Umayma al-Zawahiri on Women’s Role in Jihad

Posted: 26th February 2010 by Nelly Lahoud in Women

In December 2009, al-Sahab released a missive entitled “Letter to My Muslim Sisters” (risala ila al-akhawat al-muslimat) by Umayma al-Zawahiri – Ayman al-Zawahiri’s wife. The letter is addressed to three categories of Muslim women:

(1)    To the female jihadis (murabitat and mujahidat – I shall return to these terms later) in the Islamic umma. She believes that like her, these women have sacrificed their all; and despite their loss of loved ones and separation from family, their situation is one of grace, for they are ‘content with the honors God has bestowed upon us; He elected us from among all his servants by blessing us with [being part of] jihad in His path to make His religion triumphant and make His word supreme.’ Umayma al-Zawahiri urges these female jihadis to remain steadfast on that same jihadi path, for ‘victory is near’. God, she assures them, is not about to forsake them and they shall either be rewarded with victory or martyrdom, ‘each is sweeter than the other.’ She reminds herself and her fellow female jihadis of the female Companions who fought alongside the Prophet Muhammad and showed more courage than many men at the time.

(2)    To the Muslim women who are imprisoned by the Pharaohs/despots (tawaghit), by which she means the regimes in the Arab and Islamic world. Umayma al-Zawahiri assures these women that they are always on the jihadis’ minds and that the mujahidin shall exert every effort to release them.

(3)    The bulk of Umayma al-Zawahiri’s missive is dedicated to all other Muslim women. To begin with, she calls on them to observe Islamic law, especially to maintain their commitment to donning the veil. The campaign against the veil, she explains, represents the most intense battle between Islam and unbelief (kufr). In her mind, abandoning the veil is the thin end of the wedge: ‘if a woman were to abandon [the modesty] of her appearance and covering herself, this is [necessarily] followed by a series of other [neglects] that push her away from her religion’ (this warning reminds me of that of a (French) nun: ‘qui prend la main, prend le bras; qui prend le bras, prend le tout!’).

Umayma al-Zawahiri urges these Muslim women to bring up their children on the love of jihad in God’s path, ‘to goad their brothers, husbands and sons to defend Muslims’ territories and properties … to assist the (male) jihadis with prayers and money.’ She is keen to emphasize that the role of the Muslim woman is critical, it is therefore important that she ‘should work alongside the man in defense of her religion, territory and to defend them in her person (tudafi‘ bi-nafsiha). If she cannot do so [by donating] her money, or if she cannot do so by way of reaching out to her Muslim sisters through missionary activities in mosques, schools, colleges and homes, she should do so through the Internet where she could write her religious mission, disseminate it and spread the mission of the jihadis.’

Does Umayma al-Zawahiri support military jihad for women? Her views on this question are open to interpretation. On the one hand, and in addressing this specific question, she says that ‘jihad [today] is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim man and woman, but the path of fighting is not easy for women, for it requires a male companion with whom it is lawful for a woman to be’. She adds that there are many other ways that women could fulfill their duty, ‘we put ourselves in the service of the jihadis, we carry out what they ask, whether in supporting them financially, serving their [practical] needs, supplying them with information, opinions, partaking in fighting or even [volunteering to carry out] a martyrdom operation.’ On the other hand, she argues that ‘our principal role … is to protect the jihadis [through] bringing up their children, [managing] their homes, and [keeping] their secrets.’

Women who wish to be guided by Umayma al-Zawhairi’s advice can therefore read into her missive both a military calling for themselves or a peaceful one that translates into supporting the jihadis from home. Leah Farrall observes that jihadi forums have recently ‘become quite an open and accepting platform for female supporters of the jihad to join in.’ Should we assume that Umayma al-Zawahiri’s statement signals a potential possibility that the jihadis would embrace an active military role for women on the battlefield? Jihadi ideologues have often used the term mujahidat to designate the wives, sisters and daughters of jihadis who do not necessarily take part in military jihad. But, to my knowledge, they do not use the term ‘murabitat’, which, I think, is significant.

The term ‘murabitat’ is the feminine active participle formed with the verb ‘rabata’ and shares the same root as the term ‘ribat.’ When used in a military context, the term ‘ribat’ designates a place on the frontier where the ‘murabitun’, military troops, assemble (historically on their horses) in preparation to fight the enemy. The term ‘murabitat’ is the feminine plural of ‘murabitun’ and therefore could be understood to designate female warriors. Jihadi literature is littered with the terms ‘murabitun’ and ‘ribat’, the latter, as Umayma al-Zawahiri states, designates places like Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The jihadis do not have female ideologues of the stature that Zaynab al-Ghazali for instance represented for the Muslim Brotherhood. But it has to be said that jihadi ideologues and leaders have not been consistent or explicit on the question of whether women should take an active part in military jihad; in my view, this issue is the Achilles’ heel in their theory of jihad: when the jihadis argue that the classical/medieval defensive legal doctrine of jihad applies today, they generally present a plausible argument as to why jihad is the only viable path that could free them from their own ‘apostate’/unjust regimes and these regimes’ Western supporters. Despite their clarity and consensus on this point, the jihadis are quite ambiguous as to whether the classical defensive legal doctrine of jihad applies to women today, as the classical doctrine stipulates. In making their case for jihad, today’s jihadis are keen to cite the classical jurists who were in agreement that when the territory of Islam is invaded, jihad is considered to be a defensive warfare and it becomes ‘an individual duty (fard ‘ayn) incumbent upon each Muslim man and woman.’ Accordingly, in ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s words, ‘a boy is permitted to go out to fight without his father’s permission, a wife without her husband’s, and he who is in debt without his creditor’s’.  Yet ‘Azzam who was critical in making this defensive legal doctrine a cornerstone of the jihadis’ worldview, shied away from making the duty incumbent upon women, as the classical doctrine stipulates. In his Ilhaq bi-al-Qafila (Join the Caravan [of Jihad]) which he wrote to rally Arabs to join jihad in Afghanistan, he explicitly stated that ‘Arab women cannot take part in fighting, because Afghan women have not yet done so.’

In his al-‘Umda (p. 27),  Dr Fadl argues that women are to take up military jihad under one condition: only when the enemy invades Muslim territory and also comes into their homes. Since it is possible that the Muslim woman may have to defend herself under this specific circumstance, Dr Fadl argues that it is incumbent upon her to receive basic military training and learn how to use military equipments so that she can be ready to repel her attackers.

It is noteworthy that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Umayma’s husband, is not clear on this question either. When he was asked in his ‘Town Hall’ meeting in 2008, what is the highest rank occupied by a woman in al-Qa‘ida, he responded that there are no women in al-Qa‘ida, but ‘the mujahidat (female jihadis accompanying their husbands) are doing a heroic job watching over their homes and their children.’

As the jihadis admit, according to the classical defensive legal doctrine of jihad, Muslim women are under no obligation to seek anyone’s permission to fight. Why then do jihadi leaders and ideologues deny women the fulfillment of this individual duty? Based on the jihadi literature I have read, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (killed in 2006) is the most explicit and consistent on this issue. In one of his statements entitled ‘Ilhaq bi-al-Qafila’ (Join the Caravan [of Jihad] – the same title as ‘Azzam’s treatise cited above),  al-Zarqawi declares: ‘the war broke out … if you [Muslim men] are not going to be chivalrous knights in this war (fursan al-harb), make way for women to wage it… Yes, by God, men have lost their manhood.’

Was al-Zarqawi trying to shame those Muslim men who have not taken up jihad? No doubt. But he had no qualms adding his views as to the sort of women he wants to see on the battlefield: ‘we do not want men like Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali (i.e., the four Rightly Guided Caliphs), Sa’d, al-Miqdad, Talha and al-Zubayr (i.e., Companions of the Prophet) … instead we want men like Safiyya.’ By Safiyya, he meant Safiyya bt. ‘Abd al-Muttalib (paternal aunt of the Prophet). She is said to have taken part in the Battle of Badr and she was also wounded during the Battle of Uhud when she saved the Prophet’s life by taking a spear that was targeting him (see Amira Sonbol, Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures).

Umayma al-Zawahiri also cites Safiyya as a model to emulate; in addition, she cites Umm ‘Umara who is also said to have taken part in several military battles alongside the Prophet and was wounded during the Battle of Yamama. Is Umayma al-Zawahiri reclaiming for Muslim women their right and duty to take part in military jihad, as the classical defensive legal doctrine mandates? We must await further clarification from her on this question.

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    • pop mariana says:

      Catre TV… kavkazcenter! PLEASE SENT THIS MESSAGE BY AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI. We kindly ask you do translation in your language,i can not not,thank you. Sint Pop Mariana ,o femeie de 40 de ani,divortata de 13 ani,am 2 copii18-16 ani din Romania,localitatea Craiesti(de cimpie),numarul 15,judetul Mures.In primul rind sint o femeie diferita biologic din nastere.Toti cei din jurul meu au posibilitatea sa imi posede corpul cu instinctul lor printr-o modalitate care eu o numesc vrajitorie sau sint diavoli.Inca de la nastere sint distrusa si discriminata si au cautat sa ma omoare …atit cei din familia mea cit si poporul meu,datorita faptului ca de asa natura este acest popor.Am indurat 40 de ani o povara ,umilinta si nedreptate echivalenta cu moartea.Familia mea,copii mei,vecinii mei,poporul meu si puterea din romania…mi-au luat case,bani,loc de munca,….toate drepturile mi le-au luat acestia……eu nu am dreptul sa am nimic nici macar viata.Nu imi pare rau dupa lucrurile materiale care mi-au fost luate dar imi pare rau dupa toate fiintele umane dragi care le-au omorit acesti tilhari de romani….nu au mai ramas in romania decit criminalii si foarte….foarte putini oameni buni.Ultima fiinta draga care mi-au luat ,este mama mea….au omorit-o chiar sub ochii mei…fara a reusi sa o salvez….acest fapt este din cauza ca eram posedata de cei din jurul meu….si nu aveam putere fizica-psihica si financiara sa o salvez….nu stiam unde sa merg si la cine sa apelez….eram obosita stind cit m-au lasat doctorii in spital linga mama…..erau nopti in sir in care nu am dormit si nu plecam de linga mama ca sa o ajut…..dar nu eram lasata linga mama….sa o hranesc si sa ii dau apa si nimic…..scopul doctorilor era sa o omoare….am scris Ligii Arabe din spital despre situatia mea….aveam si un prieten ,ofiter in armata egipteana in acel moment…care in loc sa ma ajute…ma testa…impreuna cu seful lui Abdel El Sisi….care mi-a vizitat profilul pe fel inainte de a fi omorita mama …vorbeam pe facebook cu presedintele din Coreea de Nord ,caruia i-am cerut ajutorul…sa ma ajute sa sa scap de situatia in care eram….adica mama mea era ”nebuna”…..fratele care locuieste cu noi e nebun….deoarece intretineau relatii sexuale impreuna……si se comportau foarte rau ….mama se mai comporta ca o nebuna datorita faptului ca era dusa la cabinete medicale particulare de catre frati care au luat dreptul meu de la stat de ”pensie de ingrijitor”iar medicamentele care le primea mama…acestea i-au provocat dementa prea mare.Iar acum imi creeaza starea de haos in casa fratele meu impreuna cu tata si un copil cu o alta femeie al acestui ”tata”…care sint homosexuali….desi acest frate are pregatita o casa a bunicii sa locuiasca in ea….nu vrea sa plece….dracului… nu mai suport nici un :HOMOSEXUAL,LESBIENE,CRIMINALI,TILHARI-NEBUNI.De ce credeti ca a fost omorita mama de copii ei,vecini putere si cei care ajuta puterea din romania!?……deoarece ideea aceasta …sint sigura ca o aveau de la kim jong-un….daca acesta nu le-ar fi cerut aceasta si nu i-ar fi ajutat…nu se intimpla asa ceva…..mie ce credeti ca mi-a cerut acest presedinte….i-am spus ca vreau sa merg in koreea de nord…..iar el a spus ca ma ajuta daca ma dezbrac in fata la web…..avea nevoie de ”material pornografic”…..pentru ce!?….amintitiva.Apoi am apelat pentru a se face dreptate la Statul Islamic….am primit raspuns ca se vor ruga pentru mine….de la seful Statului Islamic….dupa un timp a luat legatura cu mine sub o identitate falsa…purtatorul de cuvint al Statului Islamic….intimplator am aflat adevarata lui identitate….daca nu ma cauta pentru a ma ajuta……pentru ce ma cauta!?…de ce avea nevoie de la mine sau de la cine!?…..simplu de aflat….cine si ce avea sa ii ofere acestuia.In asemenea mod am fost tratata de toti cei la care am apelat;presedinti de state din UE SI NATO,LIGA ARABA,lideri religiosi si foarte multi de pe mapamond….la cine credeti ca ar trebui sa apelez ca sa ma ajute si pe mine….cu ce sint mai buni cei la care le-am cerut ajutorul ca romanii!?….ce merita acesti distrugatori ai pamintului!?…platesc abonament la romtelecom pentru internet si nu sint lasata sa ma folosesc de internet… intreb cine poate crede,intelege si pune capat tuturor tilharilor romani… simt o scirba desavirsita pentru ei….sint cei mai insuportabili”nesimtiti ,nebuni,scirbosi….nu mai au limita la nimic ce fac din rautati….degeaba va scriu ce scrie in biblie despre cei rai caci stiu ca nu va intereseaza…..dar va rog sa aratati aceasta scrisoare pe mai multe posturi tv unde stiti ca oamenii au mai multa credinta….poze cu dovezi despre ceea ce am scris gasiti pe id facebook:Lucian Ardeleanul.Multumesc tuturor oamenilor de bine de pe intreg pamintul ,care m-au ajutat sa arat adevarul despre situatia mea si a Romaniei pe mapamond…..Dumnezeu sa le trimita numai bucurii si binecuvintarile sale.Imi doresc sa am aripile porumbelului sa pot zbura dintre acesti” canibali”…..oriunde departe,dar nu pot pleca … rog veniti sa vedeti in ce casa traiesc,cu cine traiesc in casa,cum traiesc si ce ar trebui facut pentru toti cei care fac …ceea ce imi fac mie in tara asta…..veniti toti cei care iubiti adevarul din inima…….sa vedeti cum arata casa in care locuiesc eu la parinti,casa a fost zugravita recent…iar acum arata ca dupa razboi….usi fortate si stricate de nebunul de frate care e tinut de putere in casa sa ne faca rau,geamuri stricate,a sarit cu 2 cutite la mine…..ce sa fac cu el si cu toti cei care il sustin si cu toti cei care ne distrug viata din tara si din afara tarii!?…ce sa fac!…….datorita faptului ca canibalii de romani nu mi-au lasat posibilitatea de a imi intemeia o familie atit in tara cit si inafara tarii……de ce!?…..pentru a nu avea ajutor de la nimeni si sa pentru a nu vedea nimeni cit de canibali sint ….cum traiesc…….si de pe urma cui……si de catre cine sint ajutati…..dinafara tarii…….am nevoie urgenta pentru ca sa nu ma mai simt atit de singura si de neajutorata in tara asta de groaza…… un barbat care sa fie sanatos din punct de vedere medical… iubeasca pe Dumnezeu si pe aproapele sau ,sa nu fure,sa nu minta,sa nu curveasca,sa nu bea,……doresc sa fie cunoscut pe plan intern si international pentru aceste calitati… fie ofiter al unei armate private sau de stat………… mai am nevoie de o armata cu soldati sanatosi psihic si fizic… sa iubeasca pe Dumnezeu si semenii lor………si dreptatea lui Dumnezeu care sa ma ajute sa devin pentru tara care mi-a distrus viata si tot ce am avut mai scump…..copii,mama…..sora…tatal biologic….bunica,matusa…etc,vreau sa devin ”TEPES”… acest moment vreau sa fiu ”VRINCIOAIA” lui ”STEFAN”…..astept urgent rezultatele cererii si indeplinirea dorintelor mele.

  2. JustanotherReader says:

    Just on the verb Rabata, it means ‘to tie a knot’, quite significantly it is the knot that ties the nomad’s tent/home, it is the basis of survival, the vital knot. The active participle murabbita(t) is formed on the form II of this verb, that which extends the meaning to ‘to turn into’ ‘to make’ and so here ‘to make a knot’. The important point being that this reinforces – without being explicitly explanatory – the role that muslim women are said to bear: the active knot/link in muslim communities, the ones that make/tie that (vital) link. It is therefore a natural slide that in times of war muslim women’s role is that of support OUT of the field or ON the field. The emphasis is that they remain/stay and do not flee. This I believe is the point of murrabitat in modern times: a reminder to the men (not the women) of muslim society’s structure. The extent of violence on women perpetrated not by foreign forces but by the muslim men that partake (or not) in jihad is such that communities are in shattered pieces, and the potential of for a successful Jihad is diminished.

  3. steve says:

    I don’t think there’s any ambiguity in it really, I think the message is that the ‘fundamental’ commitment of women is to the family but ‘martyrdom operations’ are equally permissible, although of a lesser priority.

  4. […] Ayman Zawahiri’s wife, the al Qaeda successor to Osama bin Ladin, was asked in 2009 about the perm… to her “Muslim sisters” encouraging them to leave the fighting to the men and to wage jihad […]

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  6. […] The Islamic groups had an infinite ability for adaptation and doctrinal flexibility. Starting in 2004 with the release of a Web-based magazine called al Khansa’a, the evolution of religious ideology on female suicide bombers changed from advising women what to do while their men were on Jihad to telling women they, too, could be Jihadis and even be suicide bombers. […]

  7. […] T' Islamic groups had un infinite abiltee fer adaptashun an' doctrinal flaxibilitee. Startin n' 2004 wit t'releese o'a Web-baset magazine callt al Khansa’a, t'evolushun o'religiyus ideology un female suicide bombers changd frum advisyun' wimmen whut ta do wile thar menfolk wuz un Jihad ta a'tellin wimmen thay, too, could be Jihadis an' eve be suicide bombers. […]

  8. […] The Islamic groups had an infinite ability for adaptation and doctrinal flexibility. Starting in 2004 with the release of a Web-based magazine calledal Khansa’a, the evolution of religious ideology on female suicide bombers changed from advising women what to do while their men were on Jihad to telling women they, too, could be Jihadis and even be suicide bombers. […]