« 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]:

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:

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.

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: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):

[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.