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.