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In recent months, a controversy has emerged among outside analysts regarding the role of women in the Islamic State (or ISIS), especially after unconfirmed reports from the battle for Mosul suggested that the group had begun using large numbers of female suicide bombers. Some analysts, such as the terrorism researchers Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin, argue that ISIS’ position on women in combat has recently evolved from prohibition to encouragement—as illustrated by some writings in the group’s official magazine, Rumiyah, and newsletter, al-Naba, which in their view call on women to take up arms. On the other hand, Mia Bloom and Simon Cottee argue that this is a misreading of the relevant passages and that ISIS has consistently prohibited women from fighting and continues to do so.
Both sides agree, however, on a supposed evolution from the time of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, when the group (then called al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI) openly used female suicide bombers, to the era of ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliphate, when it is not thought to have engaged in the practice, focusing instead on women’s role in the home and society. In other words, they draw a contrast between Zarqawi, the supposed innovator, and ISIS, which allegedly returned to more traditional gender roles. “While the precursor to ISIS, al-Qaeda in Iraq, found a more proactive role for women,” Bloom and Cottee write, “ISIS, in marked contrast, has strongly opposed any such innovation.”
Although both sides make valid points, the debate between them is characterized by ongoing misconceptions and errors. There is no need to posit an evolution in thinking from the days of Zarqawi up to the present. Rather, the evidence suggests that ISIS and its predecessors have always considered a combat role for women to be undesirable but permissible when necessary.
From the days of Zarqawi, AQI and its successors have emphasized that in most circumstances, a woman’s role is to encourage her husband to wage jihad and raise her male children to be fighters, but in certain situations women may conduct operations themselves. As Winter and Margolin note, Zarqawi suggested as early as January 2004 that women could have a role in fighting—an idea he used at the time to berate men who refused to take up the cause of jihad. Later, in a speech released in July 2005, Zarqawi touched on the role of the “mujahida woman” (or woman who wages jihad), whom he described as “raising her child not to live, but to fight and be killed, then to live and be free.”
Yet Zarqawi also mentioned in the 2005 speech that “many mujahida sisters in the Land of Two Rivers [Iraq] have been sent to me, requesting to undertake martyrdom operations [suicide bombings].” Although he did not say whether he approved these requests, he once again used the example of women to shame men. “Has the disgrace in my ummah reached this point?,” he asked. “Have the men disappeared and thus forced us to recruit women? Is it not a disgrace on the sons of my ummah that our virtuous, pure sisters ask to carry out martyrdom operations while the men of my ummah are sleeping in their slumber and playing in their amusement?” Winter and Margolin further note that Zarqawi refers to Umm Amarah, a woman who fought for the Muslims in the Battle of Uhud in the Prophet’s time, but overlook the example he cites from a battle between the Byzantines and the forces of Khalid bin al-Walid, an commander in the early Arab conquests. In the latter case, Khalid did not use the women as fighters, but rather placed them behind the army of men to supplicate to God for victory and urge on the men, while ordering these women to deny the men sexual relations should they not fight.
It is obvious from these examples that Zarqawi, like his successors, saw women first as fighters’ wives and mothers, who could only undertake operations themselves in certain exceptional circumstances. In his view, a perceived shortage of men willing to fight for the cause and the pressures brought about by the large U.S. occupation presence in Iraq justified using women as operatives and suicide bombers. By October 2005, AQI had begun claiming operations using female suicide bombers.
AQI and its earlier successors neither administered nor exercised control over contiguous territory to the extent that ISIS has since 2014. When the Islamic State of Iraq (the immediate predecessor of ISIS) announced its appointments of cabinet ministers in 2007 and 2009, the titles meant little in practice. In contrast, the various diwans (government departments) that ISIS set up after proclaiming its caliphate actually function on the ground, as is well attested both in the group’s extensive propaganda and its internal documents. In other words, ISIS has achieved a far greater degree of tamkin—a concept in the jihadist context that denotes control of territory and governance—than its predecessors.
Having created its ideal state and been bolstered by an influx of foreign fighters into its ranks, ISIS has had access to an unprecedented amount of military manpower. In addition, it has not faced the vast occupying foreign armies that its predecessors dealt with in the days of the Iraq War. Thus it has generally had less need, if any, for female fighters and suicide bombers. Indeed, as Winter and Margolin suggest, the use of women in combat had already dropped off by around 2010, likely as a result the United States’ gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
ISIS and its predecessors have always considered a combat role for women to be undesirable but permissible when necessary.
ISIS has strongly encouraged women under its control to fulfill traditional roles as wives and nurturers of children, assisting and urging on fighters for the cause both now and in the future. Yet as is evident from the 2005 speech quoted above, this line of thought is not really a divergence from Zarqawi. What is different this time is that the state project has also given women opportunities to contribute to building the Islamic State. Women in ISIS-controlled territory have been allowed to work in hisba (Islamic morality enforcement) teams; as teachers, doctors, and nurses; and even in Islamic theological investigation and research, as in the case of Dr. Imaan Mustafa al-Bagha, a Syrian woman who studied Islamic jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia before migrating back to Syria to join the Islamic State. She is said to have participated in studies by the Fatwa Issuing and Research department in Raqqa, and to have helped organize women’s hisba teams in the provinces.
This change in circumstances, however, never meant that ISIS had outright prohibited female combatants and suicide bombers. Bloom and Cottee assert that there has been no mention of female suicide bombers in the group’s discourse. This claim is incorrect. It is true, as they say, that ISIS’ external propaganda has never included “images of burqa-clad warriors” in its reports on martyrdom operations and other attacks, preferring instead to feature photographs and descriptions of male operatives. But the whole point of these images is to illustrate the diversity of ages and origins among ISIS fighters. This would be impossible to do with female operatives, given the group’s prohibition on showing their faces. Besides, ISIS, for a variety of reasons, does not report on or declare everything to the outside world relating to its operations and functioning. For instance, the organization has said little about its presence in, and recent eviction from, the western Qalamoun border areas between Syria and Lebanon, or the deal it struck with Hezbollah and the Syrian government to send its remaining fighters and their families by bus to eastern Syria. And it has not formally acknowledged that Amaq News Agency is affiliated with ISIS, despite it being clear to almost all outside observers that the agency is part of the group’s media apparatus.
In any case, ISIS’ discourse has in fact mentioned female suicide bombers and military operatives in a series of internal propaganda publications distributed under the title Stories of the Mujahideen. Principally designed to raise the morale of ISIS fighters, the series features stories of both men and women of the Islamic State. In keeping with the general tenor of ISIS propaganda, the female mujahideen are primarily wives and sometimes hisba members, caring for children and teaching the Islamic religion. But there is also a passing reference to a female suicide bomber who supposedly targeted a Kurdish YPG base in Kobani. One story focuses on Umm Fatima al-Rusiya, who supposedly had three sons who died fighting in Afghanistan and Chechnya. According to the story, she eventually took part in an assault on Grozny in December 2014 after giving allegiance to ISIS.
One should treat these stories with caution when it comes to assessing their factual content, considering their propagandistic purpose. But the fact that they mention women in suicide bombings and military operations at all shows that ISIS does not, contra Bloom and Cottee, have a “prohibition on women’s participation in combat operations” that is waiting to be lifted. Rather, these references are in keeping with a consistent line that has permitted such participation under the right circumstances.
It is right to apply a healthy dose of skepticism to the reports that have come out of Mosul about ISIS’ use of female suicide bombers. These could well be propaganda simply designed to blacken ISIS’ image, and it is unfortunate that they were uncritically recycled in the media without proper analysis.
At the same time, in-depth analysis that purports to show a divergence between Zarqawi and ISIS on the subject of female combatants or a recent change in ISIS’s own thinking on the matter is mistaken. There is no evidence of ISIS ever issuing an explicit and outright prohibition on women’s participation in combat. This is evident from the various official and semi-official texts issued since ISIS’ proclamation of the caliphate, which emphasize women’s role in the home first and foremost but which allow for their participation in fighting under certain conditions. In some cases—as when a woman is attacked in her own home by the enemy—fighting may in fact be an obligation.
Although here we delve into the realm of historical counterfactual, it seems likely that had Zarqawi ever realized a viable state project, he, like his successors in ISIS, would have primarily relegated women to the role of wives and nurturers of children while allowing them to contribute to similar administrative functions. Considering how ISIS reveres Zarqawi and thinks and acts in line with his ideology and methods (including his rabid anti-Shiite sectarianism and hegemonic approach to relations with other insurgent groups), there is little reason to think that it has ever disagreed with him on the issue of female suicide bombers and operatives. Continuity in outlook rather than divergence is the theme here. The only difference is the circumstance.