Women and political violence

For some reason the participation of women in political violence and war triggers our imagination. This is also the case with Muslim women going to Syria, some who go there to fight, some to become active in humanitarian aid and others who join their husbands and take care of their household. Often the depiction of these women is quite one-dimensional. They are often constructed as trapped by cultural or religious circumstances tied to gender or they are constructed as “romantic dupes” who have been manipulated into violent acts by a male lover or male relative or into lending sexual services to men. Of course, this is not just fantasy, it does exist and there are, for example, more than enough examples of women who are used for sexual favours and raping women is a weapon of war. Furthermore the promise of sex can be an important motivation for male soldiers and there are for example horrific accounts of American soldiers raping French women during the ‘liberation’ of France.

The National Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism and Security estimates the number of Dutch women in Syria to be approximately 20. Not a lot and Dutch women going abroad for participating in armed struggle is also not new given the account of Tanja Nijmeijer who joined the Colombian FARC. Nevertheless, still a significant phenomenon at least for the stir it causes in society in general and among Muslims in particular.

Sex-jihad, jihad brides and what have you…

Last week in the Netherlands we had several accounts on ‘jihad brides’ and Moroccan-Dutch women being groomed by men to go to Syria to engage in temporary marriages so men can have sex with them. The anti-Islam and anti-Muslim/migrant Freedom Party is going to ask questions in parliament about it. In many of the discussions practices that usually are associated with Shia Muslims, in particular the zawaj mut‘a (pleasure marriage) or zawaj mu’aqqat (temporary marriage) are uncritically connected with these (Sunni) women and also related to grooming and prostitution.

It is very difficult to confirm or deny such accounts, the women themselves often do not speak to the regular media. Furthermore it is also difficult to ascertain the extent to which these stories are influenced by war propaganda. The stories about the so-called ‘jihad al-nikah’ or ‘sex(ual) jihad’ during the Syrian war seem to have originated in Tunisia and the Tunisian Minister of the Interior has stated it is a significant issue. According to the Minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, Tunisian women were traveling to Syria to wage “sex jihad” and having sex with “20, 30, [or] 100” militants, before returning pregnant to Tunisia. The other source of the jihad al-nikah narrative is said to be Muhammad al-Arifi, a Saudi salafi cleric. Al-Arifi has denied making the statements and stated that ‘no sane person‘ would such a fatwa. This has not prevented stories from Tunisia about young women being ‘brainwashed‘ and lured into ‘sex-jihad’. Later a Tunisian official stated there were only a few women going to Syria for these reasons. The Al Arabiya network revealed several cases of Syrian women who were abducted and raped by jihadis. It appears however that in reality they were kidnapped by Assad’s security services. Christoph Reuter, a reporter of Der Spiegel, stated that the ‘sex jihad’ is part of Assad’s propaganda war and that two human rights organizations haven’t been able to confirm the stories.:

Assad Regime Wages PR Campaign to Discredit Rebels – SPIEGEL ONLINE

One prime example is the legend of orgies with terrorists: The 16-year-old presented on state TV comes from a prominent oppositional family in Daraa. When the regime failed to capture her father, she was abducted by security forces on her way home from school in November 2012. During the same TV program, a second woman confessed that she had submitted to group sex with the fanatical Al-Nusra Front. According to her family, though, she was arrested at the University of Damascus while protesting against Assad. Both young women are still missing. Their families say that they were forced to make the televised statements — and that the allegation of sex jihad is a lie.

An alleged Tunisian sex jihadist also dismissed the stories when she was contacted by Arab media: “All lies!”, she said. She admitted that she had been to Syria, but as a nurse. She says she is married and has since fled to Jordan.

Two human rights organizations have been trying to substantiate the sex jihad stories, but have so far come up empty-handed.

Several other stories about sex jihad have been debunked as well although the Tunisian security services appears to have several girls from the Chaambi Mountains who were allegedly involved in a the so-called sex jihad. Amna Guellali, working for Human Rights Watch in Tunisia, spoke to the mother of an 18-year-old woman. She told Guellali that a woman close to the Tunisian militant group Ansar al-Sharia got her daughter tangled up in a network of girls in the area. Guellali also states however: “Everything I’ve heard were very broad allegations that didn’t really have all the features of a serious reporting about the case, […]All I have is very sparse, very little information, and I think that’s true for a lot of people working in the human rights community, in addition to reporters.”

Nevertheless whether the stories are true or not, some parents and other Muslims do voice their concerns over these women through a narrative that weaves together elements such as brainwashing, grooming and sexual violence. Last night at a talkshow Houda el Hamdaoui (candidate for the local Party of Unity for the upcoming elections and working in a grassroots organisation Mother/Daughter that supports parents of foreign fighters) expressed her concerns while also voicing her objections against the term ‘jihad bride’. She stated that parents should monitor the behaviour of their daughters and if necessary go to the police if they suspect their sons and/or daughters want to go to Syria.

There have also been reports, in the last couple of days, trying to debunk the stories about sex-jihad en jihadbrides and criticizing the sensationalist and alarmist tone of many of the reports.

Women ‘moving’ to Syria

Above is a video of women who calls herself ‘Maryam’. She is a convert from the UK apparently and has committed herself to ‘jihad’:

How British women are joining the jihad in Syria – Channel 4 News

She’s a tall young woman, dressed in a hijab, complete with face veil, firing a gun. She speaks with a London accent, and calls herself “Maryam”.

It’s not her real name, but her commitment to the jihad is real enough: “These are our brothers and sisters and they need our help.”

Maryam shoots a Kalashnikov for the camera, and then fires off a revolver. She’d like to fight, to become what she calls a martyr. But she’s not a frontline fighter. She’s a fighter’s wife, with weapons for her own protection.

(via T-V, thanks!)

The Channel4 documentary is an interesting one but does appear to suffer from a particular bias. In stories about female fighters the question often is why do such (pretty, search for it and note how many times they are categorized as pretty) engage in violent acts or, in this case join the European male foreign fighters in Syria? It appears as if people think that women engaging in violence are transgressing the dominant definitions of feminity and appropriate behaviour. The narrative of women being lured into sex jihad fits into that; it’s the men’s brainwashing that is responsible for luring women into ‘deviant’ acts. In the case of women we tend to overlook the reasons men give for fighting: ‘doing something’, ‘fighting for justice and against oppression, ‘fighting in the cause of God’ and assume women have other reasons. And maybe they have other reasons too, but Maryam’s story is quite familiar when we compare it to the narratives of men:

I couldn’t find anyone in the UK who was willing to sacrifice their life in this world for the life in the hereafter… I prayed, and Allah ruled that I came here to marry Abu Bakr.[…] “You need to wake up and stop being scared of death… we know that there’s heaven and hell. At the end of the day, Allah’s going to question you. Instead of sitting down and focusing on your families or your study, you just need to wake up because the time is ticking.

There is also another narrative that I haven’t seen thus far in the case of Muslim women going to Syria but that certainly exists in other cases. This one constructs female militants and fighters as “liberated” feminists who engage in violent acts as autonomous actors. The advantage of this perspective as that women’s agency is being brought into the narrative but in fact it is equally reductionist as the former. Committing acts of violence here becomes the ultimate equalizer oyer and these women may even more dangerous than man (‘kill the women first’ trope is such an example). It is as if these women by becoming fighters are expressing their full feminity, their full commitment as a Muslim and demonstrating gender equality. Such a view however (although maybe important to the women themselves) still gains its currency from the stereotype that a woman does not commit violent acts.

The Channel4 documentary albeit not completely independent from the stereotypes, does provide us with a clear view of women not being passive victims of bad men and not being the feminist warriors others want them to be. Economics, household issues, children’s issues and the realities of life at home and in Syria shape and inform their participation in the war in Syria. Coercion and social pressures may play a role here but the women’s political and religious agency do as well.