In recent months, a controversy has emerged among outside analysts regarding the role of women in the Islamic State (or ISIS), especially after unconfirmed reports from the battle for Mosul suggested that the group had begun using large numbers of female suicide bombers. Some analysts, such as the terrorism researchers Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin, argue that ISIS’ position on women in combat has recently evolved from prohibition to encouragement—as illustrated by some writings in the group’s official magazine, Rumiyah, and newsletter, al-Naba, which in their view call on women to take up arms. On the other hand, Mia Bloom and Simon Cottee argue that this is a misreading of the relevant passages and that ISIS has consistently prohibited women from fighting and continues to do so.
Both sides agree, however, on a supposed evolution from the time of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, when the group (then called al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI) openly used female suicide bombers, to the era of ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliphate, when it is not thought to have engaged in the practice, focusing instead on women’s role in the home and society. In other words, they draw a contrast between Zarqawi, the supposed innovator, and ISIS, which allegedly returned to more traditional gender roles. “While the precursor to ISIS, al-Qaeda in Iraq, found a more proactive role for women,” Bloom and Cottee write, “ISIS, in marked contrast, has strongly opposed any such innovation.”
Although both sides make valid points, the debate between them is characterized by ongoing misconceptions and errors. There is no need to posit an evolution in thinking from the days of Zarqawi up to the present. Rather, the evidence suggests that ISIS and its predecessors have always considered a combat role for women to be undesirable but permissible when necessary.