Muslim women are increasingly joining the global jihad, some motivated by religious conviction to change the plight of Muslims under occupation, and recruited by al-Qaeda and local terrorist groups strained by increased arrests and deaths of male operatives. Attacks by female fighters, also known as the mujahidaat, are arguably more deadly than those conducted by male jihadists, attributed in part to the perception that women are unlikely to commit such acts of horror, and when they do, the shock or “CNN factor” of their attacks draws far greater media attention than male bombers. Increasing awareness with instant media attention can motivate other women to commit similar attacks.
The use of Muslim women for suicide attacks by male-dominated terrorist groups could have implications on the jihadi mindset, challenging more conservative groups such as al-Qaeda to reconsider the utility of the Muslim woman on the front lines of jihad. These groups will likely exploit women to conduct operations on their behalf to advance their goals and achieve short-term tactical gain. Convinced of the operational advantages of using female fighters, and the media attention she garners—including some sympathy from the Muslim world—men began to rely on women to carry out attacks.
While women enlisted and played a pivotal role in operations, including the veteran Palestinian female Leila Khalid for a myriad of successful hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, counterterrorism experts and analysts have rarely focused on female terrorists. According to Dr. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist, the notion of a woman perpetrating acts of violence “runs counter to Western stereotypes and misconceptions of male terrorists; we assume that women are second-class citizens and rely on the men to run the organization,” rather than challenging our prejudices of women in these terror networks .
Since at least 2000, there has been a gradual progression of suicide attacks conducted by Muslim women in new theaters of operation, including Uzbekistan, Egypt, and more recently, Iraq . The attack in Talafar, northern Iraq, by a female suicide bomber came as a surprise, but was predictable. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the latest coup de main at an army recruitment center on September 28, 2005 by a “blessed sister.” The Iraqi woman stood among job applicants before detonating; a similar tactic was used by women in the Irish Republican Army, who carried bombs beneath their clothing feigning pregnancy or wheeling weapons in baby carriages. The attack in late September was not the first by an Iraqi woman; in April 2003, two women, one pretending to be pregnant, blew up a car at a coalition checkpoint, killing three soldiers . Although attacks by women in Iraq are still a relatively new trend, women will likely play a wider role in operations where jihad mobilizes an entire population against a clear aggressor. That leaves Iraq vulnerable to attacks by female suicide bombers in the near future.
The attacks in Egypt earlier this year by two women remain an anomaly. For years, Egyptian men, not women, fostered the growth of the jihadi movement, which led to the formation of different groups, varying in their membership and orientation. Yet, the April 30, 2005 shooting on a tourist bus in Cairo by two veiled Egyptian women is evidence that women in the Arab Muslim world can play an increasing role in operations. The women, both in their 20s, were related to the male perpetrator, Ehab Yousri Yassin. Negat Yassin was the bomber’s sister and Iman Ibrahim Khamis his fiancée; they reportedly shot at the bus in revenge for Yassin’s death by Egyptian authorities and then shot themselves , probably to avoid capture. It remains unclear if the two women intended to commit suicide or chose the tactic to evade arrest by Egyptian police.
While little is known about the two Egyptian women and their intentions for suicide, the story of a young Uzbek girl illustrates her determination to participate in a suicide attack in March 2003. Nineteen-year old Dilnoza Holmuradova detonated explosives at Tashkent’s Chorsu Market, killing at least 47 people, including ten policemen . Dilnoza came from a solid middle-class background, was well educated, spoke five languages, and, unlike the vast majority of Uzbek women, she had a driver’s license . After dropping out of the police academy she was attending in 2002, Dilnoza began praying regularly, and in January 2004 she and her sister left home without a word to their parents, taking their Islamic literature in the house with them . Her recruitment by the Islamic Jihad Group, a radical offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), likely resulted in her decision to carry out the operation.
The attacks by women in Iraq, Egypt, and Uzbekistan—three women unrelated in culture, religion, and national identities—are reflective of a crisis in Muslim societies. In both instances, women who had never before conducted terrorist operations, are beginning to challenge their perceived enemies and male-only terrorist groups. Their actions could provide an example for other Muslim women to either enlist in extremist organizations or volunteer for future attacks.
Historical Precedence for Female Fighters
For centuries, Muslim women in different struggles and communities have joined men on the front lines of war, and have died alongside them. The most prominent example of an early Muslim woman in jihad is Nusayba bint K’ab, who fought in the Battle of Uhud with her husband and two sons and during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr. She joined the Muslim troops, suffered eleven wounds, and lost one arm . The Prophet’s own female relatives took part in jihad; his wife Ayesha led the Battle of the Camel, and his granddaughter Zaynab bint Ali fought in the Battle of Karbala. Other women were recognized for tending to the wounded, donating their jewelry for the jihad, and encouraging their male family members to fight to ensure the survival of Islam .
The involvement of the early Arab women in jihad is celebrated today throughout the Muslim world and they serve as icons and a precedent for contemporary Muslim women who choose suicide operations. In modern day resistance movements, a Christian Lebanese woman, Loula Abboud, “may have been the model for the first Palestinian women who became suicide bombers in 2002” . The dark-eyed petite girl of 19 conducted a suicide operation in the Bekaa valley in southern Lebanon in April 1985, “exceeding all expectations” for men and women in war . Described by her brother as a woman “fighting for the liberation of her own homeland,” Aboud’s struggle for “self-defense” is echoed by other women around the world, including women of the first Palestinian intifada, who led a campaign to re-open schools, teach underground classes for children, and participate in “street activism that directly confronted the occupations forces” .
However heroic the modern day female fighter may be regarded by her community, contemporary women warriors do not resemble her predecessors. The involvement of early women in jihad is recognized in the Qur’an and hadith. Women were also rewarded for performing the same duties as men. A Qur’anic verse was revealed to reflect the equal status of both men and women: “Lo! Muslim men and Muslim women, and believer men and believer women, and men who obey and women who obey…Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward” (Surat al-Ahzab 33:35).
Local conflicts are critical motivators, but each conflict is unique and must take into account the historical framework from which conflict emerges. For instance, aside from being linked by gender, the mujahidaat in Chechnya have little in common with women in Palestine, and women in Saudi Arabia share absolutely nothing with their “sisters” in Uzbekistan.
While conflicts and motivations vary, a woman’s decision to pursue violent action is impacted by personal experiences and outcomes. Coupled with the absence of change to her own local conflict, of which she is a part of, a woman is more apt to volunteer or be recruited for an operation to end her own suffering or that of her people. Suicide becomes the preferred tactic when Muslim women perceive they have no other alternative to affect change to their local environment; coupled with a heightened sense of anger, disillusionment, and despair, some women choose suicide as a way to communicate and channel their frustration. This is particularly true for those who believe there are no other social, economic, or political opportunities available to them.
The perceived threat against Islam is another powerful motivator that sanctions the use of violence as an effective means of communication. Convinced that the local Muslim community can no longer afford inaction, some Muslim women enlist in operations to ensure the survival of the Muslim community. For the believer of martyrdom, subjugation to the faith is rewarding. The individual, knowing that death is likely, “inspires other Muslims to continue the struggle and the martyr’s death is kindling wood for jihad and Islam” .
Assured of the rewards of martyrdom, women perceive they have nothing to lose. Printed in a HAMAS monthly publication al-Muslimah, Palestinian operative Reem Rayishi said, “I am proud to be the first female HAMAS martyr. I have two children and love them very much. But my love to see God was stronger than my love for my children, and I’m sure that God will take care of them if I become a martyr” .
A Short-Lived Panorama
The liberal door that now permits women to participate in operations will likely close once male jihadists gain new recruits and score a few successes in the war on terrorism. At the same time that a Muslim woman is indispensable to male-dominated terrorist groups and the war effort, she also is expendable. The sudden increase in female bombers over the past year may represent nothing more than a riding wave of al-Qaeda’s success rather than a lasting effort in the global jihad. In the short term, male fighters could encourage Muslim women to join their organizations, but there is no indication that these men would allow the mujahidaat to prevail authority and replace images of the male folk-hero. There is also no evidence that Muslim female operatives will have contact with senior male leaders, except to execute attacks.
1. Interview with Dr. Marc Sageman in October 2005.
2. Two female suicide bombers killed themselves and three U.S. Army Rangers at a checkpoint in western Iraq. One of the women appeared to be pregnant, and as she exited the vehicle, she screamed for assistance. “Women kill 3 Rangers in suicide bombing,” April 5, 2003. www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationsworld/
3. “Woman suicide bomber strikes Iraq,” news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4289168.stm
4. “Attacks injure nine in Egypt,” Columbia Daily Tribune, published May 1, 2005. www.showmenews.com/2005/May/20050501News020.asp
5. IWPR Staff in Central Asia, “Uzbekistan: Affluent Suicide Bombers,” RCA No. 278, April 20, 2004.
8. Busool, Assad Nimer, Muslim Women Warriors, Chicago, Illinois: Al Huda, 1995. p.35-37
9. Ibid, p. 34-35.
10. Davis, Joyce. Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance and Despair in the Middle East, New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2003, p. 68.
11. Davis, p.68-72.
12. Jennifer Plyler interview with Hanadi Loubani, founding member of Women for Palestine. “Palestinian Women’s Political Participation,” WHRnet, November 23, 2003. www.whrnet.org/docs/interview-loubani-0311.html
13. Lustwick, Ian S., “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Targets and Audiences,” in Martha Crenshaw, ed., Terrorism in Context. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 1995, p. 536.
14. Al-Muslimah, February 2004.
Farhana Qazi is a Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an internationally recognized public speaker on conflicts in the Islamic world. She is the author of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley (Pharos, 2016). She is the recipient of the 21st Century Leader Award, presented by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) for her service to the U.S. government. This article was initially published by the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor in November 2005.