Download PDF With a small number of high-profile exceptions, the Islamic State’s women are expected to be the enablers, not the agents, of jihad.

On 13 September 2016, three women carried out an attack against a police station in Mombasa, Kenya, in the name of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.1 A‘maq, one of ISIS’s official media outlets, reported the attack approvingly, and ISIS’s Arabic magazine, al-Naba’ (Issue 47), featured the attack as the lead headline on its front page. Of all the reported attacks carried out in the name of ISIS involving women thus far, the Mombasa attack stands out for two reasons. Firstly, the women launched an offensive attack knowing that this would entail mixing with men who were not their mahram (a mahram is any male relative whom it is unlawful for a woman to marry, such as her brother or father).2 Secondly, ISIS welcomed the attack, even though it usually insists on the segregation of the sexes, permitting women to mix only with men who are their mahram.

Does welcoming the Mombasa attack signal that ISIS has opened the door for women to take an active role in combat? This essay argues that ISIS neither has an explicit policy that makes it lawful for women to engage in militancy if this involves mixing between the sexes, nor is it likely to devise one. Judging by the jihadis’ literature on the subject, legitimating the role of female combatants would allow women to explore their eros, a prospect which remains for jihadis a greater threat than losing the war against the ‘infidels’.

ISIS and the promise of the female jihadi warrior

Muslim women, including converts, who have been eager to contribute to the jihadi enterprise by taking an active role in combat have had reason to believe that ISIS was planning to make it lawful for them to do so. Ahlam al-Nasr, the Damascene pundit dubbed by supporters of the Islamic State as the group’s poetess, has been vocal about her right to take up arms. In an essay entitled ‘Terrorism … The Real Life’ that was published online in 2014, she articulated her wishes in unambiguous terms. In addition to describing her emigration (hijra) to the ‘land of the caliphate’ and her marriage to ‘one of the soldiers of the Islamic State’ in an Islamic court, she stated:

It is not possible for me to accept any kind of lifestyle except the life of jihad. I strongly desire it. I want to struggle with all types of jihad: spiritual jihad (jihad al-nafs), the jihad of preaching and education, the jihad of [raising] money [to advance our cause], and the jihad with weapons also [emphasis added]. Both male and female Companions [of the Prophet] did so, so why won’t we do the same?!!3

Nasr was not alone in intimating that a new era of militancy awaited women who chose jihad as a vocation. The titles of jihadi materials published online around the time that the global caliphate was proclaimed (in June 2014) seemed to suggest that the emergence of female jihadi warriors was imminent. It should be noted that jihadi pamphlets addressed to women who supported jihad had existed long before 2014; these include al-Asirat (Female Prisoners) and al-Khansa’ (named after an early Islamic poetess who welcomed with pride the death of her four sons engaged in jihad). However, there was a noticeable difference in the titles given to more recent publications. For example, one online manual was given the provocative title of ‘Mighty Steps for She who Wants to Depart to the Battlefield’ (Khutuwat Jabbara li-man Aradat al-Nafir), while another was called ‘A Series [of pamphlets designed] to Train and Prepare the Muslim woman [for jihad]: Prepare to Depart for the Battlefield’ (Silsilat al-I‘dad li-al-Muslima: Ista‘iddi li-al-Nafir).

Around the same time that these publications began to appear, the Islamic State seemed to acquire its first female ideologue (or, at least, its first female public intellectual), who has training and teaching experience in Islamic legal studies. Iman Mustafa al-Bugha, who also happens to be Ahlam al-Nasr’s mother, has championed the cause of ISIS, especially on social media (Facebook and Twitter). Damascene by birth, Bugha is described in internal ISIS documents as ‘among the luminaries of the Islamic State’.4 She is said to have left her post and ‘a huge salary’ as a university lecturer at the University of Dammam in Saudi Arabia to emigrate to Raqqa with the aim of living in the ‘land of the caliphate’.5

Bugha’s writings have a different texture from the existing female commentary originating within the al-Qaeda camp. For example, although Umayma al-Zawahiri, wife of Ayman al-Zawahiri, has written publicly in support of the jihadi cause, she has not been prolific, and her contribution has been limited to the subject of women’s role in jihad.6 Bugha, however, has been writing on a regular basis in support of ISIS, and her contributions tackle a wide range of issues, including pieces that question the legitimacy of jihadi groups that have not joined ISIS. Her writings exude an unbounded enthusiasm for ISIS and a fearless desire to criticise the group’s enemies. Her short essay ‘What a man, oh you who were made out of God’s words’ displays a literary confidence that is unique among women who support ISIS.7 In it, she manages eloquently to combine lofty praise of Osama bin Laden – whose commitment to justice, she believes, brought joy to humanity – with indirect denunciations of those who betrayed him for having inflicted misery on the world. It is clear that this criticism is particularly directed at Zawahiri, who publicly dissociated al-Qaeda from ISIS in February 2014, a split that has since led to jihadi infighting.8

In her boldly titled article ‘I was a Da‘ishite [long] before Da‘ish existed’, Bugha takes on those critics who refer to ISIS by its Arabic acronym, ‘Da‘ish’, to belittle its claim to statehood.9 In this essay, Bugha’s defiant tone is intended to stress that she has long desired the establishment of a state in which God’s Law reigns supreme. At the same time, she seeks to transform the term ‘da‘ish’ into a badge of honour for the group’s supporters, in keeping with the tradition among male jihadi ideologues of proudly embracing the derogatory terms used by their enemies to describe them, such as irhabi (terrorist) and khariji (one who secedes from the Muslim community). Even as ISIS was losing territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya during Eid al-Adha in June–July 2016, Bugha took to her Facebook page (which often gets suspended) to describe the pleasant conditions in ‘the land of the caliphate’.10

The prominence enjoyed by Bugha and her daughter among ISIS supporters, the appearance of pamphlets calling on women to prepare themselves for combat, and the relatively large number of Western women emigrating to Iraq and Syria to join the group could be interpreted as signs that ISIS intends to break with jihadi tradition on the question of women in combat.11 However, such a step implies more than simply adding troops to the battlefield: it would necessitate mixing between the sexes, something that promises to launch an altogether different kind of revolution.

ISIS feminism?

Is a start-up ISIS ready to emulate what David Biale called the ‘erotic revolution’ that, according to him, was intrinsic to the success of the Zionist nation-building project in establishing an enduring state?12 A close examination of the writings covered in this article suggests that feminism, in the sense of encouraging women to express or even seek personal agency, is not at play. In the same essay in which she wrote of her desire to take up arms (a desire that evidently remains unfulfilled), Nasr relates that when she got married, the ISIS-run Islamic court handed her father – whom she describes as ‘my guardian’ (waliyyu amri) – and her husband copies of the marriage contract. She did not seem to mind that she, as someone who lacked agency in the eyes of the court, had not been given a copy herself. Her pride, then, is not related to any notion of feminism that supports female independence, let alone the right to take up arms. Rather, the fundamental purpose of her essay seems to be to establish that the Islamic court in which she got married is proof that the Islamic State exists not just in name but in an institutional sense as well.13

Similarly, Bugha, notwithstanding her publishing activities in support of ISIS, does not seem to think that women should mix with men or are capable of doing demanding jobs, let alone join men on the battlefield. In a short essay praising the Islamic State’s job-creation initiatives, she remarks:

Women in particular are able to find many jobs ... especially since the [Islamic] State forbade men from doing jobs that are [best suited] for women ... in order to prevent mixing between the sexes and to protect their manhood. [This policy is intended to steer men away] from working with beads and fabric so that they may devote themselves to the more demanding occupations that require [the stamina] of men.14

As for the pamphlet series designed to provide military training for women, the fighting component it describes does not go beyond encouraging women to do physical exercise and perhaps to watch some videos on how to use a gun. It is possible that women tasked with enforcing public morality (hisba) by regulating women’s conduct in ISIS territory have been given guns, but this has not translated into a combat role. At any rate, the pamphlets seem to be designed to tease women with the promise of fighting, but do not go so far as to call on them to depart for battle as their titles suggest. Instead, they mostly focus on religious studies, with some discussion of training women to use editing and design programs, no doubt to assist in expanding ISIS’s online empire. One of the media outlets supporting ISIS that is meant to specialise in military training devoted several issues to teaching women how to prepare tasty recipes. It appears that pancakes – described as ‘quick and easy to prepare’ and ‘delicious when served with honey’ – are especially popular among jihadis. The dish, it is suggested, could be prepared by emigrées and served ‘to the jihadis before they head to battle … God Willing, [they] would supply jihadis with energy and strength.’15

Was the Kenya attack an exception?

If women’s road to the battlefield seems to involve a long stop in the kitchen and to end with the watching of military exercises on video, what should one make of the Kenya attack? Although there have been other reports of ISIS deploying female fighters, the group has not confirmed these accounts, and there is no evidence that these alleged operations involved any mixing between the sexes.

The Mombasa attack, then, stands out not as a sign that ISIS is embracing feminism, but rather for the ideological confusion it displays. To start with, the women who carried out the Mombasa attack, Umm Maysarah, Umm Ma‘bad and Umm Sa‘ad, knew that they would need to mix with men who were not their mahram to achieve their aim. Even if the women assumed that they were going to die in the operation and therefore that any mixing would be of short duration, their behaviour is nevertheless a departure from the dominant jihadi culture. Consider, for example, reports of the death of one of Zawahiri’s wives, Umm Muhammad, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2001 when the compound in which she had been living with her children was targeted by American forces during Operation Enduring Freedom. According to the male jihadi who rushed to the scene, Umm Muhammad was still alive when he arrived, and he attempted to grab her hand so that he could extract her from the rubble. When she ascertained from his voice that he was a man, however, she moved her hand away, opting to remain buried rather than compromise her sense of virtue.16 It is a decision that has earned her praise among jihadis.

The ideological confusion stemming from the Mombasa attack starts with the attackers themselves. The women involved left a handwritten note in which, in addition to pledging allegiance to the leader of ISIS, they also address their families in a passage acknowledging that ‘we know you will be shocked by our act’. They go on to stress that ‘Allah and his messenger and Jihad in his cause are more beloved to us than you and ourselves’. It is not uncommon for male jihadis, who know that they are likely to die, to express concern about their families, but ‘shocked’ is not a word they would normally use. More often, they seek to console their families, especially their mothers, by assuring them of their sincere devotion to God’s path and their hope of attaining paradise. Moreover, it seems the women did not intend for their act to pave the way for other women. In their note, they call only on their ‘brother [sic] in Din [religion]’ to ‘march forth towards Jennah [paradise]’.17 Perhaps they believed that jihad would be better served if their sisters in religion continued to make pancakes.

Regardless of the ideological confusion of the Mombasa attackers, the Islamic State’s official media outlets welcomed the attack. Their approval was qualified, however, as both A‘maq and al-Naba’ described the women not as jundiyyat (female soldiers), but as munasirat (supporters) of the Islamic State. This is in contrast to the Islamic State’s coverage of the attacks that were carried out by Omar Mateen (who opened fired in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida) and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel (who killed 84 people in Nice, France, by driving a lorry down a crowded promenade on Bastille Day). In these cases, the male attackers were embraced as ‘soldiers’ of ISIS.

Describing the Mombasa attackers as ‘supporters’ was not sufficient to ease the concern of online jihadis, who questioned the wisdom of ISIS’s approval of the attack. One member of the jihadi website Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, for example, reasoned that, since A‘maq had given its approval to the attack, it followed that ISIS had given women the green light to partake in combat. The possibility of an ‘erotic revolution’ was clearly on his mind when he enquired whether it was permissible for Muslim women taking part in combat missions to imitate the modus operandi of male jihadis. Given that jihadi men are occasionally required to imitate the habits and customs of male infidels so as to infiltrate the enemy’s camp, he enquired whether this would equally apply to Muslim women in similar circumstances. More specifically, he asked:

Is it permissible for Muslim women to uncover their heads and dress like infidel women so that they can penetrate the weak points of the enemy either to collect intelligence or to carry out martyrdom operations …? It is known that the enemy could be seduced by three things: money, power and women. Is it permissible for a Muslim woman to lure a male infidel or apostate (such as an interrogator or an assistant working in one of the counter-terrorism units) and deceive him by pretending to be in a romantic relationship with him? [This way] she would be able to bait him, until he is on his own in an [isolated] place where she or another Muslim could kill him?18

The forum member who posed this question might have been an ISIS member, an al-Qaeda supporter seeking to draw attention to the sexual (im)morality of ISIS, or perhaps a witty ‘infidel’ infiltrator. Nevertheless, the reaction to the questions he posed suggests that concern over female combatants resonates among jihadis. Another member of the same forum was clearly disturbed and challenged by the questions, remarking defensively that such tactics would not be permissible for Muslim women and asserting that ‘our jihad is to defend the honour of Muslim women’. This remark implies that asking women to compromise their sexual morality would defeat the purpose of jihad. His enthusiasm to deny that such reprehensible conduct would be permitted seems to have obscured his understanding of the Islamic creed, for according to Islamic law, jihad is meant to be in the service of God. Defending women’s honour is concomitant with God’s Law, but is not the objective of jihad as such.

It is possible that ISIS’s reporting of the Mombasa attack was rushed, escaping the attention of the group’s senior media editor, or just a faux pas. Indeed, a subsequent issue of al-Naba’ (Issue 50) tried to rectify the mistake. It included an essay entitled ‘O [Wives of the Prophet], Sit Still in Your Homes’;19 the title is taken from a Koranic verse (33:33) addressed to the Wives of the Prophet. The author of the essay clearly wished to remind readers of the Islamic State’s position on women’s role in society. He or she draws on classical Tafsir (commentaries on the Koran) to stress that the verse likely means that women are well advised to pray at home, but not that they are prohibited from leaving their homes. The verse, the author explains, needs to be analysed within the broader context of an Islamic tradition that is rich with evidence that the Wives of the Prophet did not stick to their homes at all times. Nevertheless, the article continues, if women are in the habit of leaving their homes unnecessarily, this could lead to fitna (sedition). The author reminds the jihadi ‘brothers’ that a husband ‘should not give free rein to his wife, and if she frequently/unnecessarily leaves her home, it is his right to forbid her from doing so’.20 So much for Nasr’s strong desire to take up arms; indeed, if this particular author has any say in the hereafter, the Mombasa attackers will not be admitted to paradise.

Eros or nomos?

David Rapoport, a leading expert on terrorism, has observed that the ‘greatest tactical difference’ between the nineteenth-century anarchist Sergey Nechaev and Osama bin Laden is that ‘Nechaev understands women to be priceless assets, while Bin Laden defers to the Islamic tradition and employs men only’.21 Jihadis have indeed excluded women from combat, but it is eros, not nomos, that accounts for this exclusion. In other words, it is not Islamic law that prohibits women from being warriors, but rather jihadis’ fear of allowing any mixing between the sexes, that stands in their way. Yet even though the Islamic tradition has traditionally promoted gender segregation during peacetime as a sign of public morality (a custom that continues to be practised in some Muslim-majority states today), the practice was not meant to be enforced during defensive warfare.

In that sense, jihadis’ exclusion of women from the battlefield is the product of serious ideological incoherence. The Islamic legal doctrine to which jihadis appeal to justify their activities is the same doctrine that makes it incumbent upon women to fight.22 This doctrine of defensive warfare (jihad al-daf‘) – which is part of the law of war that governed the Muslim world’s relations with the non-Muslim world during the pre-modern era – encompasses a call to arms (nafir ‘amm) that makes jihad an obligation for all Muslims, including minors and women. When classical jurists developed this doctrine, they drew on reports attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that praised the sacrifices of female warriors who fought to defend the faith in the early days of Islam.23

Jihadi ideologues are aware of these reports, proudly recounting the stories of Muslim female warriors who fought alongside the Prophet. To date, however, they have excluded women from combat. Infrequently, jihadis, including ISIS members, make reference to older women fighters, whose sons or husbands had been martyred, and who have subsequently picked up the torch of jihad themselves.24 Jihadi ideologues, however, do not go on to extrapolate from these stories that other women should follow in their footsteps.

How then do jihadi ideologues justify their exclusion of women from combat? Although jihadis believe themselves to be facing a defensive-warfare situation that justifies their jihad, they continue to draw on legal precepts intended to regulate the movements of women during peacetime. Accordingly, they cite the need for women to travel with a suitable male escort (mahram) as too impractical to enforce on the battlefield, concluding that female fighters would be a liability. It should be noted, however, that jihadis have been able to use women as suicide bombers without violating this requirement.25

Instead of using women on the battlefield, jihadis, including the Islamic State, have chosen to celebrate women who have served to enable jihad by promoting a culture of male militancy. Accordingly, mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are all expected to bear children, bring up boys to love jihad, spur men to embrace it and shame them if they do not. In this spirit, ISIS has reportedly opened an institute for legal studies for women in Mosul.26 In addition, women are reported to have raised funds and recruited other women to further the cause of jihad.27 As noted earlier, women like Nasr and Bugha have also played a role in preaching the cause of the Islamic State through social media and ISIS publications.

Eros and jihadism

Judging by the literature produced by jihadis, including ISIS, women are expected to serve as the enablers of jihad by engaging in activities that can be carried out without mixing with men. The importance of maintaining sex segregation is such that jihadi forums have put strict rules in place to regulate the online communication between men and women. These rules, which are designed to protect women especially from sexual temptation, limit online communication to necessary exchanges only, for ‘fornication often starts with chatter’. Thus, any activity that has a remote hint of eros, such as the exchange of smiley-face emojis between men and women on jihadi forums, is strictly prohibited.28 Chatter and smiley faces could have a Delilah effect, or so it seems.

This is not to suggest that ISIS has overlooked the importance of sex to its members – indeed, the group could be said to have enacted a kind of ‘sex policy’. Al-Qaeda also understood the potential benefits of allowing their male fighters to have access to sex. But internal sources suggest that the group did so within the Islamic institution of marriage. For example, the detailed autobiography of Fadil Harun, an al-Qaeda operative in East Africa, reveals that the group’s leadership discouraged men from remaining celibate. Although marriage was not a requirement of membership, senior leaders permitted themselves to joke about it, and informally encouraged male jihadis to marry up to four wives.

Beyond this informal banter, the organisation maintained funds to support jihadis who wished to get married, even paying for return flights to their native countries should they wish to marry according to their family traditions. Egyptian women in particular appear to have been highly desirable for marriage. Harun cites a saying attributed to the founder of the Shafi‘i school of Islamic thought to the effect that ‘whoever did not marry [an Egyptian woman], he did not enjoy the true taste of marriage’.29 Harun, however, chose to return to his native Comoros Islands to marry. He was uncomfortable at the thought of potentially marrying a woman who had been circumcised, describing the practice, which is common in parts of Africa, as ‘a custom foreign to Islam’.30

While there is little evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda permitted its fighters to engage in sex outside marriage, there is ample evidence that the Islamic State has institutionalised the practice of sex slavery. Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi woman who escaped from ISIS thanks to the help of a Sunni family, has provided a detailed account of how she and others were treated as slaves by ISIS fighters, who raped them at will. Murad has since been named the UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking for her tireless and dignified campaigning against human trafficking.31 In addition, the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi has given voice to ISIS rape victims by writing on ISIS’s ‘culture of rape’ based on interviews she conducted with women who were used by ISIS as sex slaves.32

Secondary accounts are not the only source of evidence that ISIS has nurtured a culture of sexual slavery on its territory. Indeed, the group’s own official publications reveal that the group’s fighters have sexual access to sabaya (women captives in war) and jariyat (slave girls). It appears that ISIS has chosen to revive a pre-modern institution that permitted women and children to be considered as ghanima (spoils of war). This was practised among both Muslims and non-Muslims in pre-modern times. Islamic law incorporated the custom in its legal tradition, but tried to regulate it. It developed elaborate rules that imposed some financial responsibilities on men whose spoils included captive women and children.

In its attempt to cast a moral sheen over a practice that international law today deems unlawful and abhorrent, ISIS has contended that its slave girls enjoy better protection than prostitutes in the West. In Issue 9 of the group’s English-language magazine Dabiq, the group published an article entitled ‘Slave Girls or Prostitutes’, supposedly authored by a woman named Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajira. The article draws on Islamic teaching to demonstrate that the practice of sabi (enslaving women and children) was practised in early Islam, stressing that, in contrast to Western culture, which causes some vulnerable women to become prostitutes, Islamic law commands Muslim men to show kindness to their sabaya. The article was a response to media reports that portrayed ISIS fighters as rapists, contending that the women claiming to have been raped had ‘made up lies, and wrote false stories’. Such lies, the article asserted, are common, as there have always been ‘devious and wicked slave-girls with stories that would turn a newborn’s hair grey’.33 Perhaps the author of the article knew that there was truth to the media reports and therefore included a passage that is implicitly addressed to the men of ISIS:

So whoever thinks that the ultimate aim of saby is pleasure, then he is a mistaken ignoramus. Otherwise, why did the Sharī’ah urge kindness towards slaves as well as good treatment of them even if they are kuffār whom Allah humiliated by making them into slaves owned by the people of Islam. Yet He (subhānah) made their liberation from the lands of kufr a way for their salvation and guidance towards the straight path.34

Primary and secondary accounts of ISIS’s treatment of women, ‘slave girls’ or otherwise, demonstrate that domestic life in the ‘land of the caliphate’ leaves a lot to be desired for women. The group’s own publications confirm that even some of the women who chose to emigrate to join ISIS were unable to cope with their husbands’ decision to take on a second wife (or more).35 An article in ISIS’s al-Naba’ (Issue 47) admonishing Muslim women who ‘are proud to be living under the protection of the caliphate’ to treat slave girls kindly suggests that ISIS wives have been unleashing their wrath on the slave girls in their households.36 It may be that these women are cruel, or that this was their way of discouraging their husbands to turn their homes into a harem, or a combination of both.

If ISIS wives are unable to comply with the Islamic injunction of being kind to slave girls, ISIS men have displayed genuine creativity in their compliance with Islamic law. Callimachi’s interviews reveal that ISIS fighters have had little desire to conform to the responsibilities that Islamic law imposes on Muslim men who take on slave girls. For example, according to Islamic law, a Muslim man is obliged to observe the ‘idda (a waiting period intended to reveal whether a woman is pregnant) before bedding or marrying her. This is because, if she bore her new owner a child, she would become umm walad (the mother of a Muslim child), giving her certain entitlements, including the right to become a ‘freedwoman’ if she were to convert to Islam, and the right to get married if she wished to.37 ISIS men could not wait, it seems, supplying their ‘slave girls’ with contraceptive pills to ensure that they bore them no children and could therefore be sold on when they ceased to satisfy their owners’ sexual appetites.38

* * *

While the counter-terrorism community has good reason to worry that more women will seek to play a larger role in supporting the Islamic State, this threat should be assessed with due consideration to ISIS’s own position on women’s role within the organisation. It is true that media outlets supporting ISIS have published materials with titles that appear to promote female empowerment by promising to train women to become fighters. Yet the actual content of these publications does not fulfil the promise of their titles, suggesting that the prospect of female militancy was perhaps a recruiting tool. Indeed, a close reading of ISIS primary sources confirms that women’s empowerment within the group is not even a remote possibility. Instead, with the exception of a small number of women who enjoy a public profile, ISIS women are expected to be the enablers, not the agents, of jihad. They are expected to encourage men to embrace jihad, to cook for them, and to accommodate their husbands’ desires to have multiple wives and slave girls.

Far from permitting women to mix with men, a necessary requirement if women are to play an active role in combat, jihadis prohibit any kind of mixing between the sexes, even introducing rigid rules to regulate interaction online. And even though ISIS initially welcomed the Mombasa attack, the reaction by jihadis online suggests that such attacks are likely to introduce divisions among the group’s supporters and raise doubts about its commitment to sex segregation. This is not to suggest that there will not be similar attacks in future, but such attacks are a double-edged sword for ISIS. In other words, women fighting in support of ISIS is not a win–win situation for the group. Rather, it carries an ideological cost that could undermine the solidarity of its supporters. In its attempt to appeal to both women and men, ISIS has managed to combine a misleading discourse on women’s potential to become warriors with discussions that feature slave girls and co-wives. Thus, any reporting or analysis forewarning of a shift in the group’s strategy to deploy women in combat will have misread the level of female empowerment tolerated by ISIS. Such reporting could unwittingly assist ISIS in recruiting female freelancers who are eager to fight in support of its cause.


My gratitude to Muhammad al-‘Ubaydi for his help with the primary sources for this essay, and to Michael Cook and Elisabeth Marteu for their constructive feedback on the article. Research for this article was supported by a Minerva Research Initiative, Grant FA9550-15-1-0373.


1 ‘Kenya Police Find Note Suggesting ISIS Link to Mombasa Attack’, African Spotlight, 15 September 2016.

2 Although several attempted attacks in France have involved women, it is not clear whether these would have entailed violating the mahram rule. See Alissa J. Rubin and Aurelien Breeden, ‘Women’s Emergence as Terrorists in France Points to Shift in ISIS Gender Roles’, New York Times, 1 October 2016.

3 Ahlam al-Nasr, ‘al-Irhab ... al-Hayat al-Haqiqiyya’, al-Ghuraba’ Media, 2014, p. 11. Unless otherwise stated, any translations of Arabic materials are by the author.

4 See the internal ISIS document posted by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi in his article ‘Stories of the Mujahideen: Unseen Islamic State Biographies of Outstanding Members’, 24 August 2016, It is noteworthy that this document only mentions Bugha’s sons who died fighting for ISIS, without mentioning her daughter, Ahlam al-Nasr. To my knowledge, Nasr has not been endorsed by any official ISIS media outlet. It appears that her writings caused ISIS’s enemies, specifically ‘the followers of Abu Muhammad al-Julani and Ayman al-Zawahiri’ (the current leaders of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and al-Qaeda respectively), to question her sexual morality. In response, a certain Khadim al-Muwahhidin has written an essay in her defence entitled ‘Ila al-Ta‘inina fi al-‘Afifa Ahlam al-Nasr’ (To those who slandered the virtuous Ahlam al-Nasr), available at

5 See Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel, ‘Battle Lines: Want to Understand the Jihadis? Read Their Poetry’, New Yorker, 8 June 2015,

6 Nelly Lahoud, ‘Umayma al-Zawahiri on Women’s Role in Jihad’, Jihadica, 26 February 2010.

7 I should note that not all her writings are as literary and eloquent.

8 Iman Mustafa al-Bugha, ‘Ayyu Rajulin Anta Ya man Sana‘atka Kalimatu Allah’, Alghuraba Media, 2014.

9 Iman Mustafa al-Bugha, ‘Ana Da‘ishiyya Qabla an Tujada Da‘ish’ [I have been a Da’ishite [long] before Da’ish existed], 21 October 2014,

10 Bugha’s account was posted on Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam,

11 Erin Marie Saltman and Melanie Smith, ‘“Till Martyrdom Do Us Part”: Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon’, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2015, pp. 4–5,

12 David Biale, ‘Zionism as an Erotic Revolution’, in his Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America (New York: Basic Books, 1992), pp. 176–203.

13 It is worth noting that women’s-rights activists in Saudi Arabia are petitioning the king to bring an end to male guardianship in the Kingdom. See Marguerita Stancati, ‘Saudi Women Ask King to Bring an End to Male Guardianship’, Wall Street Journal, 26 September 2016,

14 See Bugha’s account on Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam.

15 Mu’assassat al-Zawra, ‘Silsilat Wasafat li-Asad al-Jabahat’, al-Minbar al-I‘lami al-Jihadi,

16 Abu ‘Abd al-Qadir, ‘Namadhij min Nur: Shay’un min Siyari Zawjati Hakimi al-Umma Ayman al-Zawahiri’, Ana al-Muslim, 8 October 2011,

17 ‘Kenya Police Find Note Suggesting ISIS Link to Mombasa Attack’, African Spotlight, 15 September 2016.

18 The forum discussion was under the heading ‘As’ila hawla ‘Amal al-Nisa’ bi-al-Jihad’ [Questions Concerning Women’s Role in Jihad] on Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, and appeared after A‘maq’s reporting of the Mombasa attacks on 13 September 2016.

19 George Sale (trans.), The Koran (London and New York: Frederick Warne, n.d.), p. 412.

20 Al-Naba’, Issue 50, October 2016, p. 15.

21 David Rapoport, ‘The Four Waves of Rebel Terror’, in Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (eds), Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004), pp. 46–73.

22 For a detailed discussion of these issues, see Nelly Lahoud, ‘The Neglected Sex: The Jihadis’ Exclusion of Women from Jihad’, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 26, no. 5, 2014, especially pp. 4–14.

23 For an excellent piece on the law of war in Islam, see Majid Khadduri, ‘Translator’s Introduction’, in The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966), pp. 1–41.

24 See Yusuf al-‘Uyayri, Dawr al-Nisa’ fi Jihad al-A‘da’ (The Role of Women in the Jihad against the Enemies [of Islam]). Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi has posted internal ISIS documents on the subject and analysed them on his website; see his ‘Stories of the Mujahideen: Women of the Islamic State’, 17 October 2016,

25 See Lahoud, ‘The Neglected Sex’.

26 This was reported by @nba_aljihad on Twitter on 25 October 2014.

27 See, for example, ‘Philly Woman Arrested for Trying to Join ISIS’, NBC10, 3 April 2015,

28 See ‘al-Dawabit al-Shr‘iyya allati la budda minha fi al-Tawashuli al-Shabaki bayna al-Jinsayn’ and the posts that followed on Muntadayat Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam,

29 Fadil Harun, al-Harb ‘ala al-Islam: Qissat Fadil Harun, vol. 1, 2008, p. 197. See also pp. 163, 206.

30 Ibid., p. 197.

31 See the interview with Nadia Murad on ‘Hardtalk’, BBC, 16 September 2016,

32 Rukmini Callimachi, ‘ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape’, 13 August 2015, New York Times,

33 Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajira, ‘Slave Girls or Prostitutes’, Dabiq, Issue 9, September 2016, p. 48.

34 Ibid.

35 Nelly Lahoud, ‘Islamic State’s Domestic Problems’, IISS Voices, 10 December 2015,

36 ‘Allah … Allah fima Malakat Aymanukum’, Al-Naba’, Issue 47, September 2016, p. 13.

37 For a discussion of how classical Islamic law regulated these practices, see Khadduri, The Islamic Law of Nations, pp. 75–193.

38 Rukmini Callimachi, ‘To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control’, New York Times, 13 March 2016,

Nelly Lahoud is Senior Fellow for Political Islamism, IISS–Middle East.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2017

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