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The Mujahidat Dilemma: Female Combatants and the Islamic State – Concluding Part

Charlie Winter

By Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin

August 16, 2017

The Ideal Muhajirah: Between Myth and Reality

In the summer of 2014—when the Islamic State seized Mosul, expanded across Syria, and declared a caliphate—the organization became a daily fixture in the global news media. One facet of it that received the steadiest stream of attention was its female supporters, the so-called ‘Jihadi brides’ that had travelled from across the world to join it as muhajirat (female migrants). The Western tabloid press in particular fetishized this phenomenon, providing regular reports on women in the Islamic State that were often reductive and misleading.

The myth of the female foreign fighter largely owes its existence to claims made on social media by Western muhajirat, who frequently alleged that they were training for combat and participating in skirmishes.26 The reality of life for women in the Islamic State was significantly different from what these notorious accounts suggested—more a manifestation of Jihadi conceptions on the idealized role of women than anything else. Female supporters were expected to marry strangers, stay indoors, and support the jihad from far behind the frontlines. Given that promises of empowerment and participation were instrumental to the group’s appeal, it is unsurprising that the social media myth—in which women were given roles as gun-toting soldiers and enforcers—did not live up to reality.

Examination of the Islamic State’s Arabic- and English-language propaganda offers a more accurate picture of what life was like for female members of the group, one that has repeatedly been echoed in the accounts of women who married into it and were subsequently captured as they fled from places like Raqqa and Mosul in 2017.27 There are three principal sources that discuss the role of women in the caliphate: first, the Khansa’ manifesto on women; second, the Zawra’ treatise on female combatants; and, finally, the women-orientated articles in its magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah, and, to a slightly lesser extent, its newspaper al-Naba’. Together, these three sets of material illustrate the realities and evolution of women’s roles in the Islamic State far more reliably than the personal propaganda disseminated by Muhajirat.

The Khansa’ Manifesto

The Khansa’ manifesto, which was first circulated online by Islamic State supporters in early 2015, offered explicit advice regarding the role of women in the Islamic State.28 The manifesto’s author—who claimed to be affiliated with the Khansa’ Brigade, an all-female policing unit operating in Raqqa at the time—stated that their “fundamental function” was “in the house, with [their] husband and children.”29 There were some exceptional circumstances in which female supporters would be permitted to leave their homes—for example, to study their religion and to engage in medical work.30

On the question of whether or not women could participate in combative jihad, the document was unequivocal. Women were expressly forbidden from fighting unless circumstances demanded otherwise. Indeed, the text held that women may engage in combat “if the enemy is attacking [their] country, and the men are not enough to protect it, and the imams give a fatwa for it, as the blessed women of Iraq and Chechnya did with great sadness.”31 According to the Khansa’ manifesto, then, women could theoretically participate in combative jihad, but only in highly specific circumstances, which female Jihadis in Iraq and Syria were not facing at the time that it was published.

The Zawra’ Foundation

The Zawra’ Foundation—another female-orientated propaganda outlet aligned with the Islamic State—upheld the above position when it released a treatise on women and combat in August 2015.32

Entitled “Valuable Advice and Important Analysis on the Rules for Women’s Participation in Jihad,” the Zawra’ treatise noted that there are four conditions in which women may engage in combative jihad—first, “if a woman is raided in her house, she may defend herself;”33 second, if she is “in a hospital or a public place attacked by the kuffar … and she has a [suicide] belt with her, she can detonate it;”34 third, “if she is in a solitary place and has been ordered by the Amir,” she may use a sniper rifle; and, finally, “martyrdom operations are permissible for women but only if the amir has permitted it, and it is for the public good.”35

The brief treatise concluded by advising that women should not preoccupy themselves with the idea of engaging in combative jihad, but should instead focus on “nursing, cooking, [and] sewing,” though it was permissible for them to train with “weapons” for purposes of self-defense.36 In this sense, the text reiterated the Islamic State’s position that women could only engage in combative jihad if the circumstances demanded it and they were specifically instructed to by their emir, or if they were attempting to protect themselves.

Dabiq, Rumiyah, and al-Naba’

Between 2014 and 2017, the Islamic State intensively discussed the role of women in publications like Dabiq and Rumiyah, both of which are al-Hayat Media Centre products, and al-Naba’, which is published by the organization’s Central Media Diwan.

While, when it was last in circulation, Dabiq offered a slightly more ambiguous stance than that of Rumiyah and al-Naba’, it was still clear about what women should prioritize as supporters of the Islamic State jihad. For example, in its first “To Our Sisters” feature, Dabiq interviewed the erstwhile wife of Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four civilians at a Anwish grocery store in Paris in January 2015.37 Hayat Boumeddiene—or as she came to be known, Umm Basir al-Muhajirah—called upon her female readership to:

“Be a base of support and safety for your husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. Be advisors to them. They should find comfort and peace with you. Do not make things difficult for them. Facilitate all matters for them. Be strong and brave.”38

In spite of the fact that, prior to her husband’s attack, she had been photographed training with a crossbow in France, 39 Boumeddiene did not encourage women to take up arms. Likewise, in a later issue of Dabiq, Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah, another female member of the Islamic State, echoed this position, writing that women have no place on the battlefield.40 She noted that:

“The absence of an obligation of jihad and war upon the Muslim woman—except in defence against someone attacking her—does not overturn her role in building the Ummah, producing men, and sending them out to the fierceness of battle.”41

When it came to Rumiyah, the magazine that replaced Dabiq in September 2016, the Islamic State continued in this vein. For the rest of the 2016 and much of 2017, it doubled down on the fact that women should not engage in combat. Indeed, even when the coalition-backed campaign for Mosul was at its fiercest, the Rumiyah editors were preoccupied with urging their female readership to limit their engagement in jihad to childbearing and providing for their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. Articles like “Abide in Your Homes,”42 “Marrying Widows Is an Established Sunnah,”43 and “I Will Outnumber the Other Nations through You”44 invariably focused on the need for women to continue living a sedentary, supportive existence. Of course, this was only up until July 2017, when Rumiyah’s combat moratorium was lifted.

For its part, al-Naba’ discussed the role of women in the caliphate much less than Dabiq or Rumiyah, offering up only a handful of essays between late 2015 and 2017 that discussed issues like the need for female modesty45 and guidelines for what was considered to be the appropriate dress for women.46 As was the case with Rumiyah, though, this editorial stance was set to change. In December 2016, it published “I Will Die While Islam Is Glorious,” the aforementioned article in which it was asserted that combative “jihad is just as necessary for [the woman] as it is for the man” provided it was occurring in the right context.47


Up until recently, the message conveyed to women in the Islamic State’s Arabic- and English-language propaganda was threefold: first, female supporters were told to stay at home and maintain a sedentary and reclusive lifestyle; second, they were advised to support the Islamic State through money and words, rather than deeds; and, third, they were instructed to have as many children as their bodies would permit and be open to remarriage if their husband was killed on the battlefield. For years, this tripartite message—which largely conforms to the traditional Jihadi reasoning regarding women and war—was consistently and clearly disseminated by the Islamic State from multiple official channels in multiple languages. Women in the caliphate were cherished as necessary parts of the Jihadi project but never encouraged to engage in violence, and on the rare occasion that they did, the organization’s ambivalence was cleared.

However, as the Islamic State’s territorial losses and manpower shortages mounted this position appeared to change. While the extent to which women are formally being operationalised currently remains unclear, the Islamic State undeniably began to sow doubt as to the impermissibility of female combatants from the end of 2016 onward, as the abovementioned articles in al-Naba’ and Rumiyah indicate. In so doing, it drew on the very same theological precedents referred to by al-Zarqawi in 2005, when he first substantively discussed the role of women in jihad.

Taking this into account, the Islamic State’s rhetorical turnaround could turn out to be significant indeed, and with unconfirmed reports of female suicide bombers48 and snipers49 streaming out of places like Mosul at an increasing rate, it seems that this shift could already be under way.     CTC

Charlie Winter is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism in The Hague. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in war studies, exploring how propaganda images articulate meaning. Follow @charliewinter

Devorah Margolin is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and currently a doctoral researcher and senior editor of Strife Journal in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her Ph.D. focuses on the role of women in terrorist organizations. Follow @DevorahMargolin

Substantive Notes

[a] It should be noted that a significant number of women have been reported to have carried out suicide operations on behalf of Wilayat West Africa (Boko Haram), the Islamic State’s affiliate in West Africa. It appears that the group has not been guided by—or has not cooperated with—official Islamic State policy. Jason Warner and Hilary Matfess, Exploding Stereotypes: The Unexpected Operational and Demographic Characteristics of Boko Haram’s Suicide Bombers, (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2017).

[b] For example, in October 2016, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi published a document being circulated among Islamic State supporters in which the author referred, in passing, to a female suicide bomber who had killed herself in an operation in northern Syria. Beyond the fact that the perpetrator was a woman, no other information was offered about the attack, so it was not possible to verify it. See Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Stories of the Mujahideen: Women of the Islamic State,” Jihadology, October 17, 2016.

[c] This latter sentiment was apparent as early as January 2004, when al-Zarqawi released a speech shaming men for not rushing to join his group. He declared, “The war has broken out, the caller to jihad has called for it, and the doors of heaven have been opened! So if you don’t want to be of the knights, then make room for the women to wage war, and you can take the eyeliner.” Al-Ansar Media Battalion translation, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, “Join the Caravan,” January 4, 2004. The authors wish to thank Brian Fishman, Craig Whiteside, Christopher Anzalone, Jean-Charles Brisard, and Catherine Philip for their help in tracking down the exact release date of this statement.

[d] For example, the Islamic State refrained from referring to Tafsheen Malik, one of the San Bernardino attackers, as one of its “soldiers,” and when three young women attacked a police station in Kenya with knives and firebombs in 2016, its celebration was only tentative. The group commended them, but only inasmuch as they had “shoulder[ed] a duty that Allah had placed on the shoulders of the men of the Ummah.” See “A Message from East Africa,” in Rumiyah Issue II, October 4, 2016.

[e] It is worth noting that, in response to its losses in 2017, the Islamic State engaged in another unprecedented measure: mandatory conscription. Hassan Hassan, “UNPRECEDENTED — ISIS declares forceful conscription for all military-age males in Deir Ezzor (for now from 20-year-olds to 30-year-olds),” Twitter, August 3, 2017.


[1] Josie Ensor, “Chilling Picture Shows Female Isil Fighter Holding Child Moments before Detonating Suicide Vest,” Telegraph, July 10, 2017.

[2] Jack Moore, “ISIS Unleashes Dozens of Female Suicide Bombers in Battle for Mosul,” Newsweek, July 5, 2017.

[3] Rumiyah Issue XI, Al Hayat Media Center, July 13, 2017.

[4] “Our Journey to Allah,” in Rumiyah Issue XI, pp. 12-15.

[5] Ibid., p. 12.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] Ibid., p. 15.

[8] Ibid., p. 15.

[9] Winter’s translation, “I Will Die While Islam Is Glorious,” in Al-Naba’ Issue LIX, Central Media Diwan, December 12, 2017, p. 15.

[10] See, for example, Nelly Lahoud, “The Neglected Sex: The Jihadis’ Exclusion of Women from Jihad,” Terrorism and Political Violence 26:5 (2014): pp. 780-802, and David Cook, “Women Fighting in Jihad?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28:5 (2005): pp. 375-384.

[11] Lahoud, p. 782.

[12] Lahoud, p. 782. For the original Arabic text, see Abdullah Azzam, The Defense of Muslim Lands: The Most Important of Individual Duties (Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, 1984), p. 21.

[13] Youssef Aboul-Enein, The Late Sheikh Abdullah Azzam’s Books: Part III: Radical Theories on Defending Muslim Land through Jihad (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010).

[14] Lahoud, p. 786. For the original Arabic text, see Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, Treatise on the Pillar of Preparing Oneself for Jihad in the Way of Allah the Almighty, p. 29.

[15] See Lahoud.

[16] See Jessica Davis, “Evolution of Global Jihad: Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36:4 (2013): pp. 279-291.

[17] Winter’s translation, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, “Will the Religion Wane While I Live,” July 7, 2005.

[18] “Will the Religion Wane While I live,” p. 20.

[19] Ibid., p. 19.

[20] See Jackie Spinner, “Female Suicide Bomber Attacks U.S. Military Post,” Washington Post, September 29, 2005.

[21] Winter’s translation, Abu Maysara al-‘Iraqi, “The al-Qa’ida Organization Claims Responsibility for the Martyrdom-Seeking Operation on a Recruitment Center for Apostates in Tal’afar,” The Media Section for al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, October 10, 2005.

[22] Winter’s translation, Abu Maysara al-‘Iraqi, “A Martyrdom-Seeker and His Wife Carry Out Martyrdom-Seeking Operation in Mosul,” October 12, 2005.

[23] See “Belgian ‘suicide bomber’ is named,” BBC News, December 2, 2005.

[24] Jonathan Steele, “Victims or Villains,” Guardian, September 11, 2008.

[25] Davis, p. 280.

[26] Daniel Piotrowski, “EXCLUSIVE: ‘We’re Thirsty for Your Blood’: Playboy Jihadi’s Widow Poses with Her Gun-Toting ‘Clique’ of Female Fanatics in Front of Flash BMW and Boasts of ‘Five-Star Jihad’ Lifestyle in Syria,” Daily Mail Australia, March 18, 2015.

[27] See, for example, Borzou Daragahi, “We Spoke to Women Who Married into ISIS in Syria. These Are Their Regrets,” Buzzfeed, July 20, 2017.

[28] Charlie Winter, “Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the al-Khansa’ Brigade,” Quilliam, February 5, 2015.

[29] Ibid., p. 22.

[30] Ibid., p. 22.

[31] Ibid., p. 22.

[32] Al-Zawra’ Foundation, “Valuable Advice and Important Analysis on the Rules for Women’s Participation in Jihad,” August 2015. See Charlie Winter, “2. In August, #IS|ers circulated this clarification on permissibility of women & fighting. Here’s my translation,” Twitter, November 19, 2015.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “To Our Sisters: A Brief Interview with Umm Basir al-Muhajirah,” in Dabiq Issue VII, Al Hayat Media Center, February 12, 2015, pp. 50-51.

[38] Ibid., p. 51.

[39] Bill Gardner and Ben Farmer, “Paris Shootings: France’s Most Wanted Woman Hayat Boumeddiene has ‘escaped to Syria,’” Telegraph, January 10, 2015.

[40] Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah, “A Jihad without Fighting,” in Dabiq Issue XI, Al Hayat Media Center, July 31, 2016, pp. 40-45.

[41] Ibid., p. 41.

[42] See “Rumiyah Issue 3,” Al Hayat Media Center, November 11, 2016, pp. 40-41.

[43] See “Rumiyah Issue 4,” Al Hayat Media Center, December 4, 2016, pp. 32-33.

[44] See “Rumiyah Issue 5,” Al Hayat Media Center, January 6, 2017, pp. 34-35.

[45] “Violations of Modesty among Women,” in Al-Naba’ Issue LXXX, Central Media Diwan, May 11, 2017, p. 15.

[46] “Dressing in Front of Women,” in Al-Naba’ Issue LXXI, Central Media Diwan, March 9, 2017, p. 15.

[47] “I Will Die While Islam Is Glorious” in Al-Naba’ Issue LIX, p. 15.

[48] Ensor.

[49] Josie Ensor and Justin Huggler, “Teenage Isil Bride from Germany Captured in Mosul,” Telegraph, July 18, 2017.

Part One of the article:

The Mujahidat Dilemma: Female Combatants and the Islamic State – Part One–-part-one/d/112228