Women Fighters, a Restoration of Power, or Another Kind of Capitulation

The idea of a female involvement in fighting battles is not strange to what generations have always inherited as it has been woven after myths. Mobilization of women throughout the world correlates with this inherited culture. However, there is always a margin in between the controversial role of women, while trying to overcome gender-based discrimination and the patriarchy, the need for taking arms out of some pragmatic philosophies that imprison women to family and household issues. This impediment of the female role within Oriental societies is an integral part of the intellectual structure, which indulges itself in numerous contradictions, resulting in the tolerance of women with arms and their involvement in killing and getting killed. The contradictions of this trend put us to the edge of historical re-evaluation of the cages, in which women have been put in and their role limitations. While attempting to liberate women from the limits of culture, women have been subjugated to their traditional impairments, which never took a new role of women into consideration. The new role has not been an advantage as much as new restrictions come from the patriarchy.

History of women fighters

With an absence of governments in the time of primitive societies, governing peoples’ affairs became a God-related issue, whether in time of war or that of peace. At that time, Ishtar[1] became a goddess, representing love and war, feminism and power. Amazigh[2] women in Numidia[3] used to cut their breasts in order to improve their skills in archery. In Gaul[4] countries, only virgins were chosen for war together with women reached the menopause, whereas women of childbearing age stayed home. In all stages of history, there were cases of women who used to fight and commanded their troops, male and female. Many names of queens or women leading wars emerged throughout history.

The pre-Islamic era was not different, as the society in that period was such a nomadic one, ruled by tribal conventions. The roles of male, female and the community were interrelated. As a main social component, women could be leaders of a certain movement or a community, or even a business woman. Such a society was not isolated from it surrounding civilizations, which had both – paternal and maternal – systems. One woman was named goddess of the Thakif Tribe[5] in Al Taeif, Saudi Arabia and she controlled the city. Munat, a lady who was worshiped by two tribes – Al Aus and Al Khazeaj – who lived in Yathreb, known later as Al Medina with the advent of Islam. In Mecca, there was also a lady named Ezzah, who became the goddess of Kuraish, the biggest tribe in the area. This goddess had a great role in wars as it was believed that each god or goddess fought with his or her own people. That is why Abu Sufian[6] took Al Lat and Ezzah with him to the Auhud battle against Prophet Muhammed. Despite all what was said about women as a public property for prostitution and that some tribes used to bury their daughters alive, the presence of women in battles was very important for encouraging fighters to fiercely fight and to prevent them from fleeing the battle for fear of leaving women to be raped by their enemies.

In the early stages of Islam, women’s involvement in wars was such a normal phenomenon, which extended to the time of the Rashidi Caliphs. Women used to fight and even gave orders to fighters, they used to encourage fighters to boldly fight enemies. Nasibah, daughter of Ka’eb, known as Um Amara, defended Prophet Muhammed in the Auhud battle[7]. Um Hakim, daughter of Al Hareth Ben Hisham, participated in the Al Yarmouk Battle against the Roman Empire.

The beginning of male domination started with the Umayyad dynasty, followed by the Abbasi age. The concept of man’s superiority and his right to arbitrarily end marriage was clear. The Islamic society was not ready to accept any female leader or a queen and most Muslims believed that “no people can be successful, when a woman leads them.” Consequently, women were excluded from any military assignments in successive Islamic empires.

At a later stage of history, some women took over and had a leading role in their countries. Shajar Al Durr[8], took over after the death of her husband, who was the last Ayoubi Sultan in 1249 AD. Her military and political decisions had a great effect on the Egypt war against the Crusaders. She laid the foundations for the Al Mamaleek state. In fact, she was not the first lady in the Islamic World to rule: Arwa, daughter of Ahmad Al Sulaihi, ruled Yemen between 1098 and 1138 AD.

Whatever status women got throughout history, one aspect was always the same: playing the role of men. Abnormalities can never be taken as norms. Nevertheless, female fighters will remain under the control of men whether they fight in formal or informal armies. They will remain in an inferior status that is liable for discrimination because of the role for women in patriarchic structures, and this will remain as a controversial issue for long time and on all levels.

Women in Arab Armies

European colonizers of the Arab incited female involvement in fighting wars, especially with the emergence of patriotic tendencies and national movements. These new trends legalized the defiance of criteria that made defending the homeland a masculine responsibility. Women were involved in fighting battles in many countries. Algeria is the pioneer in this regard. Fatima Nasumer, daughter of a Sufi Sheikh, formed her own army of 7000 fighters. They obeyed her, and she was called “Joan of Arc Jarjara”. She was also named Khawla Jarjara after the name of Khawlah Bent Al Azwar.[9] Jameleh Buhaired is also a woman fighter from Algeria. In Palestine, Dalal Al Maghribi was a famous member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Nazek Al Abed in Syria and Duraih Shafeek in Egypt are other examples of women fighters in the Arab World.

Women have been enrolled in armies of many Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates. Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and Algeria. In Algeria, women in the army have been promoted to the highest possible positions in its war for independence. In 2006, the Algerian Army made an equalitarian framework, increasing the number of women who joined the army. Jordan also made a plan for capacity building for women to make them able to join the army. The Jordanian strategy was implemented between 2006 and 2016. It aimed at training women for the army, where they can work as civil clerks or soldiers on equal footing with men regarding position, salary and duration of service. In Lebanon and Tunisia, the armies put women and men equally to frontlines.

At the end of 2018, the Tunisian Minister of Defense said that Tunisia should consider mandatory military service for women just like men. Morocco also enacted a law for conscription for men and women in August 2018, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior approved the establishment of an Iraqi army of women: 10,000 young women were admitted to be in the army and federal police forces in 2015. This new female military force was intended to support the Al Hashed Al Sha’bi forces[10], which fight together with the Iraqi Army. In Syria, the first commandos force was established by Republican Guards of Assad’s Regime in 2013, when President Bashar approved this new military entity. It consists of 800 female fighters and they were actively involved in the fight against opposition forces in many areas of Syria.

Saudi Arabia also opened voluntary conscription for females between 25 and 35.

It is worth mentioning that the participation of women in fighting battles has not been limited to formal armies, but they have also been involved in militias. During the Lebanese civil war, many Lebanese and Palestinian military groups in Lebanon were involved in fighting against Israel. There was a race between sectarian and ideological militias, that played an important role in the war and in politics as well. The first woman who carried out a suicidal attack against Israeli forces in South Lebanon was Sana’a Al Mehaidly. She was a member of the National Social Party. These attacks were sponsored by armed groups with ideological, sectarian and religious backgrounds. Both Sunnah and Shiite were involved in this strategy. In total, 67 Palestinian women carried out suicidal attacks between 2002 and 2006.

Military feminism between controversy and discrimination

After the Orient had been – for long – condemned for its gender-based discrimination and the state of capitulation, Arabic governments opened new horizons for women and gave them the opportunity to be part of military institutions. However, this new breakthrough was not enough to mitigate gender-based discrimination on other levels. Female presence in armies is not more than a pretended propaganda step that is less than the right of women to participate in public and political life in their societies. Women’s involvement in the armies of six Arab countries and encouraging more of them to join have never ended the argumentation about women’s role or mitigated gender-based discrimination. This is a bare fact, although the rights of women to join armies was included in the constitutions of these countries as a principle of equalitarianism in education, work and taking responsibilities in the societies of these countries.

Conscription of women and assigning them military tasks have opened wide discussion on the political and social levels in the Arab societies, because this step has got many connotations, contradicting with the social conventions and the way society looks at females and their role. Society looks at women from the perspective of physical and emotional difference. For Arab and Muslim societies, fight, power and strength are only associated with men. Therefore, female involvement in the military affairs is considered as a coup against social customs and values. This involvement of women in fight represents a break down of the barriers between the two genders. These barriers have been in the minds of people for ages. People look at these gender-balanced laws as an encroachment upon the supremacy of men over women in terms of physical abilities on the one hand, and the lack of confidence in the abilities of women on the other hand. For these people, women can never be decision-makers, especially in military affairs, as they are usually monopolized by men. Due to these inherited stereotyped attitudes, women’s role has so far been limited to administrative and medical positions with the least involvement in real fight.

An appropriate employment

Most women in the Arab societies consider the new gender policy does not fit their physiological and biological means. The culture of society has pushed women into suitable jobs like schools, hospitals and pharmacies with less working hours to allow more time for their household obligations. For these reasons, women have been hesitant in their choice of military jobs, because this kind of jobs will add more to their burden and will also put them face to face with repulsive society. Women have no reason to endeavor their status in the society, which considers militarized women as more of men than of women. This endeavor excludes women from their social grandeur and affect their feministic traits. Physiological feminism is never enough unless it is associated with delicacy, elegance and attraction. Those women, who took the initiative and joined manly tasks, have converted into a man-like woman without even having the supremacy of man. So, they got lost: They are no longer recognized as attractive women, and at the same time they have not gained the social status of men.

A woman with military uniform doesn’t mean that she can escape discrimination. Many women broke the social barriers and chose the military as a profession. Yet, they are still suffering gender-based discrimination in Arabic armies. Military life is not only about uniform, rather it depends on physical training, fighting experience and organization skills. To get promotion depends on practical fighting experience, which are not available for women in the army as they work as secretaries, nurses, translators, technicians and engineers. Therefore, they can’t get high ranks in the hierarchy of the army and and therefore gender integration fails. It is not possible yet to consider women as qualified for fighting as men. This discrimination can’t be obliterated just by increasing the number of women in the military institutions. Both men and women haven’t deviated from the traditional hierarchy which is based on oppression and submission despite all attempts to abandon the traditional role of women. What has been so far done has never changed the traditional relationship between men and women into a complementary one. The controversial relation, which is full of suspicion, is still present.

Feministic terrorism and horror militias

Wars and armed conflicts constitute a stimulation for individuals and communities alike. In most conflicts, the woman is an icon for protection, so her presence among fighters becomes of great importance, especially when conflicts turn into civil wars and militias fighting shoulder to shoulder with formal armies. In such cases, rates of violence increase with the spread of terrorist groups. Due to the controversial issues related to women, there has always been a tendency to move women from delicate life to military one, just like what Muslim Brotherhood did, when it established Muslim Sisters Corps under the leadership of Hassan Al Banna in 1932. This new movement was in charge of proselytization, social and political activities. In 1944, the first executive Commission of Muslim Sisters was established. Then, the role of members of this movement took different forms, depending on the requirement of each period. It was the starting point for indulging women in the cycle of violence. Although Taliban was hesitant in mobilizing women due to the disagreement on their role, they started involving women in some proselytization of Salafism throughout the world. That was in 2003, and it was intended to confront the Western presence in the Islamic and Arabic world.

When the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS was established, it was one of the most brutal ruling systems ever known in preparation of people for violence and horrors that are needed to subjugate enemies. “Jihad” is at the core of this Caliphate State. Whoever opposes this Islamic State is an enemy who must be killed. Female Jihad changed from voluntary proselytization into formal utilization of women by the state of ISIS in its territories. Right from the beginning, ISIS was aware of the importance of women existence from a strategic perspective. Women with ISIS are important for attracting and inciting new fighters. Women are very good at persuading suicide attackers to go for suicidal attacks as the shortest road to paradise. Ahl Al Sunnah Movement of Jihad and Proselytization did the same in Nigeria when it pledged allegiance to ISIS, and changed its name in “Buko Haram”, using fighters including women as human bombs. Out of 244 military offensives, 56% were suicidal attacks between 2011 and 2017. All these attacks targeted military bases and personnel, mosques, bus and train stations. They exploited the respect for women and their ability to cross military checkpoints without any checking and that they could easily hide bombes under their cloths or with little girls or even with babies. In July 2014, Buko Haram used female teenagers to launch attacks with bombs.

Women fighters, Syrian case

The war in Syria has witnessed much confusion in depicting the status of women as helpless, fragile human beings who are sexually exploited and some other Syrian women were exploited for fighting. The war has produced a wide spectrum variety of female involvements in this war. Many women fighting groups emerged:

  • “Women Protection Units” is a military entity formed by Kurdish Peshmergas for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham ISIS. This military entity was an equivalent to the “Kurds Protection Units”. They won many victories in their war against ISIS.
  • “Mesopotamia Protection Units” is another female military entity of Assyrian young women, whose duty is to protect their own areas. This group is part of the Assyrian Military Council which is known as “Sutur” and allied with the “Syrian Democratic Forces” SDF.
  • Al Khansa’a Battalion is a military entity established by ISIS. It is formed of many Syrian and foreign women and girls, whose task is to observe the behavior of girls and women in the territories of ISIS. They can punish girls and women, who don’t abide by the strict Islamic rules imposed by ISIS. They sometimes participate in fighting battles or launch suicidal attacks.

Women fighters, a restoration of power or capitulation

Apparently, it is not easy to get hold of all the implications and indicators of the existence of women fighters in Syria, simply because of the contrast between women of ISIS and SDF. They got the attention of the media although they have got two different doctrines, objectives and a different sort of experience. It was a mixture of inclination to get liberty and equality with the influence of what was going on in the country, especially in the case of Kurdish female fighters. On the opposite side, women defended the patriarchic system, which deprives women from basic human rights supported by ISIS women. Anyway, the common thing between these two trends is that both have been indulged in the war. Women’s involvement in the war was not based on conviction of the need for women’s liberty as part of their self-assertion and awareness of their rights and their abilities to play their best role. Women’s involvement in wars was not associated with independence as much as with the need for such a role for them. Sometimes, religious motives can motivate some women to express their feeling of injustice of some historical religious events. These two scenarios usually happen during wars.

The alternation of indulgence in war has been fluctuating in strength up and down and was prompted by the gender-based discrimination. Women’s involvement in fight is conceived as a humiliation of masculine superiority that most men in the Orient are proud of. Fighters of ISIS have always been afraid of being captured by female militants of Syrian Democratic Forces. Moreover, the existence of women in the army or militias attracts new conscripts. Female sadism has got its attraction for the public; therefore, many armies and militias focus their media on the participation of women in their ranks.

Thus, despite all reasons or motives for women interest in the military, they have never got promoted, they were exposed to another kind of capitulation instead. They were involved in violence values and bloodshed. This involvement in fight didn’t contribute to mitigating their under-estimated status in their societies. They remained imprisoned by male-oriented societies.

Conclusion

Throughout history, women have always been involved in wars and conflicts. Yet, their participation failed in filling the gap between them and males in the Middle East. Such culture in the Orient puts women in front of two choices, either to prove their power or to get intrigued in the violence cycle of dirty wars. Women took arms and fought battles before breaking the fraternity ascendancy. Women moved from submission to males to other types of subjugation, in which they are the actors and the victims of violence at the same time. Equality between the two genders can not be attained through taking arms as a by passing event. It is a long cultural and social process. There is no point for women to rely on this symbolic leap into a domain full of violence and subjugation while they are looking for equality in a formally institutionalized gender-based society.


[1]    Ishtar is the goddess of love, beauty, war and sacrifice in wars in Mesopotamian civilizations. The Sumerians called her the Queen of Paradise, and her temple was located in the city of Uruk, the morning and evening star (Venus) symbolized by a star with eight rays erected on the back of a lion.

[2]    Amazigh are an ethnicity of several nations mostly indigenous to North Africa and some northern parts of West Africa. Berbers constitute the populations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, northern Mali, northern Niger, and a small part of western Egypt.

[3]    Numidia was the ancient kingdom of the Numidians located in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb.

[4]    Gaul was a historical region of Western Europe during the Iron Age that was inhabited by Celtic tribes, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, and parts of Northern Italy, Netherlands, and Germany, particularly the west bank of the Rhine. It covered an area of 494,000 km²

[5]    Thakif Tribe is one of the tribes lived on Arabian Peninsula in the pre-Islamic era.

[6]    A famous man of the Kuraish tribe. He is one of the uncles of Prophet Muhammed.

[7]    Auhud Battle is the second battle fought by first Muslims against the misbelievers. In this battle, misbelievers defeated Muhammed and his army.

[8]    Shajar al-Durr, also Shajarat al-Durr, whose royal name was al-Malika ʿAṣmat ad-Dīn ʾUmm-Khalīl Shajar ad-Durr, was a ruler of Egypt. She was the wife of As-Salih Ayyub, the last Egyptian sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty, and later of Izz al-Din Aybak, the first sultan of the Bahri dynasty.

[9]    A Muslim lady who lived in the early stage of Islam. She was involved in the battles between Muslims and Non-Muslims. She lost many of her sons in the battles. She an Islamic icon of patience.

[10]   These are semi-formal militias, mostly sectarian, formed for fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Sham. It is affiliated with Iran.


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