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Arms and the Woman | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Salafist protester wearing a niqab gestures next to a sign during a protest in Rabat May 16, 2013. Source: Reuters/Stringer

A Salafist protester wearing a niqab gestures next to a sign during a protest in Rabat May 16, 2013. Source: Reuters/Stringer

A Salafist protester wearing a niqab gestures next to a sign during a protest in Rabat May 16, 2013. Source: Reuters/Stringer

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—In September 2004, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula launched Al-Khansaa magazine, a publication aimed exclusively at women who are either supporters of, or involved in, Al-Qaeda activity. Since then, women have had a great impact on all aspects of Al-Qaeda’s activity—in logistics, disseminating propaganda, and instigating terrorist acts as well as carrying them out themselves.

Women have been recruited by Al-Qaeda, but in a way that reflects their sensitive position in Arab societies. In the Arab world, women are seen in the same way as money, land and honor: they should be protected. They are supported and served by society; not as activists or fighters themselves. However, terrorist groups have tried to exploit this sensitive position as well. Women have an advantage over men in at least one way: they traditionally wear the niqab, which provides a certain degree of anonymity that is advantageous when trying to carry out terrorist activities.

Crackdowns on terrorist groups often find women’s clothing, including the niqab, as some men often use such garments as a disguise to move unnoticed by the authorities. For example, in January 2011, a young Saudi man and Al-Qaeda member named Hani Al-Mulla said on a Saudi television program that the security situation in the country forced members of his group to abandon many of their principles, including the prohibition on women’s clothing. Although wearing the garments of the opposite sex is against their religion, he said that Al-Qaeda members had come to see the truth in the old maxim that ‘the end justifies the means.’

Osama Bin Laden himself highlighted the important role of women, speaking often of their participation—especially by Arab women—in the period of “jihad” in Afghanistan. Many of those who remember the general mobilization in Saudi Arabia for “jihad” in Afghanistan also remember that some young men were accompanied by their mothers and wives in “jihad tourism” to the embattled nation. Yusuf Al-Ayiri, a former student of Bin Laden and now the top—and most dangerous—Al-Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia, has also hailed the role of women in the organization.

We have known for some time that women are participating in—or being forced to participate in—Islamist terrorist activities. In November 2005, for example, a terrorist group bombed the Grand Hyatt Hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman. It was later determined that an Iraqi woman, Sajida Al-Rishawi, was involved in the attack, but she survived when her explosive belt failed to detonate.

Around the same time, it was discovered that a female suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt was responsible for an attack in Baghdad at one of the entrances to the fortified Green Zone. According to Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, a spokesman for the law enforcement agency in Baghdad, the girl who carried out that attack was “mentally ill”—she was booby-trapped and the explosives strapped to her body were detonated remotely. This was not the first time that a mentally ill woman or a minor was used in suicide bombings. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that it had obtained documents from the US Army showing that the youngest female suicide bomber in Iraq had been 13 years old.

In the same article, the Washington Post reported an interview with a masked woman in a village east of Fallujah who described herself as battalion leader in Nusaiba Al-Ansariya Martyrdom Brigade, a group linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Nusaiba Al-Ansariya was an early convert to Islam who is famous for defending the Prophet during a battle. Using her name for the brigade highlights that these kinds of groups are keen to name their fighting arms something feminine in order to attract women. They use names from history and folklore to invoke the stories of these quasi-mythical women—women recruited to a cause, like Khansa, Umm Ammara, and Khawla bint Al-Azwar.

However, women were not prominent in the activities of Al-Qaeda until two years ago. Suddenly, women’s names—names like Haila Al-Qassair, Wafaa Al-Shahry and Arwa Baghdadi—were mentioned in Al-Qaeda circles more than men’s names.

DUE TO THE CULTURAL POSITION of Arab women, those who involve themselves in terrorist activities are often not treated in the same way as men who commit similar acts; responsibility is placed, as much as possible, on men. The Arab uprisings of 2011 gave Islamist groups—the Muslim Brotherhood in particular—the essentially unprecedented chance to adopt Western rhetoric, to hail “Arab democracy” and to seize the power that was up for grabs after the post-Arab Spring elections. Similarly, the rhetoric of human rights is being used by some Salafists to defend and justify the role played by some women in their struggle.

In the aftermath of the uprisings, Islamists hawks adopted flexible attitudes to certain Western ideas—but many of them see it as a pragmatic mechanism, not an inalienable right. For example, many Salafi leaders and some Brotherhood preachers, such as Wagdy Ghoneim and Muhammad Al-Zawahiri, reject democracy as a final solution, but accept it as an interim necessity. To them, the implementation of Shari’a is the ultimate goal, and the steps along to the road to it can be justified if this is aim is kept in mind.

Islamists, particularly Salafist jihadists, uncharacteristically began to speak about human rights and international agreements. The rhetoric was certainly temporarily beneficial, especially as it was bereft of the intellectual background that usually underpins discussion of human rights. The Islamists were able, for a while, to benefit from human rights discourse by warping it in such a way that human rights are said to only be available to fundamentalist groups; they did not, of course, grant these rights equally to those who do not follow their ideology.

A quote, often falsely attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is a favorite of Saudis. It has become a magic spell by which deep divides between people of different political leanings are bridged—in particular on Twitter.

Ibrahim Al-Sakran, a prominent Saudi Salafist intellectual, is one of the many who have taken advantage of this maxim. He had criticized some of his fellow Islamists for their notion of “civil discourse” and their attempts to utilize ideas about democracy and freedom in the past, warning against “the results of civil discourse,” which was also the title of an article he wrote criticizing his fellow Salafists. He said these ideas, this way of living and governing, deviate from the path of the Prophet and his descendants; however, he also used the legal mechanisms of civil rights in support of Muslim detainees, focusing his efforts on female prisoners.

Through this pragmatic approach to human rights, some Salafists are exposing the stories of detainees in Saudi Arabia—even inspiring sympathy for them. Many of those detainees adhere to the divisive discourse of Al-Qaeda; many are detained on charges of funding or otherwise logistically supporting Al-Qaeda. However, much of the discussion of these figures has focused on the issue of human rights.

Several accounts have been created on Twitter in recent years to mobilize support for the detainees, but gradually these accounts began to focus more on women than men. There has also been a general mobilization on Facebook—and even on the streets—in support of women imprisoned in Saudi Arabia pending trial on charges relating to Al-Qaeda activities, or who are serving time after their convictions. Two of the most prominent of these women are Haila Al-Qassair and Arwa Baghdadi. Qassair, who was dubbed Umm Al-Rabab in Al-Qaeda—“Lady Al-Qaeda”—in the Saudi media, was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment after being convicted of inciting terrorism and helping smuggle money to a terrorist group. Arwa Baghdadi, who is a dual US–Saudi citizen, was arrested when pregnant for calling the Saudi government ‘infidel’ (Baghdadi is no longer in Saudi custody, having recently fled to Yemen).

On July 14, 2011, Sakran posted an argumentative and interesting sermon on YouTube that sparked a great deal of debate. It focused on stirring “gallant” feelings and actions toward women detained on security charges. Sakran chose an emotional and expressive title that evoked the common belief that women need to be cared for and protected, even though Shari’a places men and women on equal footing (with a few exceptions), and many women had been punished in previous eras, and had not been forgiven merely because they were women.

IN MARCH 2003, in an interview posted on YouTube, senior Al-Qaeda leader Ibrahim Al-Rubaish called on the released detainees in Saudi Arabia to continue their armed confrontation.

His remarks came a day after police in Al-Qassim announced the arrest of a number of people gathered outside a police station in Buraidah, the capital of Al-Qassim, including a number of women and children (according to the Saudi government, the protesters had refused to disperse peacefully.) The media dubbed the incident the “Buraidah protests.”

Rubaish’s discourse also came soon after a call to arms from Al-Qaeda sympathizers in Saudi Arabia was posed on Twitter. Some satellite channels, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Hewar in London, reported that discourse in an attempt to change the focus of debate from terrorism to human rights—and thus have some control over it.

What is remarkable in this story is not that women are joining Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations, even though that is quite exceptional in itself. What is truly surprising is that this issue is now discussed in terms of human rights, even if this movement is unaffiliated with Al-Qaeda. When Rubaish—an Al-Qaeda leader—voiced such sentiments, it disappointed activists, some of whom wished that he had refrained from making these statements.

Rubaish, who is wanted by Saudi Arabia, has also spoken about the issue of arresting women and the protesters who call for releasing defendants—particularly female defendants—held on terrorism-related charges: “Are these sisters guilty? If we look into their cases, we will find them as guilty as their husbands and relatives of belonging to the Mujahideen.”