The Role of Women in Jihad


The role of women in jihad is a topic which has been fiercely debated among the jihadist community for many years.  The Qur'an is not completely clear regarding the female's role in jihad, leaving much room for interpretation and questions, like:  Should women remain on the sidelines caring for the wounded or engage in direct combat against the infidels?  Are they allowed to carry out suicide operations or should they stay home and raise their children to be Islamic militants?

While all of these questions are of concern to those looking to participate in jihad, both male and female, there is no consensus on the role of women in jihad in the Islamic community.  However, there are two broad categories which can be used to characterize the ideas of Islamic terrorist groups regarding the role of women in jihad:  a supporting role versus an active role. Due to the varying views on a woman's place in jihad, this report will explore the beliefs of the major Islamic terrorist groups of the 21st century, their opinions on the role of women in jihad, and the Islamic community's response to their judgments.

Support for Women in Jihad

There are a handful of Islamic terrorist groups which support the idea of women playing an active role in jihad.  One of these groups is the terrorist organization known as HAMAS, which was founded in 1987 and is active in Palestine.  HAMAS clearly states it's position that it is acceptable for women to actively participate in jihad in Article 12 of its charter:

  "Resisting and quelling the enemy becomes the individual duty of every Muslim, male or female.  A woman can go out to fight the enemy without her husband's permission, and so does the slave:  without his master's permission."  

According to an article by the Associated Press, "At least 11 Palestinian women have launched suicide attacks in recent years." Huda Naim, a women's leader and HAMAS member, states that many women in Palestine want to become active in jihad.  She claims that "A lot of the girls I speak to…want to carry weapons." Naim also maintains the belief that women have the right to participate in  jihad.

Another organization which allows women an active role in jihad is the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a jihadist group active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While its leaders have not issued an official statement on the female's position in jihad, it is clear, from what its members say, that active jihad for women is permissible.  This is exemplified when a writer, identified as a female mujahid in Afghanistan, encourages Muslim women to participate in jihad in a Turkish-language jihadist forum to which she posted on September 15, 2008. The message bears the banner of the IJU and contains six images of female mujahideen standing in an open field and holding firearms.


Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The writer of this message, "Ummu Muhammad", argues that women do indeed have a role in jihad, despite detractors saying otherwise.  In particular, the writer suggests that women take more of a supporting role, and only refers to direct combat through citing the example of Muslim women in the time of the Prophet Muhammad.  However, the post does feature pictures of females holding firearms, implying that active jihad is permissible.  Also, washing and tailoring the clothes of male mujahideen, and preparing their food are examples of explicitly suggested support.  She adds:

  "There is nothing you lose here.  Don't think that you cannot leave your mother, father, siblings behind.  Isn't the love of Allah, His religion and His will more important than your family?"  

She also emphasizes that life "here," --presumably in Afghanistan since that is where she claims to be writing from-- is not hard.  Ummu Muhammad recognizes that there is some hardship in life, but claims there is the hope to earn Paradise.  Clearly, Muslim women have some of the same motives as Muslim men for doing jihad, namely to be able to attain Paradise.

While there are a few Islamic terrorist organizations which allow women to play an active role in jihad, there are others that believe women should be more supportive than active.  Even within a group, there can be disagreements as to the role of women in jihad.  Al-Qaeda is one of these groups.  It began as an organization composed of a small number of core members, but over time it has become a global organization with hundreds of members and numerous branches, including al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  In the past few years there has been a great deal of debate among the leaders of the different branches of al-Qaeda regarding the place of women in jihad.

One of the first times an al-Qaeda leader formally addressed the jihadi community on the role of women in jihad was three years ago.  On July 5, 2005, a one-hour audio message by the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, titled:  "Does the Religion Wane While I am Still Alive" was released. Zarqawi touched on numerous subjects in the message, mentioning the desecration of the Qur'an by the Americans, denouncing the Iraqi army, and in a unique step, calling upon the Muslim women in Iraq and elsewhere to take an active role in jihad.  This was the first time Zarqawi called upon Muslim women to join jihad and he also indicated the important role the woman plays in jihad:  to encourage their "husbands and sons to fight jihad against the crusaders and converters," as well as raising children who strive for jihad and sacrifice their life:

  "The jihadi woman is the woman who raises her children to join the jihad, to fight and dies for jihad.  This is the honorable thing to do."  

From this statement it is clear that Zarqawi believes that women should take a more active role in jihad, whether it involves raising children or dying for jihad.  In addition, Zarqawi describes women who had written to him requesting to carry out suicide operations against the enemy, saying he was impressed by their letters:

  "I was weeping over the situation of the nation, telling myself that not enough men are volunteering for operations, which made a woman ask for the honor…"  

Since 2005, when Zarqawi's audio message was released, the number of female suicide bombers in Iraq has increased nearly every year, as seen in the graph entitled "Women bombers on the rise."

In fact, on November 9, 2005 in Amman, Jordan, there were three suicide attacks on Western hotels:  the Radisson Hotel, the Grand Hyatt Hotel, and the Days Inn, which killed dozens of people. Three men, one at each hotel, detonated their suicide belts almost simultaneously.  However, the attack on the Radisson Hotel involved a female suicide bomber as well.  Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, a 35-year-old Iraqi woman, and her Iraqi husband, Ali Hussein al-Shumari, 35, attempted to carry out a suicide attack on a wedding celebration which was being held in one of the ballrooms at the Radisson.  Al-Rishawi's husband detonated his suicide belt, but when al-Rishawi tried to detonate hers, it did not go off.  Jordan's deputy prime minister, Marwan Muashar, said that Ms. Rishawi is the sister of Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, a top aide to Zarqawi. Al-Rishawi recounted all of these events in her taped confession, where she wore the explosive belt packed with ball bearings that she unsuccessfully tried to detonate.

The day after the attacks, on November 10, 2005, al-Qaeda in Iraq issued a statement claiming responsibility for the suicide bombings in Amman, Jordan, targeting "some hotels which the Jordanian devils made as a garden for Allah's enemies." This was one of the first prominent suicide bombings carried out by Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq in which a woman was actively involved.  The attack came in November 2005, a mere four months after Zarqawi's message calling for women to take a more active role in jihad.

Zarqawi's view, and the resulting controversy

While Zarqawi advocated for women's active role in jihad, the number two leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri disagrees.  On December 16, 2007, an initiative was announced for members of the jihadist Internet community and media organizations to submit questions, "friendly or hostile," to Zawahiri. For a period of one month, as-Sahab, al-Qaeda's media production company, in coordination with al-Fajr Center, collected questions from the four primary al-Qaeda-affiliated forums, and then submitted them unaltered to Zawahiri for him to answer as many as possible in a production sometime in the future.  Due to the volume of the number of questions, the responses were given in two sets.  Answers to the first groups of questions were released on April 2, 2008 and the second and final installment of his responses were issued to jihadist forums on April 21, 2008. Among these questions were inquiries regarding the role of women in jihad, which were addressed in the second set of responses.

One jihadi forum member who participated in the open interview, a woman using the screen name Ghurba, posed the following question to Zawahiri:

  "Does al-Qaeda accept women in its ranks?"  

Zawahiri unambiguously states that there is no role for women in al-Qaeda, replying,

  "My answer to sister Ghurba is no."  

When asked if women may travel to the Islamic State of Afghanistan alone, he states that "My answer to Hafidat Ibrahim:  there must be a Mehrem [male chaperone] and a trusted guide."  Another individual, who uses the screen name Thaqeb, also posted some questions about women, asking:

  "Who is the highest ranking woman in al-Qaeda?  Don't mention names if you do not want to do so, but what is their duty in the organization?"  

 Zawahiri's response to this question shows his belief that women should play a domestic role in jihad.  He boldly states:

  "Al-Qaeda has no women, but the women of the mujahideen do their heroic part in taking care of their homes and sons in the roughness of the immigration, movement, unity, and expecting the Crusader strikes."  

Female jihadist forum members on Arabic and Western forums reacted to his statement with dismay, writing that his answer was "not what we had hoped" and reporting stories of would-be female jihadists distraught at the news that al-Qaeda does not want them.

Discussions of women's role in jihad reignited a few months later on July 12, 2008 following news that a female suicide bomber had carried out a suicide attack on June 22, 2008, killing 15 outside a courthouse in Baquba, the capital of Iraq's Diyala Governorate. Jihadist forum members used this attack to highlight the role of female suicide bombers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian Territories.  On the al-Ekhlaas Arabic-language jihadist forum, members took the bombing as an opportunity to reexamine the role of women in jihad and particularly their role as suicide bombers.  Forum members quoted Qur'anic precedent for female fighters, noting stories of women who fought with Muhammad and defended themselves during the early says of Islam. However, other members noted that warfare had changed and while carrying out jihad is obligatory for men, it is not a binding requirement for women.

The discussion on the role of women in jihad continued on al-Ekhlaas through July 21, 2008.  Amidst arguments, one of the members reminds of Ayman al-Zawahiri denying the existence of women within al-Qaeda, and explaining that women of the mujahideen have a domestic role.  A female jihadist criticizes that Zawahiri's words do not equate to women's jihad as illegitimate, and states:

  "I repeat to you that she whose heart is burning for her faith and goes out in a suicide operation seeking Allah, will not be deterred by the words of a thousand of your like."  

However, the reactions to Zawahiri's statement on women in jihad were not confined to Arabic-language forums.  Members of the French-language Al Mourabitoune forum also debated the role of women in jihad after member Al Qassam created a new thread by posting a New York Times article describing the June 22nd attack.  The article was followed by a response from member Oum 'Amar, who questioned the female jihadist's affiliation to al-Qaeda because of the organization's declared belief that a woman is to stay at home.  She asked:

  "Did al-Qaeda claim responsibility for this operation?  I ask because I just reread an article that takes a sick pleasure in showing, based on the statements of Sheikh Az-Zawahiri, that once again 'The role of women is to stay at home;' even al-Qaeda does not want them."  

Al Qassam responded that, while he has never seen the Islamic State of Iraq claim responsibility for the martyrdom of a woman, al-Qaeda in fact encourages women to promote jihad indirectly by "raising the next generation of Mujahideens." He goes on even further to state that the unique Iraqi context challenges traditional beliefs about the woman's role:

  "A woman in Iraq for example, because of the security situation, attracts less attention than a brother sitting alone in a vehicle at a checkpoint.  It is surely for this reason that they assist in operations of this genre that we speak of in Iraq, something that I have never heard of in Afghanistan, for example."  

There was an undeniably abrasive backlash amongst the female jihadist community in response to Zawahiri's statements.  Women were very disappointed because what al-Zawahiri said is not what's happening today in the Middle East, especially in Iraq or in Palestinian groups.  Many women were upset and felt that it was their right to play an active role in jihad.  Despite Zawahiri's statement that women do not have a role in al-Qaeda, there have still been numerous suicide bombings carried out by women in Iraq since his statement was issued.

Following Zawahiri's comments on the role of women in jihad and the reactions of the female jihadist community, Dr. Hani al-Sibai, a London-based jihadist ideologue, published a message in July 2008 in regards to a female suicide brigade within al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the presence of female suicide bombers in general. Sibai's writing was posted on the website of the Maqreze Center for Historical Studies, an organization which he heads, on July 28, 2008.  It was then posted on July 30 on al-Ekhlaas and al-Hesbah, two password-protected al-Qaeda-affiliated forums, by a Maqreze Center representative.  Sibai's writing on the female brigade was prompted by a query from a journalist in Egypt, asking for his analysis of the "new phenomenon" of female suicide bombers in Iraq, and if this is a new method of al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Sibai clarifies that al-Qaeda in Iraq operates within the Islamic State of Iraq, and ISI does not employ female suicide bombers.  Sibai even goes as far as to claim that,

  "Henceforth, I do not think there exists a women's organization that is affiliated with al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq, as claimed by the media."  

The idea that ISI, or al-Qaeda, would use female suicide bombers is determined by Sibai to be an attempt by the enemy to show that these organizations failed to recruit men for these operations.  Men, he states, are the "vertebral column and the striking force" in al-Qaeda's clash with those who occupy Muslim lands. However, Sibai does not dismiss the role of women in jihad or suicide operations, though he claims that behind every female suicide bomber is a male relative.  The numbers and activities of female suicide bombers in particular countries and groups, Islamic and non-Islamic, he argues, are due to the lack of tight Shariah controls.

Despite the statements of Zawahiri and Sibai, there have been a number of attacks carried out by females of al-Qaeda in Iraq.  More than 30 women have blown themselves up in 2008, according to Iraqi security officials. But there is hope that the number of attacks may decrease, especially since October 7, 2008 when Iraqi forces arrested a woman "suspected of heading up the recruitment of female suicide bombers in Baquba." The 38-year-old woman, Ibitisma Odwan, nicknamed "Mother Fatima" was caught in Hommadi village, which is east of Baquba.  According to the defense ministry spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari, Odwan was responsible for training female suicide bombers including a 15-year-old girl "who was allegedly tricked by her husband and two women into wearing an explosives belt."

Without a doubt, there have been numerous attacks by female jihadists in Iraq.  However, there have not been any major attacks carried out by women in other branches of al-Qaeda, like al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Perhaps there have not been any female suicide bombers in Afghanistan due to the strong influence of the Taliban.  When issuing his statement regarding the role of women in jihad, Zawahiri had to consider the fact that many of al-Qaeda's supporters, such as the Taliban, do not believe women should play a military role in jihad.  Also, many men believe that women should stay at home, raising children and supporting the men who do jihad.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is another branch of al-Qaeda which has not seen any females among the ranks of jihad.  Perhaps this is because in the Islamic Maghreb there are enough men to carry out the attacks or perhaps it is due to the relatively vulnerable state of security in these countries.  Maybe females who actively participate in jihad is a phenomenon of Iraq, where the security is extremely tight and there are not enough female officials to search all Iraqi women.

Regardless of what al-Qaeda's leaders say, the number of female suicide bombers is on the rise in Iraq.  Also, women are making themselves heard and are voicing their disagreement with Zawahiri's statements on jihadist forums on the Internet.  Some yearn to do jihad on the battlefield while others are fine with playing a more domestic role.  And while the high level of al-Qaeda leadership does not include women, it is possible that as the movement continues to grow and expand, that women will take a more active role in jihad.  There are already other Islamic terrorist groups which not only accept, but encourage women to join their ranks, like HAMAS.  If a woman's desire to do jihad is so strong that she is willing to die for Allah, despite what others say, she may very well earn her ticket to Paradise.