Photo: Flickr / Hernán Piñera

Terror princesses and mourning mothers

‘Women and Terrorism: A gendered study’ review

Author Amel Grami and Sawssan Abou-Zahr

What makes a woman jeopardise her life and the lives of her children through engaging in violent extremism? The most common answers claim she is weak, manipulated or brain-washed, but these are superficial, sexist explanations. Amel Grami, a renowned Tunisian expert in religion and women’s studies, has been reflecting on this question for years. Her book in Arabic, entitled Women and Terrorism: A Gendered Study, was published as a joint venture with journalist Munia Arfawi. Arfawi undertook the field work and interviews. Grami engaged Arfawi to help her in the final phases of the book in 2016 for security reasons since she had received death threats. The book combines serious research and investigative journalism. As a journalist myself, I understand my profession as being storytelling, with the utmost accuracy. This requires primary source research and rigorous fact checking; as such I believe that academics and journalists should be working more as partners. This book is shows the strength of this approach.

While the book is mainly about women’s involvement in terrorism, it also provides sound explanations of what drives frustrated Muslim youth, both male and female, towards radicalisation. ‘The lack of knowledge of Islamic history and culture,’ says Grami, ‘reduces the message of Islam to the possession of a sword and a gun’. Many of the young recruits are new converts, and their religious information is derived from propaganda posts on social media. To young recruits ‘a rap song with religious content is more important than Friday sermons. This is “Pop Jihad”, a salvation and act of repentance after years of alcohol and drug addictions, especially for third and fourth generations of Muslim immigrants in the West.’ ISIS has produced ‘visual Islam,’ producing violent movies, a horrifying – but appealing – substitute to the Hollywood representation of white male dominance in action thrillers.

Although the Taliban, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and al Shabaab provide neither developmental projects nor a clear political vision, they do provide a safe psychological haven for thousands of deprived and underprivileged youth. They transform men and women from vulnerable people on the margins of society to active agents with a community and a cause.

Radicalisation and romance

This book examines various women: those joining radicalised family members; those living under the control of fundamentalist groups, many of whom are foreigners; female suicide bombers and fighters; and those promoting violence and looking for recruits on social media. With a few exceptions, these women are aged between 16 and 35 years old. It is worth noting that, in the Tunisian context, many female terrorists had university degrees and rewarding jobs. These women were not subordinates to men; in fact some recruited males to their cause. Grami acknowledges that feminist and activist role models have lost contact with those young women. She calls for a critical review of the discourse of Arab feminism in that light.

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban didn’t use women on the battlefield until the rise of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2003. This paved the way for the formation of ISIS. In 2005, Al-Zarqawi called upon women to take an active role in jihad, marking a shift in ideology which led to a rise in women suicide bombers in Iraq. Years later, the theological mentor of Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia issued a fatwa legalising ‘migration to jihad’ without a male chaperone. The Al Khansaa Brigade of ISIS in Iraq is an all-female group tasked with ‘raising religious awareness for women, and punishing those who do not abide by the law’. Al Khansaa took part in preaching and recruitment as well as fighting, torturing and kidnapping. A naïve form of romanticism was used to recruit Western adolescents looking for a real-life Robin Hood. Some writers have described women’s involvement in jihad in terms of liberation from traditional gender roles. Grami retorts: ‘Is violence a means to liberate women and empower them? Is equality achieved by killing?’

‘Terror princesses’

Arfawi also profiles ‘terror princesses,’ such as Fathiyah Al Hassni. She was a Morrocan woman who joined ISIS in 2015. This 50-year-old woman had once embraced feminism, but later lost her job because she chose to wear hijab. This became a turning point in her life. Her husband had fought in Bosnia, and took the family to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Fathiyah was imprisoned in Riyadh with one son whilst the other was killed in a military operation with his father. The boy was thirteen years old.

Some of these women are well known to the media, such as Malika El-Aroud whose first husband assassinated the Afghan military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud two days prior to the 9/11 attacks. She was known as an inspiration to women jihadists through her writings. She was found guilty for supporting extremist organisations by a Swiss court. Other notorious figures are Hasna Ait BoulHacen and Hayat Boumeddiene. Hasna, a cousin of the ringleader of the Paris attacks, died in a police raid on a flat in Saint-Denis in November 2015. Moroccan authorities refused to accept her body back for burial. Hayat, the most wanted woman in France, managed to escape France to Turkey and was last seen in Raqqa, Syria.

At 13 years of age, Iman and Sanaa Lgress are among the world’s youngest terrorists. They endured a miserable childhood in Rabat’s most underprivileged neighbourhood. Their mother was a street beggar; their father was unknown so they saw Osama bin Laden as a father figure. Also, Iman had been brutally raped by her grandfather’s friend. Shortly afterwards, a prominent Salafi sheikh recruited the twins to attack the Moroccan parliament. They were arrested, received a royal pardon in 2005 – and went on to study hotel management.

Mehreziah Ben Saad, an English literature teacher, was used as human shield by her fundamentalist husband in a police raid on their home. She died at the age of 25 in front of her infant daughters. Her story is used to incite resentment by fundamentalists. On the other hand, Asma Al-Bukhari used her son as a human shield. She held him in one arm while shooting at security officers with the other.

Fatima Al-Zawaghi was the first woman entrusted with sensitive tasks within Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia, from monitoring social media, to issuing orders to the organisation’s cells after Tunisian authorities imprisoned the organisation’s leaders in August 2013. She became the de facto ruler of the terrorist group until her arrest in 2014. She is currently behind bars and shows no remorse.

Through these stories, the book is tracks the rise of Ansar Al-Sharia after the Tunisian revolution. This group held its first conference in May 2012. Many of the fundamentalists – male and female – profiled in the book were recruited or radicalised at this event.

‘Salafi and Jihadi publications were available on the streets across the mosques… and martial arts were taught there,’ writes Grami. Some of the recruits were approached in unusual places such as hospitals, prisons, and at funerals.

Mothers in mourning

Arfawi also interviewed terrorists’ female relatives. It is hard not to sympathise with a mother unable to believe that her shy son has killed tourists in cold blood, or to weep at the heart-breaking story of a sixteen-year-old shepherd beheaded by terrorists. Both were poor boys, and very fond of their mothers.

‘My son is not a terrorist; he is just a teenager who got manipulated and deceived,’ said one mother. Another desperate mother informed the authorities that her son intended to join a fundamentalist group in Syria. She is experiencing harassment in the community, but says ‘but what shall I do? I cannot hate him.’ Around 15,000 young Tunisians have gone to Libya and Syria. Should their mothers suffer in reprisal of their crimes?

Arfawi is concerned that it appears that ‘good children could turn into suicide bombers over a few days’. This is an issue that every policy maker, religious preacher and parent should think about. It affects each of us. How can we respond?

Grami admits she does not have all the answers; rather she describes her research as a first step towards ‘more explorations in setting the foundations for terrorism and violent extremism studies from a gender perspective.’ She says there is no single formulaic description that could apply to Palestinian women, Chechnyan freedom fighters, the members of ISIS’s Al-Khansaa Brigade or the Westerners joining the ‘Islamic State’.

Gender has rarely been the focus of research in exploring violent extremism and its political context in Muslim majority contexts. It gained more traction after the 9/11 attacks and the global war on terror, when the topic of gender and extremism emerged. However, in countries with an Islamic heritage, gender remains a dubious Western concept which is not taken seriously in policy making and academic research.



This review was published on ICAN and has been reproduced with permission.