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Special Report
Last Updated: 11/29/2006
The Female Islamic Combatant
Katerina Standish

Despite a history of female resistance in Islamic society, contemporary culture continues to enslave women, while fixed on an antiquated mode of thought. Katerina Standish takes a historical look at the barrier to equality for women in the context of combat and Islam. Standish is also the author of Human Security and Gender: Female Suicide Bombers In Palestine and Chechnya, the current Peace and Conflict Review article.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus considered war ‘productive destructiveness’, in that it alters the balance of power, territory and state. The power of this destruction then “…creates the people…produces power [both] individual and collective (Elshtain, 1987, p.167). Drawing on cultural traditions deeply rooted in Muslim society, female participation in violent resistance has contributed to female power without strengthening the discourse of gender equality.


Some research into stereotypes of Palestinian women (Morgan, 2001) splinter the female world into either “…a grenade-laden Leila Khaled, or…an illiterate refugee willingly producing sons for the revolution” (p.252). Leila Khaled was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) involved in the 1969 hijacking of TWA flight 840. The first female Palestinian Suicide Bomber, Wafa Idris, was neither revolutionary nor an illiterate refugee—she was a divorced, childless, paramedic living in the Al-Amari Refugee Camp.


Generalizations as stark as those described by Morgan are common in Western discourse, but work from female scholars in the Islamic world cannot ignore the widespread political and economic inferiority experienced by women in Muslim societies. Chechnya, separated from the Arab East regionally, and comprised of non-Arab peoples ethnically, mirrors this social imbalance, as do Muslim societies in Indonesia and the Sudan. As a primary instrument for the true expression of Islam is the Islamic State, Muslims in non-Islamic lands can be said to hold dual citizenship and as such are beholden to the laws of the greater nation-state only after adherence to the laws of Islam (Harris, 2005).


Nawal el Saadawi is a scholar from Egypt who began publishing in Lebanon to avoid censorship. Her work on women in society in pre- and early Islamic periods indicates that women in these societies were always inferior to men, not as a result of religion, but because of the culture (1982). Societies in the areas that gave rise to Islam were largely composed of landowners and slaves. Both patriarchal and class based, the attraction that Islam held was liberation from slavery.


Nomadic women who lived in desert regions had far greater independence because they were partners with men economically. “They mixed freely with men and did not wear the veil” (el Saadawi, 1982, p.194). Saadawi also highlights the primary relationships of the Prophet Mohammed himself. Heralded as “…emancipated with respect for women”, he “…gave his women the right to stand up to him, rebuke him, or tell him where he had gone wrong” (p.195).


The history of female combatants in Islam goes back to the youngest wife of the Prophet, Aisha, said to have fought beside Mohammed in several wars. Others, like Khadija, Nessiba Bint Ka’ab, Um Sulaym Bint Malhan and Hind Bint Rab’ia fought with or even against the prophet on the field of battle (Ibid, p. 197).


The Prophet Mohammed’s emancipated ways is short-lived in historical terms as the second leader (Caliph) after Mohammed was considered puritan, from a tribe “…accustomed to ruling our women” (Ibid., p. 195). After the death of Mohammed “…women were subjected to new laws imposing upon them marriage against their will, if necessary by brute force, and depriving them of their right to divorce”. By the 8th Century “…history was to plunge the Arab women into a long night of feudal oppression and foreign domination in which women were condemned to toil, to hide behind the veil, to quiver in the prison of a Harem….” (Ibid., p. 198)


The 20th Century brought the world closer together with the advent of television, radio and later, the Internet.  Since colonial times previously isolated cultures have been experiencing the forces of globalization and cultural contagion. As human groups interact differences are magnified in times of conflict and conflict in turn helps define the group.


The creation of identity through conflict is a modern as well as an historical phenomenon. With the use of modern technology to broadcast and parade alternative lifestyles—some beneficial, some destructive, some banal—to more culturally homogenous regions, cultural divides can emerge that challenge existing power structures and strengthen local identity. Where modernization and globalization have occurred, opposition reinforces political, ethnic or spiritual/religious identities (Friedman, 2000). The adoption of external methods to support internal social and political movements is a common result of intercultural communications.


In the 1970’s, the rise of Arab nationalism can be said to result from modernization and technology. The Palestinian cause was just one arena in which revolutionary politics emerged. Palestinians are distinct from other Arabs in fundamental ways, the post-colonial government under which they live is not Muslim, not Arab and unlike other Arab peoples in the Middle East, Palestinians were not inheritors of the political patchwork after the Second World War.


Arab nationalism is not a religious entity but rather a form of ethnic nationalism that calls for a pan-Arab state devoid of colonially imposed national boundaries.  Arab nationalism is the movement in the Middle East away from political domination by the West. The end of the Ottoman Empire and rise of European stewardship in the region during the first half of the 20th Century in some ways mirrors the smaller scale conflicts in Chechnya and Palestine. Both regions began their revolt against the West using a discourse of ethnic nationalism. Pan-Arabism has had limited success—of the ten current members of the Arab League the greatest combination of member states in communication with one another is four—and Islamists dismiss the notion of pan-Arabism as anti-Islamic because it’s originators were Arab Lebanese Christians (Kramer, 2005).


The revolutionary rhetoric of Arab Nationalism and self-determination not only radicalized the male population; liberation politics began to illuminate multiple forms of oppression. Though not ultimately successful, the politics of Arab nationalism in the 1970’s resulted in a culture of support for the modern Muslim woman, educated, independent and capable of engaging in the revolution just like a man. Women like Leila Khaled.


As female participation in violence is frowned upon in Muslim society a cult of support for female Muslim warriors of the 7th century has not emerged. While it is possible that many Palestinians are familiar with these ancient combatants, the most famous female combatant in recent history is without question Leila Khaled. Born in Haifa in 1944 and forced to flee to Lebanon in the first refugee wave in 1948, her youth in Tyre was highly politicized and she became a militant at the age of fifteen. 


Khaled is described as a woman who, “flamboyantly overcame the patriarchal restrictions of Arab society where women are traditionally subservient to their husbands, by taking an equal fighting role with men, by getting divorced and remarried, having children in her late 30s, and rejecting vanity by having her face reconstructed for her cause” (2001, p. 16).


Khaled is famous for participating in revolutionary airliner hijackings at a time when “… hijacks were a political tool of the moment, when commitment, extreme risk and sacrifice were admired and often romanticized” (Ibid, p. 7). Currently a member of the Palestinian National Council and living in Jordan, Khaled was the child of fedayeen and, although a feminist icon to international observers, Khaled herself was only interested in liberating Palestine. Any inference to a desire to liberate women in Palestine was pure fiction. Once quoted “I represent Palestinians, not women” (2001, p. 18). Khaled can be compared to other female revolutionaries of her day, forced “…to prove that we could be equal to men in armed struggle…so we wanted to be like men….” (Ibid, p. 17).  Khaled was not engaged in the struggle for female equality, she was fighting for a home. In her first hijacking she forced the pilot to fly over Haifa. Her first look at her birthplace as an adult was from TWA 840, a plane she helped hijack and later destroyed (Ibid).


Leila Khaled is not a feminist. Her use of power was male power and her legacy as a role model for women was a matter of incident not intention. Feminism itself is not indigenous to the Middle East. The push for equality for women was largely due to exposure to western civilization and the urge of some Arab governments to modernize (Ahmed, 1982). Arabic feminism has not supplanted traditional notions of the rights of Muslim women. The push for equality has most often been framed using the Koran rather than ideas of human rights. In the Arab world feminist reform supports religious fundamentalism and “…feminism …becomes merely an instrument by which fundamental assumptions of the culture are reinforced” (Ibid, p.161).


Current Muslim discourse can be described as decidedly anti-Western and the inclination towards feminism and emancipatory politics in general has weakened since the 1990’s. As such movements are seen as originating in the West, the fight for female equality in Islamic states is now seen as pro-Western and therefore anti-Muslim (Ahmed, 1982). As modern day combatants engaged in the liberation of Muslim territory, female suicide bombers are likewise adopting male methods to join the struggle. They are aided today, not by the rise of Arab nationalism and the influx of Western modernization, but by the Battle of Karbala, a conflict from 1,300 years ago that created the modern concept of the martyrdom operations.


In modern conflict, Islamic female combatants see their roles as a defense against aggression, preserving their society and ironically taking life to save life.  The Islamic concept of martyrdom, death of a Muslim while in defense of Islam, is an equivalent sentiment, the necessary sacrifice of the self for others (Elshtain, 1987; Reuter, 2002). To better understand the female combatant we must identify the cultural and ideological structures that support female participation in violent resistance and to better understand conflict we must recognize that women’s roles in conflict are not necessarily signposts of cultural change.






Ahmed, A. (2003). Islam under siege. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.


Ahmed, L. (1982). Feminism and feminist movements in the Middle East, a preliminary exploration. In A. Al-Hibri (Eds.), Woman and Islam (pp. 153-168). Exeter: A. Wheaton & Co.


El Saadawi, N. (1982). Woman and Islam. In A. Al-Hibri (Eds.), Woman and Islam (pp. 193-206). Exeter: A. Wheaton & Co.


Elshtain, J. (1987). Women and War. New York: Basic Books Inc.


Friedman, T. (2000). The Lexus and the olive tree. 2nd Ed. New York: Random House.


Harris, S. (2005). The End of Faith. New York: W.W. Norton.


Kramer, M. (2006). The Rise and fall of Arab Nationalism. Retrieved Feb 01, 2006, from


Morgan, R. (2001). The Demon Lover: on the Sexuality of Terrorism. 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton.


Reuter, C. (2002). My life is a weapon. Oxford: Princeton University Press.



Katerina Standish is a researcher at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada who recently completed her MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding. Her current research interests include cultural constructions of the female combatant and cultural ‘currencies’ of Martyrdom.