Can a woman be a jihadi? Theresa May seems to think so. She told ITV News last night that it’s not just British men leaving to join the extremist group Isis in Iraq and Syria. “We think around 400 UK-linked individuals have gone out to fight in Syria, mainly young men but also some women,” the Home Secretary said.
This is, on the face of it, a rather baffling claim. Many of the British jihadis are linked to the hardline Salafi sect. That’s thought to be the fastest-growing branch of Islam in Britain, but it’s also the most conservative, forbidding instrumental music, television and even celebrating birthdays. And, most importantly in the context of May’s remarks, Salafi women are supposed to be entirely veiled. The female face is considered “awrah” – roughly translated as “imperfect”, “naked” or “shameful”. It’s hard to see how a niqab could be converted into battle-dress.
And how on earth, when even in liberal Britain we don’t allow women to fight alongside men on the frontline, would hardline jihadis permit female soldiers?
Of course the detail is slightly more complicated than the Home Secretary’s soundbite suggests. For a start, the number of British women thought to be waging jihad in Iraq is relatively small. The Mirror has claimed that 10 British women – two from Portsmouth, two from London, another from Surrey and five from cities in the North of England – are among those who have linked up with Isis.
But the idea these women are rampaging across the Middle East in combat fatigues, brandishing an assortment of weaponry, is rather far-fetched.
As Channel 4 News found in an investigation last year the women joining jihadis in Syria are there as wives not warriors. The weapons they carry are for their own protection.
“Maryam” said she’d like to fight, and fired off a Kalashnikov for the camera, but, dressed in a niqab with only her eyes visible, she knew her religion prevented her doing anything but supporting her husband. She saw the men as honoured to fight for Allah. “I’m in the house but at least I’m here,” she told us. And she didn’t see any difficulties in balancing her role as a warrior’s wife and a mother – bringing up one child, with another on the way – in a warzone.
“Maryam”’s marriage was arranged by her husband’s mother. But other European women are apparently setting out to snare themselves a jihadi husband.
But for all the cultural and religious reasons why it’s overwhelmingly men who are taking up arms in “Syraq” as the two most turbulent countries in the Middle East are now being dubbed, it would be sexist to insist that women, as the “weaker sex” are somehow unable to carry out the terrorist atrocities Isis has unleashed in the region.
So my immediate reaction of disbelief when I heard May’s comment about the women jihadis perhaps fell into this trap. Don’t forget that the “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite, who was married to the 7/7 suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay, remains one of the world’s most wanted terrorism suspects. And “black widow” female suicide bombers have carried out many attacks in Russia.
Notice how the custom appears to be to feminise female terrorists by using the word “widow”. It’s as if we can’t quite bring ourselves to accept that women are capable of the same sort of evil as men.
But they are, and they have been throughout history. Mary Bell, Myra Hindley, Rosemary West…we should be used to it by now. So while their beliefs may prevent British women entering the fray in Iraq, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear they yearn to do so.