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Helping women balance family life, jihad
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - A new women's magazine, al-Khansa, has recently been launched on the Internet. In itself, this is an unremarkable event, but unlike other women's magazines, this one is likely to evoke immense interest among terrorism and counter-terrorism experts rather than the target readership themselves - Muslim women.

Al-Khansa is the first jihadi publication aimed exclusively at women. The magazine's first issue appeared in August and was hosted by several extremist Islamist websites. It says it is published by an organization called the Women's Information Bureau of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and claims that Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was killed by Saudi police in a shootout in June and Issa Saad Mohammed bin Oushan, who was killed the following month, are among its founders. Al-Muqrin and Oushan figured in Saudi Arabia's list of 26 most-wanted militants.

Al-Khansa is named after a female Arab poet who was a close associate of the Prophet Mohammed. In her writings, she eulogized her brother and urged her sons to participate in the jihad. Her sons subsequently died on the battlefield.

The choice of the name al-Khansa for the magazine is not without reason. The magazine aims to motivate women to participate in jihad by bringing up their children to be good jihadis and by being supportive of their husbands, brothers and sons who are fighters.

The editorial in al-Khansa's first issue says that "martyrdom for the sake of Allah" and gaining "the pleasure of Allah and His Paradise" should be the goal of women. It draws attention to the support that women extend to the jihadis. "We stand shoulder to shoulder with our men, supporting them, helping them, and backing them up. We educate their sons and we prepare ourselves. May Allah know of the honesty of our intentions and of our good deeds, and [may He] choose us and make us martyrs for His sake ..."

The magazine sees no contradiction between being a woman/mother and being a jihadi at the same time. The editorial says: "We will stand covered by our veils and wrapped in our robes, weapons in hand, our children in our laps, with the Koran and the Sunna of the Prophet of Allah directing and guiding us. The blood of our husbands and the body parts of our children are the sacrifice by means of which we draw closer to Allah, so that through us, Allah will cause the martyrdom for His sake to succeed."

In fact, al-Khansa exploits the woman's traditional role in family and society as mother and nurturer of her children to get them to play a larger role in the jihad. In an article titled "Obstacles in the Path of the Jihad Warrior Woman" a contributor calling herself Umm Badr writes: "The woman in the family is a mother, wife, sister and daughter. In society, she is an educator, propagator and preacher of Islam, and a female jihad warrior. Just as she defends her family from any possible aggression, she defends society from destructive thoughts and from ideological and moral deterioration, and she is the soldier who bears his pack and weapon on his back in preparation for the military offensive ..."

This call to Muslim women to become jihad warrior women is not new. In early Muslim society, women fought alongside men in battle. The Prophet's wives had immense political power. Although Muslim women have by and large been kept away and stayed away from the actual jihadi battlefield in recent centuries, as they are expected to take care of the home and the family while the male relatives do the fighting, in recent years jihadi propaganda literature and radical Islamist websites have exhorted women to sacrifice for the jihadi cause.

Extremist Islamist websites are generous with advice on how women can and should participate in the jihad. There are many suggestions on how they should bring up children to be good jihadis and what books they should read to their children to make them devout Muslims and brave fighters. There is advice on how mothers, wives and sisters of jihadi fighters should be supportive of their husbands' decision to become a jihadi and how they should provide food, shelter and care for all jihadis. That women must sacrifice their sons and husbands is a recurrent theme of much jihadi literature. Stories draw heavily from the lives of jihadis in history and the way their women relatives willingly sacrificed their sons and husbands for the sake of the cause of jihad.

What sets apart the advice in al-Khansa is that the articles and editorials are presented as if women write them, although whether this is indeed the case is a debatable point. In the past, it has generally been men calling on women to support the jihadi cause.

In her article in al-Khansa, Umm Badr outlines some of the "obstacles" in the path of a women jihadi warrior. These include inadequate knowledge of religion, emotions like fear and poor military preparedness. The writer points to a "defective understanding of jihad, according to which only men are responsible for waging jihad, or jihad means only bearing arms and direct conflict [with the enemy]".

This is a flawed perception, the writer argues, as a Muslim woman wages jihad by funding the jihad, by waiting for her jihad warrior husband and when she educates her children "to that which Allah loves". "She wages jihad when she bears arms to defend her family ... She wages jihad when she shows patience and fortitude with her husband who is waging jihad for the sake of Allah. She wages jihad when she supports jihad and when she calls for jihad in word, deed, belief, and prayer."

"It is true that originally the commandment of jihad was incumbent upon men and not women," the article observes. "But when jihad becomes a personal obligation, then the woman is summoned like a man, and need ask permission neither from her husband nor from her guardian, because she is obligated and none need to ask permission in order to carry out a commandment that everyone must carry out ..."

In the past, a Muslim woman was seen as the responsibility of her male relatives. Militant organizations could not recruit women directly without transgressing familial and societal honor codes that require women to seek permission for every action they take outside the family home. To secretly recruit a woman as a suicide bomber or even as a courier of messages and weapons would be seen as an insult to the family's male honor. Increasingly, this seems to be changing, evident by the al-Khansa article saying the woman need not ask for permission to become a jihadi, as it is her duty to do so.

Some Islamic clerics have in recent years come out in support of women participating in military operations, even "martyrdom operations" (suicide attacks). Reacting to Palestinian women suicide bombers, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian who is the dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Qatar, ruled that "Women's participation in the martyrdom [suicide] operations carried out in Palestine given the status of the land as an occupied territory ... is one of the most praised acts of worship."

This "act is a form of martyrdom for the cause of Allah, and it entitles them [women] to the same reward earned by their male counterparts who also die in the cause of Allah," said al-Qaradawi. He pointed out that when the enemy attacks part of the Muslim territories, jihad becomes the duty of every individual, justifying women going out for jihad even without the permission of their male relatives.

The article in al-Khansa points out that poor military preparedness is the "main problem", not only of women but also of men. It calls on women to "at least know how to use a weapon in order to defend her honor", particularly in these times when the "enemy at the gate with his equipment, his ammunition, his army and his navy, his criminals, and his whores, has desecrated the honor of Muslim women everywhere."

"The female jihad warrior must be familiar with various types of weapons and ammunition, and with how to disassemble, clean, reassemble, use, and shoot a weapon." The article promises to "assist women in these matters" in upcoming issues of al-Khansa. It stresses the importance of physical fitness and to this end calls on women "not overindulge in eating and drinking", to fast regularly and exercise.

This increasing openness to allow women into the fight is not because of any new sensitivity to women's rights or any new awareness on issues of gender equality. Male fighters have only woken up to the fact that women engaged in military operations such as suicide bombings are less likely to be detected and that the survival of terror outfits depends on support from women.

On the one hand, nationalist and/or religious militant groups call on women to give birth to more sons to ensure a steady supply of fighters. Women in these societies are not allowed to use contraceptives or opt for abortion. This was the case in the early 1990s at the height of the militancy in Kashmir, when Islamist militant groups exhorted women to have more sons. Propaganda by fundamentalist groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Banat-ul-Islam (its women's wing) would tell women that they were life givers and so they should not kill their unborn children. At the same time, these organizations would exhort women to sacrifice their sons for the sake of the cause.

Radical Islamist groups are of course not the only ones calling on women to sacrifice their children for the cause. Governments, too, expect women to cheerfully send off their sons and husbands to the battlefield "to die for the flag, protect territory and the country's national security" and to not grieve when they are killed. Only their effort to draw women into war is more subtle and sophisticated.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher/writer based in Bangalore, India. She has a doctoral degree from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Her areas of interest include terrorism, conflict zones and gender and conflict. Formerly an assistant editor at Deccan Herald (Bangalore) she now teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

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Sep 15, 2004




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