Tracing the Literature of Extremist Women: Part III

With the approval and praise of their men, extremist women glorify violent jihad with words, while guarding their gender. Behind a computer screen, women can conceal their identities from everyone else, while reaching the mainstream media and the general public.

As anonymous actors, using fake identities, these women may believe they are liberated to write, so long as they remain undetected, bypassing security, but gaining worldwide attention.

Their narratives often reflect the women’s experiences, both lived and imagined; their observations and a rewriting of cultural and religious norms; and their writings address local and global grievances. With global communication systems, extremist women know how to can convey, convince and captivate vulnerable women and men, using the seductive power of persuasion.  

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A Historical Look at the Ideological Support for Female Extremists

I have been studying extremist women for a very long time. In lectures, I convey that religious enablers of violent jihad permitted the wives of al-Qaeda men to play a wider role in the terror organization. From the start, women had the support of extremist men.

The late al-Qaeda leader in the Arabian Peninsula, Yusuf Iyari a.k.a. Swift Sword, authored a book called The Role of Women in the Jihad Against the Enemies  

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The idea that jihad is fard ayn, or religious obligation, was first introduced in a fatwa (legal edict) by the veteran mujahideen coordinator Dr. Abdullah Azzam in The Defense of Muslim Lands. He wrote: “jihad becomes fard ayn [a global obligation] on every Muslim male and female.”  


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No permission was needed from parents, husband, or a male guardian for women to wage jihad against the infidel (kuffar)—a consistent theme used to justify the recruitment of Muslim women. Drawing on classical Muslim scholars, Azzam quotes Ibn ‘Abidin from the Hanafi school of thought in Join the Caravan:

Jihad is fard ‘ayn when the enemy has attacked

Any of the Islamic heartland, at which point it

Becomes fard ‘ayn on those close to the enemy

One of the leading female propagandists was Umm Mohammed, Azzam’s wife. In an interview for the London-based newspaper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Umm Muhammad called herself the “mother figure,” and coordinated among the wives of the mujahideen in Peshawar, a northern town in Pakistan. In March 2003, the same woman told the same paper why she helped establish al-Qaeda’s women wing: The idea came from the success of martyr operations carried out by young Palestinian women in the occupied territories. Our organization is open to all Muslim women wanting to serve the [Islamic] nation.”

Umm Mohammed warned the world that a new strike will “make America forget…the September 11 attacks.” And in her memoir from late 1990, she wrote, “I ask my Muslim sisters to encourage their husbands and sons to continue with the jihad.” Like his wife, Azzam appealed to all Muslim women to support the mujahideen. In Part Two of Join the Caravan, published in 1988, he listed sixteen motives for Muslims to fight, which are both for practical and ideological reasons, and addressed women–the prime supporters of men. He said:

What is the matter with the mothers, that one of them does not send forward one of hers sons in the Path of Allah that he might be a pride for her in this world and a treasure for her in the Hereafter through her intercession?”

By declaring jihad as fard, Azzam transferred the balance from jihad kifayah (collective duty) to jihad as an individual duty. This is a core message for female propagandists today.  

A final analysis will be posted on April 18. 

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