Female Fedayeen terrorists in The Nation, SCMP magazine, Alternet May 2, 2003
BAGHDAD — The Bush administration, U.S. soldiers, and the mostly-male media have little or no knowledge of what Iraqi women think about the invasion of their country. The views of some of these modern, educated, outspoken Iraqi women may come as a big surprise.
To begin with, it’s hard to know what women really think since many of them are staying home amid the political chaos. They are not likely to be found anywhere near the Palestine Hotel’s island of security, available to talk to journalists and soldiers. But it is unlikely that they will be overjoyed at the prospect of being liberated from their burkhas a la Afghanistan.
Saddam Hussein, despite all his ills, gave these women many of their rights three decades ago, making Iraq the relatively progressive oasis of women’s rights in a highly conservative and repressive region. While the views of the vast majority of Iraqi women remain a mystery, the dictator’s rare generosity toward them may explain why at least some of these women are plotting to oust what they call American invaders in the name of their “liberator,” Saddam Hussein. “We love Saddam Hussein very much,” says Arwa, 23, who was a senior in chemical engineering at Baghdad University before it was trashed by looters. “He was kind. We were safe, even when there were wars. He gave opportunities to Iraqi women. Now every dream is broken.”
At their northern Baghdad home, which features a Kalashnikov rifle under a mural of Chariots of Babylon, Arwa and her female relatives, including internet-junkie Lubna, 16, proudly show off photos of them training in the desert with revolvers and machine guns to kill invading Americans. They say they are female “fedayeen” or Saddam loyalists and members of all-girl units of the Jaishil Kodus, a local branch of the Jerusalem Brigade of Islamic Jihad, a Palestine-based terrorist group wanted by the Bush administration.
The concept of female terrorists is hardly a matter of idle rhetoric. As Arwa’s mother proudly notes, two female suicide bombers have already blown themselves up to kill American soldiers in Iraq, while another woman with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher destroyed an American tank in Nasiriyah. Female suicide bombers have increasingly becoming more common in Palestine and Chechnya. When about 50 Chechen terrorists stormed a Moscow theater and threatened to blow up 800 hostages last year, 18 of them were women.
The FBI is also worried about Al Qaeda recruiting women, and recently issued a be-on-the-lookout bulletin for a female Pakistani neurological expert wanted for questioning in its terrorism investigation. Its analysts are examining claims made in an Arab newspaper by an Arab woman who says Osama bin Laden asked her to establish training camps for “holy warrior sisters.”
While recruiting women may be a new strategy for Al-Qaeda, Arwa and her family say such training camps were the norm during Saddam’s regime. They claim thousands of female students regularly trained with army units during their summer school holidays. There are female student militias outside Iraq, as well. “Kloot Saddam,” an economics major living in Amman, Jordan, vows to return to join the Iraqi resistance like the estimated 7,000 Iraqis who crossed the border during the U.S.-led bombing campaign. Originally from Basra, she first went to military training camps at age 12. “Many girls train like this,” she says. “It’s normal in Iraq.”
American soldiers, who recently showed journalists a stash of alleged suicide bomber vests containing so-called “grape charges” of mixed nails and explosives, say suicide bombings and “drive by” shootings are their biggest threats. But instead of hiding in Afghan caves or plotting in smokey rooms, these particular would-be “terrorists” have spent the war in their grandfather’s spacious suburban home, safe from the looting around their downtown apartment, with no school or work to take their minds off revenge. “We don’t want the American army walking in our streets. We prefer death,” says Arwa, “We must take them out of here, over our dead bodies.”
The motivations of female terrorists are usually attributed to loss. The Chechen women, for example, accused Russian troops of “killing women, children and elders in Chechnya.” Terror experts like Daniel Benjamin,author of “Age of Sacred Terror,” however, believe men and women turn to terrorism for pretty much the same reasons — the desire to inflict damage on an immensely powerful foe. He told the National Post, “When terrorists groups are engaged in fairly desperate measures like this, I think all the traditional rules are off.”
Arwa and her relatives don’t appear to be particularly “desperate.” Her father owns a tissue-making factory connected to Saddam’s regime and they seem to be living in relative affluence. But Iraqi women may be particularly loyal to Saddam because he gave them unprecedented opportunities to become educated, mid-level managers. “Centuries of vicious discrimination against girls and women was ended by one stroke of the modernizing dictator’s pen,” says Indian Parliament member, writer, and former diplomat to Iraq Mani Shankar Aiyar, in a column for United Press International. “The liberation of women has been the most dramatic achievement of Saddam’s regime.”
Given opportunities in schools, offices and the military unheard of in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Arwa and Lubna say their generation suspects that a post-war government of old guard Iraqi exiles backed by the United States will push women back behind the veil, like the mullahs who led Iran’s Islamic Revolution. “America has come to control us, and control any fortune we have. I can’t go out in the street because I see American soldiers walking there. My uncles go out but we stay here all day, making food and eating,” she says.
The signs for women’s future in the post-Saddam Iraq are hardly encouraging thus far. “Iraqi women are among the most educated in the Middle East and are capable of assuming strong leadership roles,” says Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM. “Yet we have not seen clear evidence of a concerted effort to involve women in discussions to establish a pathway to a democratic society.”
Arwa’s own future as a terrorist is just as unclear. It is hard to tell if she and her relatives will in fact commit the violent acts they claim to espouse. For now, the family plans to live off six months food rations at home while the all-girl paramilitary unit plots a counterattack. Arwa says, “Saddam wanted us to liberate Palestinians from the Zionists, but now we must liberate ourselves from Americans, and we’ll do it, god willing. Women must do a plan.”