In the historical pantheon of societal folk devils, few figures are as rivetingly transgressive as the ISIS female suicide bomber. Burqaed and belted-up to the nines, she is the ultimate Other, transgressing not only civilizational prohibitions against murder and suicide, but also deeply ingrained assumptions about what it means to be a woman in patriarchal societies where women are accorded lesser status. She is a deviant among deviants, exploding the most elemental code of the jihadist worldview: namely, that men are men—which is to say, first and foremost, warriors—and women are women—which is to say, first and foremost, wives and mothers.
She is also almost entirely fictitious, conjured up by ISIS’s foes to amplify the group’s demonic extremity and desperate unravelling.
The classical doctrine of jihad stipulates that all able-bodied Muslims, regardless of sex, are obligated to fight in defense of their territory and faith. But, as terrorism scholar Nelly Lahoud has meticulously demonstrated, jihadist ideologues have “explicitly excluded” women from discharging this obligation. A woman’s involvement in jihadism, according to the conventional jihadist line, is crucially important, but best performed from within the confines of her home, where she can service the emotional and sexual needs of her husband, procreate, and raise the next generation of “lions.”
While the precursor to ISIS, al-Qaeda in Iraq, found a more proactive role for women, this was done largely as a tactical innovation and to shame wavering male supporters into action. ISIS, in marked contrast, has strongly opposed any such innovation, although it has enlisted women as propagandists and established an all-female morality police—the notorious Raqqa-based al-Khansaa Brigade. You can define the role of mother, wife, recruiter, and even religious enforcer as “active,” if you like, but it’s primarily as a supporter that ISIS women find their calling in the global jihad.
For an organization so elaborately permissive in its use of violence, ISIS has proved obsequiously conformist on the matter of gender, adhering to the strictest conventions of misogyny and male rule—implemented, ironically enough, with the active and enthusiastic collusion of their female supporters. (As the Atlantic’s Kathy Gilsinan nicely put it, “‘jihadi girl power’ often comes at other women’s expense.”) According to a “manifesto” circulated by the al-Khansaa Brigade in January 2015, a woman’s preeminent role is the “divine duty of motherhood.” The document also advised that it is incumbent on women to “remain hidden and veiled.” Addressing the issue of whether it’s permissible for a woman to participate in combat, the document is clear in forbidding any such participation. But it does license the suspension of this norm under exceptional emergency circumstances, where there are not enough men around to protect ISIS-controlled territory from enemy attack, and only then after a religious leader has issued a fatwa validating this desperate measure.
Almost everything ISIS has officially published on the role of women since the circulation of the al-Khansaa document reinforces the position set out in its pages. For example, in Issue 11 of ISIS’s flagship magazine Dabiq, published in September 2015, the author of an article titled “A Jihad Without Fighting” insisted that “if the weapon of the men is the assault rifle and the explosive belt, then know that the weapon of the women is good behavior and knowledge.” The ideal woman is “a shepherd in her house and is responsible for her herd.”
At the beginning of July, however, it was widely reported that a woman carried out a suicide attack in Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. According to the Telegraph, the woman, who was also cradling her young child, detonated an explosives vest “hidden under her hijab” as she passed Iraqi government soldiers. Apparently both the woman and her child were killed in the ensuing blast, while two soldiers and several civilians were injured. The report observed that ISIS’s “use of female suicide bombers in battle, while not new, is exceedingly rare and demonstrates the group’s desperation.” It also claimed that it wasn’t the first such attack in Mosul, and that in the two weeks preceding it “more than 20 female suicide bombers hiding among civilians are believed to have detonated explosives.” The source for this was an Iraqi Lieutenant General named Sami al-Aridi, who, in an interview on an Iraqi TV station, said: “The [ISIS] women are fighting with their children right beside them.”
This story first appeared on Iraqi News, an agency not known for its accuracy, and was widely taken up by other Western news media, while the claim about the ISIS all-female suicide squad had already been aired in reports the week before. The Times of London had relayed, quoting an Iraqi security official, that in June alone 38 ISIS women had attacked civilians and Iraqi forces in Mosul.
These reports may well turn out to be true, but it would be unwise to take them at face value, because, to paraphrase the former U.N. and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, everyone has their own agenda, including the Iraqi Army, with its obvious interest in making ISIS look desperate and demonic.
ISIS’s silence on the issue is particularly notable. Ordinarily, the group makes a concerted point of publicizing information about its “martyrdom operations.” It also takes great pride in eulogizing its martyrs in videos and online banners, regardless of whether they’re very young or craggy and old. But nowhere on its social media, encrypted platforms or internal discussions has ISIS acknowledged the use of female suicide bombers—no images of burqa-clad warriors, no infographics in which they take credit for inflicting damage on the enemy.
Yet this silence has not discouraged some experts from wondering if there has been a strategic shift in official ISIS policy on the permissibility of female suicide missions. For example, in a recent article published in the CTC Sentinel, a leading practitioner-oriented journal on terrorism and counterterrorism issues, the researchers Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin remarked that “there has been an apparent shift in the Islamic State’s position on whether or not women can participate in combat.” ISIS has hitherto “mandated that women should be wives and mothers rather than fighters,” Winter and Margolin write, but now that the group is “under pressure and facing recruitment challenges,” that policy seems to have been discarded.
Winter and Margolin base this contention on two recent statements: one culled from an article in ISIS’s propaganda magazine Rumiyah (formerly Dabiq) and the other from an article in ISIS’s weekly newsletter al-Naba’.
Regarding the first statement, Winter and Margolin write that “the article would have been wholly unremarkable were it not for four sentences toward the end in which the author declared, by analogy, that women could now take up arms in combative jihad.” The analogy was Umm ‘Amarah, a female companion of the Prophet Muhammad, who, according to the relevant passage in the Rumiyah article, is said to have courageously taken part in a battle and had her hand cut off. Winter and Margolin interpret this passage as a “call-to-arms,” writing that “female supporters of the Islamic State, the article held, were now encouraged to emulate Umm ‘Amarah’s example and take to the battlefield…”
The second piece of evidence Winter and Margolin invoke is this sentence: “Jihad is not, as a rule, an obligation for women, but let the female Muslim know as well that if the enemy enters her abode, jihad is just as necessary for her as it is for the man, and she should repel him by whatever means possible.”
“Taken together,” Winter and Margolin write, “these declarations—both of which reframed the Islamic State jihad as a defense—seemed to suggest that the caliphate had at least rhetorically lifted its moratorium on female combatants.”
Only they don’t suggest this—and on no interpretation can the two statements be categorized as formal “declarations.” Even the most cursory reading of the Rumiyah article reveals that the four-sentence passage seized on by Winter and Margolin, far from being an appeal for ISIS women to “take up arms in combative jihad,” is rather an exhortation to follow the moral example of the righteous female companions of the Prophet, who are revered for their “courage and sacrifice.” Prior to the passage quoted by Winter and Margolin, the Rumiyah article speaks at length about the “roles and responsibilities” of the “beloved sisters” of the Islamic State, observing that “Allah has honored us by choosing us to be the wives, sisters, and mothers of the mujahidin.”
Regarding the statement in al-Naba’, this has not the slightest bearing on the issue of whether or not women are permitted to fight on the battlefield. It is merely a reference to the wholly uncontentious norm that if a woman is attacked by an enemy combatant in her home she is allowed to use violence to defend herself. So the significance Winter and Margolin attribute to this fragment seems wholly unwarranted.
In October 2014, Umm Ubaydah, a young female Western migrant who joined ISIS, wrote in a tweet, “I wonder if I can pull a Mulan and enter the battlefield.” She was alluding to a character in a Disney movie who passes as a male warrior. ISIS has suffered devastating military defeats and lost much of its territory, but even in these desperate times for the group it seems improbable that it will lift its prohibition on women’s participation in combat operations. This is because doing so, as scholars Anita Peresin and Alberto Cervone have suggested, would fatally compromise the group’s entire power system. Or as Nelly Lahoud put it, jihadists of all stripes “are fearful of fighting alongside women on the battlefield because this will inevitably lead to a sexual revolution that would supplant jihad altogether.” Umm Ubaydah’s comment still holds: The only way an ISIS female supporter can enter the battlefield is by crossdressing as a man.
Yet for some analysts and journalists the monstrous figure of the deadly, black-cloaked, female suicide bomber is just too good a story to turn down, despite the paucity of evidence for it. Only last month, for example, the Daily Beast ran a story with the headline, “Beware the Women of ISIS: There Are Many, and They May Be More Dangerous Than the Men.” Below it was a photo illustration of a woman wearing a niqab and brandishing a handgun. It’s an alluring image, not only because the idea of the female badass sells, but because it provides yet another shocking and sensational twist in the ISIS horror show. But, until real evidence emerges, it retains the status of a myth.