A debate has been ongoing among analysts since the summer about the view the Islamic State (IS) has of mujahidat (female fighters). IS now seems to have settled the matter in its newsletter, Al-Naba.
THE CASE FOR
In August, Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin wrote for CTC Sentinel of “an apparent shift” by the Islamic State (IS) on the issue of women’s role in combat.
This article came after a spate of stories in early July from Mosul of women using themselves as guided explosives, notably the 8 July 2017 report of a woman cradling a baby who had blown herself up an attack on security forces. Acknowledging that “most allegations regarding women bombers in Iraq and Syria have been dubious”, Winter and Margolin write that “there is reason to believe that at least some of these latest reports from Mosul are credible”.
Winter and Margolin highlight as evidence of IS’s “turnaround” on the issue of female fighters an essay, “Our Journey to Allah”, in Rumiya 11, released on 13 July. This four-page polemic “would have been wholly unremarkable were it not for four sentences toward the end in which the author declared, by analogy, that women could now take up arms in combative jihad”, said Winter and Margolin. The authors contend that IS was calling for the emulation of Umm Amara, a female companion of the Prophet Muhammad who is said to have shielded him at the Battle of Uhud.
“This call-to-arms compounded”, the authors say, a passage in the 59th edition of Al-Naba, published on 15 December 2016, which stated that “jihad is not, as a rule, an obligation for women, but let the female Muslim know as well that if the enemy enters her abode, jihad is just as necessary for her as it is for the man, and she should repel him by whatever means possible.”
“Taken together, these declarations—both of which reframed the Islamic State jihad as a defense—seemed to suggest that the caliphate had at least rhetorically lifted its moratorium on female combatants”, Winter and Margolin argue. Where IS once confined women’s role to retaining her modesty out of sight in the home, supporting the jihad with money and words (as propagandists), and producing children who could be raised as mujahideen—even if that meant remarrying once husbands were “martyred”—“this position appeared to change” as the caliphate neared its end, the authors conclude, albeit “the extent to which women are formally being operationalized currently remains unclear”.
THE CASE AGAINST
Taking the opposite view, writing in The Atlantic in September, Simon Cottee and Mia Bloom contended that the female IS suicide bomber is “almost entirely fictitious, conjured up by ISIS’s foes to amplify the group’s demonic extremity and desperate unravelling”.
Noting the work of Nelly Lahoud, Cottee and Bloom argued that, while jihadists see women’s role as “crucially important”, they also see it as “best performed from within the confines of her home”, servicing her husband and raising children. IS’s previous iteration used women in some roles, the authors note, but this was “a tactical innovation and to shame wavering male supporters into action”. Since the caliphate declaration, IS has proven “obsequiously conformist on the matter of gender”, with women marked out only as wives, mothers, propagandists, and enforcers of (female) morality as part of Liwa al-Khansa (لواء الخنساء).
Cottee and Bloom point to the Khansa manifesto itself, released in January 2015, which was adamant in banning female participation in combat, though noted the exceptional, emergency circumstances if an area of IS-held territory was under attack and there were not enough men to defend it. The authors noted the highly dubious sourcing of the claims that thirty-eight IS women had blown themselves up in Mosul in July; that this was a fabrication, part of the active measures from Baghdad, seems overwhelmingly likely. Moreover, IS, which celebrates even its most unimpressive martyrs, did not—“on its social media, encrypted platforms or internal discussions”—“acknowledge the use of female suicide bombers”.
With regards to the evidence marshalled by Winter and Margolin, Cottee and Bloom counter that the Rumiya article simply offers a “moral example of the righteous female companions of the Prophet”, while the Naba piece “has not the slightest bearing on the issue of whether or not women are permitted to fight on the battlefield. It is merely a reference to the wholly uncontentious norm that if a woman is attacked by an enemy combatant in her home she is allowed to use violence to defend herself.”
Cottee and Bloom concluded that while the image of the female suicide bomber is a shocking and sensational one, “until real evidence emerges, it retains the status of a myth”.
THE ISLAMIC STATE WEIGHS IN
On page eleven of Al-Naba 100, released on 5 October 2018, there is an article entitled, “The Duty of Women in the Jihad Against Enemies”.
The first paragraph explains: “Today, in the context of this war against the Islamic State, with its intensity and pain, it is incumbent on Muslim women to fulfill their duties at all levels in supporting the mujahideen in this battle by preparing themselves as mujahidat fi sabilillah (for the sake of God) and preparing to defend their religion by sacrificing themselves for … God”. Women must also “incite” their husbands and children to stand firm as holy warriors as IS’s enemies close in, Al-Naba says.
The long article includes various examples from “the golden era of Islam”, such as the above-mentioned Umm Amara (named here as “Nusayba al-Ansariya” and also known as Nusayba bint Ka’ab), backed up with Hadith, showing that women have done battle with the enemies of Islam before. To follow these examples will make the women of today like the Sahaba (Companions [of the prophet Muhammad]), Al-Naba adds, in-keeping with the notion that Islam began perfect and has been corrupted over time.
Underlining the sharp break with traditional jihadi-Salafist doctrine, which holds that woman may engage in jihad if attacked in their own home or (as IS has said) if there are no men around to defend areas of the caliphate, Al-Naba presents these examples in this way: “Women stepped onto the battlefields in the first centuries of Islam not because of the lack of men at the time, but due to their love for reward and redemption and sacrifice for the sake of God”.
Page nine of Al-Naba 102, released on 19 October 2017, had, “Stories from the Women’s Jihad, [Part] 1”, and the second part appeared on page nine of Al-Naba 103 on 26 October 2017. The first focuses on Umm Sulaym al-Ansariya (real name: Rumaysa bint Milhan), also a sahabiyat, as is the lady discussed in the second, Mu’aza bint Abdullah al-Adawiyya.
The matter, then, is settled: IS has decided to reverse itself on the matter of women in combat. Perhaps this is because of the military situation IS finds itself in, or perhaps it is an ideological evolution produced by IS’s nature and structure, or likely—since the latter is so often a product of the former—it is for combination of these reasons. In time, the group itself might tell us.
In terms of the debate that happened over the last few months in the analytical community, the positions are in fact reconcilable. Winter and Margolin had detected the signs of a coming change in IS’s position, though perhaps overstated just a little how far along the group was. Cottee and Bloom were correct to point out that this change had not in fact occurred and quite correctly rejected much of the evidence adduced in support of the argument that IS was, or was getting, onboard with female fighters at that time; they were perhaps a little over-categorical in the latter respect.