When Ayman Zawahiri's wife, the al Qaeda successor to Osama bin Ladin, was asked in 2009 about the permissible roles of women in waging jihad she wrote a letter to her "Muslim sisters" encouraging them to leave the fighting to the men and to wage jihad through giving money, Internet support and by training up the next generation of young believers for jihad. She reminded women of their duty: 'to goad their brothers, husbands and sons to defend Muslims' territories and properties ... to assist the (male) jihadis with prayers and money.' She also warned Muslim women not "to abandon [the modesty] of her appearance and covering herself, this is [necessarily] followed by a series of other [neglects] that push her away from her religion.'
While this was the central al Qaeda party line in 2009, it now appears that a new militant jihadi role has emerged for women--at least for Tunisian women who are reportedly going off to Syria to sexually "comfort" the rebels fighting there.
And it's become enough of a problem that Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi ben Jeddou announced Thursday to the National Constituent Assembly that an alarming number of Tunisian women have gone to aid rebel militants in Syria having "sexual relations with 20, 30, 100 militants" adding that "After the sexual liaisons they have there in the name of "jihad al-nikah' [translated as sexual holy war] they come home pregnant."
Following this statement, the Tunisia women's ministry said on Saturday that they are drawing up plans to counter the growing number of women going to Syria to comfort militants. "The ministry intends to boost its cooperation with both government and non-government bodies on this issue to come up with appropriate ways to thwart the plans of those who encourage such practices," a ministry statement announced.
While neither ministry gave any figures about the numbers of Tunisian women taking part in "jihad al-nikah" media reports have said hundreds of Tunisian women have gone to Syria for such purposes--some of them perhaps following the hundreds of men who have also been joining militants to battle the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It appears that the practice of permitting extramarital sexual relations with multiple partners via temporary marriage contracts is viewed by militant jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda as a legitimate form of holy war.
Over the past fifteen years thousands of Tunisians took part in militant jihadi battles in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. Interior Minister ben Jeddou stated that in the past six months since he'd taken office he had instituted increased border controls that had thwarted six thousand young persons from traveling to Syria to join the rebels and that eighty individuals organizing travel to Syria had also been arrested.
While I've been studying female terrorists for years now noting the number of roles they often play in militant jihadi groups--from translators of texts that glorify and justify terrorism, to couriers of messages and money, cooks and support roles in militant camps, trainers of the new generation of militants and for those willing to give up their lives for the cause--carriers of suicide bombs, this is completely new to me.
In all of my interviews, with and about female terrorists involved in militant jihadi groups, I've always been impressed that despite the many roles they may take on--they rarely--if ever hold leadership roles or wield much power. Indeed in the Nord Ost siege in Moscow where eight hundred hostages were held for three days the terrorist women took orders from the men. And despite being rigged with suicide bombs strapped around their waists not one of the twenty women dared detonate before being overcome with gas while their men went out in the foyer to fight the onslaught of Russian Special Forces. In that case the women's doubt to take initiative may have saved the hostages who survived the gassing that occurred by their own side.
While sexual relations do play a role in militant jihadi groups, often claims are made by opposing forces that militant jihadis coerce women into becoming suicide bombers by raping or compromising them sexually. However for most of the women I've interviewed--or if they are an already dead suicide bomber I talked to their family members or close associates and sometimes also to their senders--most appear to have gone willingly. They didn't need to be compromised or coerced inside conflict zones but instead begged their senders to equip them to enact revenge for traumatic experiences they had undergone at the hands of their enemy. Their own men had no need to use rape or sexual coercion to motivate them.
In non-conflict zones females get involved for more complicated reasons involving converts who may want to purify themselves--like Muriel Degauque in Belgium who appeared to want to cleanse herself from survival guilt and her past by becoming a "martyr". Likewise in the Netherlands a small group of girls seduced into a militant jihadi group signed last wills and testaments and offered themselves in informal marriages to young men who promised to become "martyrs" apparently seeing themselves exalted among their peers in the future by becoming widows of "martyrs".
In the case of the Tunisian girls who are going to Syria it still remains unclear if they are following young men they love and then end up servicing the needs of many, or if they are voluntarily engaging in such acts, or somehow coerced. Despite the strict practice of Islam--one thing clear in Islamic culture is a healthy respect for the sex drives of both males and females. Perhaps in this case some Tunisian females are finding a way to throw off all fetters and embrace their sexuality? And it is also not clear who takes responsibility for the babies born out of such sexual liaisons and if the girls are accepted back into society when they return home? If the extremists group's bonds are strong it may be that extremists at home protect them just as widows and children of "martyred" fighters in Palestine and Chechnya also receive support.
In April, the former mufti of Tunisia, Sheikh Othman Battikh speaking about thirteen girls that had been sent to Syria for such purposes, said that Tunisian girls were being fooled into going to provide sexual services and he named these services prostitution--moral and educational corruption.
While their services are likely much appreciated by the rebels receiving them--it does seem it can hardly be good for the women involved.