Fact v. Fiction

09.25.13

Are Arab Women Flocking To Syria For 'Sex Jihad'?

A Tunisian official says young women are returning home pregnant after serving as concubines to Syrian jihadis. Vivian Salama investigates the controversial claim.

Syrian activists say there are virtually no grounds for claims that foreign women are traveling to their country to participate in a so-called “sex jihad,” following comments by a Tunisian official that women were returning home from Syria pregnant.

Tunisia’s Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou remarked in an address to the National Constituent Assembly last week that women were traveling to Syria “in the name of sexual jihad,” adding that they are allegedly “swapped between 20, 30 and 100 rebels, and they come back bearing the fruit” of those contacts.

“We believe this is propaganda,” said Maher Nana, the president of the Human Rights Alliance for Syria. “Maybe the Tunisians have some evidence but I think these are just some false claims from the interior minister that might be linked to a political agenda.”

Tunisia’s Minister of Religious Affairs Noureddine Al-Khadimi first brought the so-called “sexual jihad” in Syria to light in March. He cited a mysterious fatwa allegedly issued by hardliner Saudi cleric Muhammed al-Arifi, in which he was said Syrian fighters should engage in intercourse marriages for a few hours to relieve their earthly desires and boost morale. The report first aired on Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV, and was then picked up by a number of social media websites and local online news publications.

However, Al-Arifi quickly denied issuing any such fatwa, and a number of Islamist groups claimed that it was a farcical report planted by Iran to distract fighters and misguide Arab women.

But the damage was already done, according to a number of Tunisian government statements alleging various cases of Syrian fighters impregnating Tunisian women. Sheikh Othman Battikh, Tunisia’s former mufti, said in April that 13 Tunisian girls “were fooled” into traveling to Syria to provide sex to fighters. “For jihad in Syria, they are now pushing girls to go there,” Battikh said in a statement to reporters. “What is this? This is called prostitution. It is moral educational corruption.” He was dismissed from his position a few days later.

One televised news story, widely circulated on social media after airing in Tunisia, shows a distraught man and woman waving an enlarged photograph of their daughter, 17-year old Rahma, who allegedly traveled to Syria to participate in the “sex jihad.” Another local newspaper report claimed that a man divorced his wife, and then traveled with her to Syria to “allow her to engage in sexual jihad with the mujahideen [jihadists].” Calls to the Tunisian interior and foreign ministries to verify these and other reports were not immediately answered.

Various sources in Syria interviewed by The Daily Beast said they have never heard of such practices by Tunisians or women from any other countries. Officials with the Moroccan and the Egyptian foreign ministries said they have not heard of their own citizens following suit and, if true, don’t believe it will become a trend.

Jihad al-nikah, or sexual jihad, is a practice almost unheard of in Islam, however some hardline Salafists argue that it is a legitimate act in times of holy war. Ben Jeddou added in his address to the National Constituent Assembly that in addition to women allegedly traveling to perform sexual jihad, hundreds of Tunisian men have gone to fight alongside Syrian rebels to help bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad. He added that they have prevented hundreds more from going because of fears that they will return to Tunisia even more radicalized than when they left, as they had seen following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Youssef Amrani, Morocco’s deputy foreign minister, said he has never heard of a “sexual jihad,” but said that the prospects of men from his region joining forces with extremist groups in Syria is a genuine concern. “We are handling this issue in Syria,” Amrani said in an interview, adding that there doesn’t appear to be too many Moroccans joining the Syrian rebels. “With the growing danger posed by groups like Shabab and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, of course, maintaining regional stability is a huge concern of ours.”