CAIRO, Egypt – Muslim extremist women are challenging Al Qaeda's refusal to include — or at least acknowledge — women in its ranks, in an emotional debate that gives rare insight into the gender conflicts lurking beneath one of the strictest strains of Islam.
In response to a female questioner, Al Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri said in April that the terrorist group does not have women. A woman's role, he said on the Internet audio recording, is limited to caring for the homes and children of Al Qaeda fighters.
His remarks have since prompted an outcry from fundamentalist women, who are fighting or pleading for the right to be terrorists. The statements have also created some confusion, because suicide bombings by women seem to be on the rise, at least within the Iraq branch of Al Qaeda.
A'eeda Dahsheh is a Palestinian mother of four in Lebanon who said she supports al-Zawahiri and has chosen to raise children at home as her form of jihad. However, she said, she also supports any woman who chooses instead to take part in terror attacks.
Another woman signed a more than 2,000-word essay of protest online as Rabeebat al-Silah, Arabic for "Companion of Weapons."
"How many times have I wished I were a man ... When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri said there are no women in Al Qaeda, he saddened and hurt me," wrote "Companion of Weapons," who said she listened to the speech 10 times. "I felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest...I am powerless."
Such postings have appeared anonymously on discussion forums of Web sites that host videos from top Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden. While the most popular site requires names and passwords, many people use only nicknames, making their identities and locations impossible to verify.
However, groups that monitor such sites say the postings appear credible because of the knowledge and passion they betray. Many appear to represent computer-literate women arguing in the most modern of venues — the Internet — for rights within a feudal version of Islam.
"Women were very disappointed because what al-Zawahiri said is not what's happening today in the Middle East, especially in Iraq or in Palestinian groups," said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors militant Web sites. "Suicide operations are being carried out by women, who play an important role in jihad."
It's not clear how far women play a role in Al Qaeda because of the group's amorphous nature.
Terrorism experts believe there are no women in the core leadership ranks around bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. But beyond that core, Al Qaeda is really a movement with loosely linked offshoots in various countries and sympathizers who may not play a direct role. Women are clearly among these sympathizers, and some are part of the offshoot groups.
In the Iraq branch, for example, women have carried out or attempted at least 20 suicide bombings since 2003. Al Qaeda members suspected of training women to use suicide belts were captured in Iraq at least three times last year, the U.S. military has said.
Hamas, another militant group, is open about using women fighters and disagrees with Al Qaeda's stated stance. At least 11 Palestinian women have launched suicide attacks in recent years.
"A lot of the girls I speak to ... want to carry weapons. They live with this great frustration and oppression," said Huda Naim, a prominent women's leader, Hamas member and Palestinian lawmaker in Gaza. "We don't have a special militant wing for women ... but that doesn't mean that we strip women of the right to go to jihad."
Al-Zawahiri's remarks show the fine line Al Qaeda walks in terms of public relations. In a modern Arab world where women work even in some conservative countries, Al Qaeda's attitude could hurt its efforts to win over the public at large. On the other hand, noted SITE director Katz, al-Zawahiri has to consider that many Al Qaeda supporters, such as the Taliban, do not believe women should play a military role in jihad.
Al-Zawahiri's comments came in a two-hour audio recording posted on an Islamic militant Web site, where he answered hundreds of questions sent in by Al Qaeda sympathizers. He praised the wives of mujahedeen, or holy warriors. He also said a Muslim woman should "be ready for any service the mujahedeen need from her," but advised against traveling to a war front like Afghanistan without a male guardian.
Al-Zawahiri's stance might stem from personal history, as well as religious beliefs. His first wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. airstrike in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in 2001. He later accused the U.S. of intentionally targeting women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I say to you ... [I have] tasted the bitterness of American brutality: my favorite wife's chest was crushed by a concrete ceiling," he wrote in a 2005 letter.
Al-Zawahiri's question-and-answer campaign is one sign of Al Qaeda's sophistication in using the Web to keep in touch with its popular base, even while its leaders remain in hiding. However, the Internet has also given those disenfranchised by Al Qaeda — in this case, women — a voice they never had before.
The Internet is the only "breathing space" for women who are often shrouded in black veils and confined to their homes, "Ossama2001" wrote. She said al-Zawahiri's words "opened old wounds" and pleaded with God to liberate women so they can participate in holy war.
Another woman, Umm Farouq, or mother of Farouq, wrote: "I use my pen and words, my honest emotions ... Jihad is not exclusive to men."
Such women are Al Qaeda sympathizers who would not feel comfortable expressing themselves with men or others outside their circles, said Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on terrorism and Islamic movements at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"The Internet gives them the ideal place to write their ideas, while they're hidden far from the world," he said.
Men have also responded to al-Zawahiri's remarks. One male Internet poster named Hassan al-Saif asked: "Does our sheik mean that there is no need to use women in our current jihad? Why can we not use them?"
He was in the minority. Dozens of postings were signed by men who agreed with al-Zawahiri that women should stick to supporting men and raising children according to militant Islam.
Women bent on becoming militants have at least one place to turn to. A niche magazine called "al-Khansaa" — named for a female poet in pre-Islamic Arabia who wrote lamentations for two brothers killed in battle — has popped up online. The magazine is published by a group that calls itself the "women's information office in the Arab peninsula," and its contents include articles on women's terrorist training camps, according to SITE.
Its first issue, with a hot pink cover and gold embossed lettering, appeared in August 2004 with the lead article "Biography of the Female Mujahedeen."
The article read:
"We will stand, covered by our veils and wrapped in our robes, weapons in hand, our children in our laps, with the Quran and the Sunna [sayings] of the Prophet of Allah directing and guiding us."