discussed in Part I of this blogpost. In that sense, in contemporary legal literature, we can see an evolution by increasingly accepting women participation in jihad, particularly through the rise of ‘Islamic Feminism’ (see Part I). Additionally, many modern jihadis find justifications for their views in Haykal’s theories on the types of jihad: in jihad as fard kifaya (offensive) women should have the opportunity to fight if they wish to, and in jihad as fard ‘ayn (defensive) all women even have an obligation to fight (Cook, p.379 or Lahoud, p.780). This is also exemplified by an article written by a Chechen ‘sister’, so-called ‘Sister Al’. However, she remarks that jihad should not be waged unless absolutely necessary since the situation in the Umma is not as ‘desperate yet that sisters are called to fight.’ Similarly, the renowned author, al-Takruri, goes further citing six fatwas that allow women to participate in jihad, particularly through suicide missions. For instance, there is a fatwa legitimizing suicide attacks by Chechens, which is being used as one of the leading documents for radical Islamists to prove that martyrdom operations are consistent with Islamic Law. A relevant extract of the text: 

The Ummah has become used to hearing, through its history, about men who sacrifice their lives for the religion, but they are not as familiar with women doing the same. The young woman who was -inshaa-Allah – martyred, Hawa Barayev, is one of the few women whose name will be recorded in history. Undoubtedly, she has set the most marvellous example by her sacrifice […] She has done what few men have done. Every supporter of the truth should prepare to give the like of what she has given. The Ummah may well be proud […].

Mentioning instances from shari’a and the Qur’an that allow for suicide operations (Qu’ran 2:207),  they continue their practice of relying on ancient sources misinterpreting Islamic law to affirm that offensive jihad is permitted. 

On the other hand, Yusuf al-‘Ayyiri (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), while accepting that women are one of the main obstacles for men in jihad, he goes as far as to say that ‘because jihad at this present time is a fard ‘ayn it is incumbent on women as well as men, without regard to parental permission,’ setting the intellectual ground for the participation of women in jihad (Cook, p.382). We can therefore observe a pattern of repetition of scholarly writings and the interpretation of religious leaders.

Finally, evidencing the evolution of women’s participation in jihadLahoud (p.795) states that ‘beyond women’s emotional support and blessing, the jihadis have called on women to do more. The past few years have witnessed a rise in the number of martyrdom operations carried out by women, operations which the jihadis have welcomed’. 

Conclusion

This study has evidenced, by analyzing traditional Islamic legal sources and its interpretations by scholars and jihadis, that there is a tendency of interpreting classical sources for legitimizing jihad and women’s participation in it. However, many of these arguments contradict Islamic law, demonstrating a misunderstood or outdated interpretation of the hadiths and the Qu’ran

The participation  of women in combat has been traditionally discouraged, but they are recruited in ANSAs. Women’s roles in jihad can become easily overlooked, but the ways in which women contribute to jihad are diverse, as crucial as operational roles, and should not be underestimated. In fact, Jennifer Hardwick (p.7), a senior director of the Terrorism Research Center Inc, said: ‘my most pressing concern is that the U.S. is completely unprepared for suicide bombings, especially by a woman.’ 

This statement illustrates the necessity of understanding and study of women’s membership in ANSAs, ranging from the rationale behind joining radical groups to their justifications, for effective counterterrorism measures and the prevention of radicalization. Therefore, we need both a gendered perspective -since they may have inherent social constructions- and to deconstruct the gendered visions from the West, which usually perceive women as weak. This is also somehow shared by jihadi groups, that do not allow women in jihad unless necessary, fearing that they would be perceived as weaker. However, recognizing the relevance of women in jihad is essential for understanding global jihadism. 

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