Extremist Women Want In

Extremist women are speaking out—mostly via the internet—against Ayman al-Zawahiri’s male-exclusive description of al-Qaeda’s role. Interestingly, these women are not content with the domestic role that the al-Qaida leader offers them. Raise Muslim fighters? Care for their homes? Remain in seclusion? Not enough for a woman of spirit. Not even an extremist.

Al-Zawahiri should have known. Extremists draw upon the fiery of soul, the passionate, who are desperate to act, who thirst to do something. Try telling a person of this nature that s/he must stay at home, picking up after children and washing up pots and pans. It doesn’t work for the men and it won’t work for the women.

A woman, who signed her name “Companion of Weapons,” added her support to a lengthy essay of protest online: “How many times have I wished I were a man… When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri said there are no women in al-Qaida, he saddened and hurt me.” She listened to the speech 10 times, and “felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest… I am powerless.” The stirrings of feminism are never limited to specific ideological groups, though they may never be labeled by the f-word.

Apart from their desire for legitimate active engagement in the extremist movement, these women are insulted that their contributions, by way of a number of suicide bombings especially in Iraq, is not acknowledged. It would appear that al-Qaeda may be employing the services of women, but maintaining a male-exclusive front, as it were. The ideological statement, as is common, is for both the masses and for the Other. The statement offers the masses instruction so that the majority of women remain content with their domestic role.

The statement also works with the (Western and secular) Other’s single-dimensional notions of extremist Muslims—the men fight in the field and the illiterate women care for innumerable children indoors. In a sense, the statement upholds the Orientalism of the other. It reaffirms the binaries, the black-and-white ideas of self and difference on both sides.

At least some members of a long-standing group, Hamas, openly disagrees with al-Qaeda. Huda Naim, a Hamas member, argues that women suffer from “frustration and oppression” as well, and “want to carry weapons.” If al-Qaeda seeks to expand operations to the urban Muslim world, they’ll probably quickly revise the caveman attitudes developed—well, in the caves of wild mountains. Strong modern Palestinian, Egyptian, or Pakistani women, however immersed they may be in ultra-traditional ideas about religion and politics, may be surprisingly reformist when they are virtually shoved into the background and treated like handmaidens.

There may be a link between entrenched gender norms and Western ideological, political and military action. Some say that al-Zawahiri’s position is protective. His wife and two of their six children were killed by American bombs in Qandahar in 2001.

Women whose bodies and voices are hidden from the world may today be heard. Some conservative Muslims believe that women’s voices are to be concealed. Others argue that the Prophet Muhammad’s example contradicts this notion. But for those who live by this notion, the written word—published on the internet—gives them voice today. The change is momentous. Extremist and conservative women have had access to writing before, but due to the nature of publishing, this access was available to a relatively select few. Today, as we know, individuals educated in “textese” have ready access to the internet. Very little moderation blocks them from being “heard” by dozens or hundreds of people. Not only can they be heard but they can be heard anonymously. They may express their feminist stirrings without having to face physical intimidation or even recognition.

An online magazine al-Khansaa—named for a poet who wrote poetic lamentations for her brothers who fell in battle—offers information to women on women’s terrorist training camps in addition to articles such as “Biography of the Female Mujahedeen.”

A woman wrote with feeling that the Internet offered the only “breathing space” for women. She complained that al-Zawahri’s words “opened old wounds” and called upon God to liberate—yes, liberate—women so they might participate in holy war.