By Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin
August 16, 2017
The Ideal Muhajirah: Between Myth and
In the summer of 2014—when the Islamic
State seized Mosul, expanded across Syria, and declared a caliphate—the
organization became a daily fixture in the global news media. One facet of it
that received the steadiest stream of attention was its female supporters, the
so-called ‘Jihadi brides’ that had travelled from across the world to join it
as muhajirat (female migrants). The Western tabloid press in particular
fetishized this phenomenon, providing regular reports on women in the Islamic
State that were often reductive and misleading.
The myth of the female foreign fighter
largely owes its existence to claims made on social media by Western muhajirat,
who frequently alleged that they were training for combat and participating in
skirmishes.26 The reality of life for women in the Islamic State was
significantly different from what these notorious accounts suggested—more a
manifestation of Jihadi conceptions on the idealized role of women than
anything else. Female supporters were expected to marry strangers, stay
indoors, and support the jihad from far behind the frontlines. Given that promises
of empowerment and participation were instrumental to the group’s appeal, it is
unsurprising that the social media myth—in which women were given roles as
gun-toting soldiers and enforcers—did not live up to reality.
Examination of the Islamic State’s Arabic-
and English-language propaganda offers a more accurate picture of what life was
like for female members of the group, one that has repeatedly been echoed in
the accounts of women who married into it and were subsequently captured as
they fled from places like Raqqa and Mosul in 2017.27 There are three principal
sources that discuss the role of women in the caliphate: first, the Khansa’
manifesto on women; second, the Zawra’ treatise on female combatants; and,
finally, the women-orientated articles in its magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah,
and, to a slightly lesser extent, its newspaper al-Naba’. Together, these three
sets of material illustrate the realities and evolution of women’s roles in the
Islamic State far more reliably than the personal propaganda disseminated by
The Khansa’ Manifesto
The Khansa’ manifesto, which was first
circulated online by Islamic State supporters in early 2015, offered explicit
advice regarding the role of women in the Islamic State.28 The manifesto’s
author—who claimed to be affiliated with the Khansa’ Brigade, an all-female
policing unit operating in Raqqa at the time—stated that their “fundamental
function” was “in the house, with [their] husband and children.”29 There were
some exceptional circumstances in which female supporters would be permitted to
leave their homes—for example, to study their religion and to engage in medical
On the question of whether or not women
could participate in combative jihad, the document was unequivocal. Women were
expressly forbidden from fighting unless circumstances demanded otherwise.
Indeed, the text held that women may engage in combat “if the enemy is
attacking [their] country, and the men are not enough to protect it, and the
imams give a fatwa for it, as the blessed women of Iraq and Chechnya did with
great sadness.”31 According to the Khansa’ manifesto, then, women could
theoretically participate in combative jihad, but only in highly specific
circumstances, which female Jihadis in Iraq and Syria were not facing at the
time that it was published.
The Zawra’ Foundation
The Zawra’ Foundation—another
female-orientated propaganda outlet aligned with the Islamic State—upheld the
above position when it released a treatise on women and combat in August
Entitled “Valuable Advice and Important
Analysis on the Rules for Women’s Participation in Jihad,” the Zawra’ treatise
noted that there are four conditions in which women may engage in combative
jihad—first, “if a woman is raided in her house, she may defend herself;”33
second, if she is “in a hospital or a public place attacked by the kuffar … and
she has a [suicide] belt with her, she can detonate it;”34 third, “if she is in
a solitary place and has been ordered by the Amir,” she may use a sniper rifle;
and, finally, “martyrdom operations are permissible for women but only if the
amir has permitted it, and it is for the public good.”35
The brief treatise concluded by advising
that women should not preoccupy themselves with the idea of engaging in
combative jihad, but should instead focus on “nursing, cooking, [and] sewing,”
though it was permissible for them to train with “weapons” for purposes of
self-defense.36 In this sense, the text reiterated the Islamic State’s position
that women could only engage in combative jihad if the circumstances demanded
it and they were specifically instructed to by their emir, or if they were
attempting to protect themselves.
Dabiq, Rumiyah, and al-Naba’
Between 2014 and 2017, the Islamic State
intensively discussed the role of women in publications like Dabiq and Rumiyah,
both of which are al-Hayat Media Centre products, and al-Naba’, which is
published by the organization’s Central Media Diwan.
While, when it was last in circulation,
Dabiq offered a slightly more ambiguous stance than that of Rumiyah and
al-Naba’, it was still clear about what women should prioritize as supporters
of the Islamic State jihad. For example, in its first “To Our Sisters” feature,
Dabiq interviewed the erstwhile wife of Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four civilians
at a Anwish grocery store in Paris in January 2015.37 Hayat Boumeddiene—or as
she came to be known, Umm Basir al-Muhajirah—called upon her female readership
“Be a base of support and safety for your
husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. Be advisors to them. They should find
comfort and peace with you. Do not make things difficult for them. Facilitate
all matters for them. Be strong and brave.”38
In spite of the fact that, prior to her
husband’s attack, she had been photographed training with a crossbow in France,
39 Boumeddiene did not encourage women to take up arms. Likewise, in a later
issue of Dabiq, Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah, another female member of the Islamic
State, echoed this position, writing that women have no place on the
battlefield.40 She noted that:
“The absence of an obligation of jihad and
war upon the Muslim woman—except in defence against someone attacking her—does
not overturn her role in building the Ummah, producing men, and sending them
out to the fierceness of battle.”41
When it came to Rumiyah, the magazine that
replaced Dabiq in September 2016, the Islamic State continued in this vein. For
the rest of the 2016 and much of 2017, it doubled down on the fact that women
should not engage in combat. Indeed, even when the coalition-backed campaign
for Mosul was at its fiercest, the Rumiyah editors were preoccupied with urging
their female readership to limit their engagement in jihad to childbearing and
providing for their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. Articles like “Abide
in Your Homes,”42 “Marrying Widows Is an Established Sunnah,”43 and “I Will
Outnumber the Other Nations through You”44 invariably focused on the need for
women to continue living a sedentary, supportive existence. Of course, this was
only up until July 2017, when Rumiyah’s combat moratorium was lifted.
For its part, al-Naba’ discussed the role
of women in the caliphate much less than Dabiq or Rumiyah, offering up only a
handful of essays between late 2015 and 2017 that discussed issues like the
need for female modesty45 and guidelines for what was considered to be the
appropriate dress for women.46 As was the case with Rumiyah, though, this
editorial stance was set to change. In December 2016, it published “I Will Die
While Islam Is Glorious,” the aforementioned article in which it was asserted
that combative “jihad is just as necessary for [the woman] as it is for the
man” provided it was occurring in the right context.47
Up until recently, the message conveyed to
women in the Islamic State’s Arabic- and English-language propaganda was
threefold: first, female supporters were told to stay at home and maintain a
sedentary and reclusive lifestyle; second, they were advised to support the
Islamic State through money and words, rather than deeds; and, third, they were
instructed to have as many children as their bodies would permit and be open to
remarriage if their husband was killed on the battlefield. For years, this
tripartite message—which largely conforms to the traditional Jihadi reasoning
regarding women and war—was consistently and clearly disseminated by the
Islamic State from multiple official channels in multiple languages. Women in
the caliphate were cherished as necessary parts of the Jihadi project but never
encouraged to engage in violence, and on the rare occasion that they did, the
organization’s ambivalence was cleared.
However, as the Islamic State’s territorial
losses and manpower shortages mounted this position appeared to change. While
the extent to which women are formally being operationalised currently remains
unclear, the Islamic State undeniably began to sow doubt as to the
impermissibility of female combatants from the end of 2016 onward, as the
abovementioned articles in al-Naba’ and Rumiyah indicate. In so doing, it drew
on the very same theological precedents referred to by al-Zarqawi in 2005, when
he first substantively discussed the role of women in jihad.
Taking this into account, the Islamic
State’s rhetorical turnaround could turn out to be significant indeed, and with
unconfirmed reports of female suicide bombers48 and snipers49 streaming out of
places like Mosul at an increasing rate, it seems that this shift could already
be under way. CTC
Charlie Winter is a senior research fellow
at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College
London and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter
Terrorism in The Hague. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in war studies, exploring how
propaganda images articulate meaning. Follow @charliewinter
Devorah Margolin is a research fellow at
the Centre for Policy Studies and currently a doctoral researcher and senior
editor of Strife Journal in the Department of War Studies, King’s College
London. Her Ph.D. focuses on the role of women in terrorist organizations.
[a] It should be noted that a significant
number of women have been reported to have carried out suicide operations on
behalf of Wilayat West Africa (Boko Haram), the Islamic State’s affiliate in
West Africa. It appears that the group has not been guided by—or has not
cooperated with—official Islamic State policy. Jason Warner and Hilary Matfess,
Exploding Stereotypes: The Unexpected Operational and Demographic
Characteristics of Boko Haram’s Suicide Bombers, (West Point, NY: Combating
Terrorism Center, 2017).
[b] For example, in October 2016, Aymenn
Jawad al-Tamimi published a document being circulated among Islamic State
supporters in which the author referred, in passing, to a female suicide bomber
who had killed herself in an operation in northern Syria. Beyond the fact that
the perpetrator was a woman, no other information was offered about the attack,
so it was not possible to verify it. See Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The
Archivist: Stories of the Mujahideen: Women of the Islamic State,” Jihadology,
October 17, 2016.
[c] This latter sentiment was apparent as
early as January 2004, when al-Zarqawi released a speech shaming men for not
rushing to join his group. He declared, “The war has broken out, the caller to
jihad has called for it, and the doors of heaven have been opened! So if you
don’t want to be of the knights, then make room for the women to wage war, and
you can take the eyeliner.” Al-Ansar Media Battalion translation, Abu Mus’ab
al-Zarqawi, “Join the Caravan,” January 4, 2004. The authors wish to thank
Brian Fishman, Craig Whiteside, Christopher Anzalone, Jean-Charles Brisard, and
Catherine Philip for their help in tracking down the exact release date of this
[d] For example, the Islamic State
refrained from referring to Tafsheen Malik, one of the San Bernardino
attackers, as one of its “soldiers,” and when three young women attacked a
police station in Kenya with knives and firebombs in 2016, its celebration was
only tentative. The group commended them, but only inasmuch as they had
“shoulder[ed] a duty that Allah had placed on the shoulders of the men of the
Ummah.” See “A Message from East Africa,” in Rumiyah Issue II, October 4, 2016.
[e] It is worth noting that, in response to
its losses in 2017, the Islamic State engaged in another unprecedented measure:
mandatory conscription. Hassan Hassan, “UNPRECEDENTED — ISIS declares forceful
conscription for all military-age males in Deir Ezzor (for now from
20-year-olds to 30-year-olds),” Twitter, August 3, 2017.
 Josie Ensor, “Chilling Picture Shows
Female Isil Fighter Holding Child Moments before Detonating Suicide Vest,”
Telegraph, July 10, 2017.
 Jack Moore, “ISIS Unleashes Dozens
of Female Suicide Bombers in Battle for Mosul,” Newsweek, July 5, 2017.
 Rumiyah Issue XI, Al Hayat Media
Center, July 13, 2017.
 “Our Journey to Allah,” in Rumiyah
Issue XI, pp. 12-15.
 Ibid., p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Winter’s translation, “I Will Die
While Islam Is Glorious,” in Al-Naba’ Issue LIX, Central Media Diwan, December
12, 2017, p. 15.
 See, for example, Nelly Lahoud,
“The Neglected Sex: The Jihadis’ Exclusion of Women from Jihad,” Terrorism and
Political Violence 26:5 (2014): pp. 780-802, and David Cook, “Women Fighting in
Jihad?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28:5 (2005): pp. 375-384.
 Lahoud, p. 782.
 Lahoud, p. 782. For the original
Arabic text, see Abdullah Azzam, The Defense of Muslim Lands: The Most
Important of Individual Duties (Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, 1984), p. 21.
 Youssef Aboul-Enein, The Late
Sheikh Abdullah Azzam’s Books: Part III: Radical Theories on Defending Muslim
Land through Jihad (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010).
 Lahoud, p. 786. For the original
Arabic text, see Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, Treatise on the Pillar of Preparing
Oneself for Jihad in the Way of Allah the Almighty, p. 29.
 See Lahoud.
 See Jessica Davis, “Evolution of
Global Jihad: Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq,” Studies in Conflict &
Terrorism 36:4 (2013): pp. 279-291.
 Winter’s translation, Abu Mus’ab
al-Zarqawi, “Will the Religion Wane While I Live,” July 7, 2005.
 “Will the Religion Wane While I live,”
 Ibid., p. 19.
 See Jackie Spinner, “Female Suicide
Bomber Attacks U.S. Military Post,” Washington Post, September 29, 2005.
 Winter’s translation, Abu Maysara
al-‘Iraqi, “The al-Qa’ida Organization Claims Responsibility for the Martyrdom-Seeking
Operation on a Recruitment Center for Apostates in Tal’afar,” The Media Section
for al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, October 10, 2005.
 Winter’s translation, Abu Maysara
al-‘Iraqi, “A Martyrdom-Seeker and His Wife Carry Out Martyrdom-Seeking
Operation in Mosul,” October 12, 2005.
 See “Belgian ‘suicide bomber’ is
named,” BBC News, December 2, 2005.
 Jonathan Steele, “Victims or
Villains,” Guardian, September 11, 2008.
 Davis, p. 280.
 Daniel Piotrowski, “EXCLUSIVE:
‘We’re Thirsty for Your Blood’: Playboy Jihadi’s Widow Poses with Her
Gun-Toting ‘Clique’ of Female Fanatics in Front of Flash BMW and Boasts of
‘Five-Star Jihad’ Lifestyle in Syria,” Daily Mail Australia, March 18, 2015.
 See, for example, Borzou Daragahi,
“We Spoke to Women Who Married into ISIS in Syria. These Are Their Regrets,”
Buzzfeed, July 20, 2017.
 Charlie Winter, “Women of the
Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the al-Khansa’ Brigade,” Quilliam,
February 5, 2015.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 Al-Zawra’ Foundation, “Valuable
Advice and Important Analysis on the Rules for Women’s Participation in Jihad,”
August 2015. See Charlie Winter, “2. In August, #IS|ers circulated this
clarification on permissibility of women & fighting. Here’s my
translation,” Twitter, November 19, 2015.
 “To Our Sisters: A Brief Interview
with Umm Basir al-Muhajirah,” in Dabiq Issue VII, Al Hayat Media Center,
February 12, 2015, pp. 50-51.
 Ibid., p. 51.
 Bill Gardner and Ben Farmer, “Paris
Shootings: France’s Most Wanted Woman Hayat Boumeddiene has ‘escaped to
Syria,’” Telegraph, January 10, 2015.
 Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah, “A Jihad
without Fighting,” in Dabiq Issue XI, Al Hayat Media Center, July 31, 2016, pp.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 See “Rumiyah Issue 3,” Al Hayat
Media Center, November 11, 2016, pp. 40-41.
 See “Rumiyah Issue 4,” Al Hayat
Media Center, December 4, 2016, pp. 32-33.
 See “Rumiyah Issue 5,” Al Hayat
Media Center, January 6, 2017, pp. 34-35.
 “Violations of Modesty among
Women,” in Al-Naba’ Issue LXXX, Central Media Diwan, May 11, 2017, p. 15.
 “Dressing in Front of Women,” in
Al-Naba’ Issue LXXI, Central Media Diwan, March 9, 2017, p. 15.
 “I Will Die While Islam Is
Glorious” in Al-Naba’ Issue LIX, p. 15.
 Josie Ensor and Justin Huggler,
“Teenage Isil Bride from Germany Captured in Mosul,” Telegraph, July 18, 2017.
One of the article:
Mujahidat Dilemma: Female Combatants and the Islamic State – Part One