Dressed in Black: A Look at Pakistan’s Radical Women

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 8

Radical women in Pakistan are increasingly being used by male jihadi groups and extremists, including religious political parties, to serve their interests and promote their cause. This year’s protests by women clad in black burqas of the Jamia Hafsa seminary in front of the Lal Masjid, in the capital city of Islamabad, is proof of a trend that is becoming more alarming, threatening and unprecedented in Pakistan’s history [1]. The women’s illegal acts include seizing a children’s library, kidnapping a brothel owner and forcing her to renounce her sect and demanding the closure of video shops for selling movies deemed inappropriate to a Muslim audience (Dawn, March 31; Daily Times, March 26). The women of the Jamia Hafsa madrassa have violated the law by illegally encroaching on public land and threatening the Pakistani government with suicide attacks should the state refuse to comply with Islamic law.

Hundreds of women cloaked in the niqaab—the ultra-conservative Muslim women’s dress which reveals only a woman’s eyes—have threatened suicide attacks unless Pakistan accepts their demands. According to the women, “We are ready to give our lives for our religion. If any commando action is taken, it will be retaliated. We are ready for Fedai (suicidal) attacks” (Daily Times, February 2). Among their demands, the women of the seminary call for the release of imprisoned terrorists and shout slogans praising Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar (South Asian Analysis Group, March 30) [2].

How radical women, who before went unnoticed and played an auxiliary role in jihad, have come center stage in Pakistan forces the question of who is behind them and how serious the international community should view their threats of suicide attacks. Only until recently have the women in black captivated world audiences for the potential threat they pose to Pakistan’s internal security and the inspiration they could offer to other women in patriarchal societies equally disenchanted with their government’s alliance with the West and U.S. foreign policies in the Muslim world.

The Birth of Female Jihadi Groups

The “Talibanization” of women in Pakistan occurred years ago. During the Afghan jihad, while men fought on the battlefield, women played key roles as mothers, daughters and wives of male jihadis. Traditionally, they provided logistics and facilitation support to their men. Articles by and for women during and after the Afghan war against the Soviets figured prominently in jihadi magazines published in Peshawar. In one editorial, a woman indicated, “We stand shoulder to shoulder with our men, supporting them, helping them…We educate their sons and we prepare ourselves…We march in the path of jihad for the sake of Allah, and our goal is Shahada [martyrdom].” Like the women supporting the Afghan jihad, the Jamia Hafsa women indicated their right to conduct suicide attacks against “those who are against Islam. We are oppressed and an oppressed community has the right to register its protest” (Daily Times, February 2).

Muslim women fighting alongside Muslim men in other conflicts in the Islamic world also share the same spirit of jihad. They include Palestinian, Chechen, European Muslim converts and the women of al-Qaeda [3]. In most cases, participation in violent acts is partly the result of the women’s shared sense of identity with the cause as well as their familial connection to the male jihadis [4].

Additionally, women as nurturers of an Islamic society are not unique to Pakistan. It is a role that has been mandated by Islamic law and doctrine, as is evident in the Quran and the hadith literature, and in oral traditions. Muslim women are largely respected for their maternal character; they are seen as nurturing, comforting and patient. A woman’s role as the mother of the faithful also includes the mother of martyrs. While this may surprise Western observers, it is rooted in Islamic history. After all, women in the early Islamic period glorified their sons, husbands and brothers for achieving martyrdom by fighting in the first battles of Islam against a clear aggressor. The same holds true in conflicts in the Muslim world today. From the revolutionary period in Iran to the conflicts in the Arab world today, Muslim women praise their men for waging jihad. Yet, what is less known is how men, whom the women often rally behind, are increasingly exploiting them.

Radicalization of Women

The emerging trend of women being motivated by men to chant slogans of jihad can also be traced to female-only dars (religious gatherings) across Pakistan and is evident in women’s right-wing publications. A private discussion with a female journalist in Karachi and a television host indicated that there are a rising number of women, even among the elites, who participate in religious gatherings to discuss U.S. foreign policies and the call for jihad [7]. The propagation of jihad in these private, female-only gatherings also encourages women to adopt the ultra-conservative Islamic form of dress and to reject Western and particularly American influences. According to a female professor of Gender Studies at Peshawar University, female students are now wearing the burqa in a city that was once known for its liberal and moderate Islamic practices [8].

Across the country, the women in black are beginning to appeal to women of all ages and socio-economic classes. The allure of Islam can be explained by the U.S. “war on terrorism” that has fueled resentment toward, disillusionment with and hatred of U.S. foreign policies across the Muslim world. This is particularly true in Pakistan, a country whose support for the U.S. war on terrorism is viewed as short-lived. As one former high-ranking Pakistani official indicated, the war on terrorism is “not our war” [10]. Various jihadi publications, including the Ghazwa Time and the Ummat—Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece—express dissatisfaction with the United States for its overall foreign involvement in the Muslim world, including the current war in Iraq.

Other examples of radical women in the region include Asiya Andrabi, the leader of Jammu and Kashmir’s separatist women’s organization Dukhtaran-e-Milat (Daughters of the Faith). She argues that women have a right to protect their honor and homes from the enemy—in this case, the Indian army. In March of this year, Asiya told an Indian female researcher that while it is men’s duty to wage jihad, women would support female bombers if and when the tactic became necessary [11]. Asiya has been arrested by authorities for passing money to Pakistan-based terrorist groups, such as the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, of which her husband was a commander [12].

In Pakistani jihadi groups, women are also members of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT)—which is affiliated with al-Qaeda and is on the U.S. Department of State’s list of terrorist organizations. Known as the Lashkar’s Women Brigade, media reports have cited a training camp for female militants in northern Pakistan (Times of India, April 6). In an April 14 article, a writer and member of Jamaat al-Islami also supported the idea of giving Muslim women basic combat training.

Serving a Male Agenda

Male religious extremists, leaders of madaras (seminaries) and jihadi organizations are increasingly using women as a tool of nationalism to support their rise to political power. Male jihadi leaders know how to manipulate women to win political attention and public sympathy. In a society where women do not have access to education (as compared to men) and are largely illiterate, women can easily fall prey to male interpretations of Islamic doctrine and are vulnerable to being co-opted by them. An interview with the former Pakistani information minister and the editor of an Urdu newspaper indicated that these women “are docile and under the subjugation of women; they are exploited by the maulvis (mullahs) to challenge the authorities and create fear” [13].

Increasingly, male extremists are politicizing traditional women by pushing for women’s participation in the global jihad. By using women, these men are able to shield their activities and whereabouts from the authorities. Women are the “human shield” as they are invisible to the public. They are able to conceal their identities by cloaking their faces in the burqa and are untouched by male officers. A retired brigadier of the Pakistani military told the author, “These male cowards are hiding behind the women to protect them, which is contrary to Islam.”

Others see it differently. According to Pakistan’s leading talk show host, Hamid Mir, the Hafsa case “was projected to divert the public attention away from the judicial crisis” in Pakistan [14]. Mir also noted to the author that Pakistan “cannot fire tear gas at these women because they are guarding his [Musharraf’s political] interest.” A Taliban leader in Afghanistan also believes that Musharraf is slow to act against the women to “malign us” [15]. A more startling view by another Pakistani observer notes that the male custodians of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa seminaries confirm that “Pakistan’s mosques and seminaries raise terrorists and not scholars” (Dawn, April 15).

On Standby

A solution to the radical women of Jamia Hafsa has yet to be found. President Pervez Musharraf has offered a dialogue with the clerics to resolve the issue amicably. Earlier this month, he stated, “These few thousand girls are misguided. These misguided women wish to run the government though they know nothing…We don’t want to kill them. We want to solve this issue with wisdom” (Daily Times, April 8). According to the minister for religious affairs, “some of the demands presented by girls’ students are unjust and illegal. The occupation of children library is illegal and Islamic order cannot be enforced this way” (Pakistan Tribune, February 8).

The Pakistani government has denounced the threats to the state posed by the prayer leader of the Lal Mosque and the principal of the Jamia Hafsa seminary, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who initially warned of suicide attacks if the state launched an operation against the madrassas (Daily Times, April 7). In response to the threat, Pakistan’s State Minister for Information Tariq Azeem urged the maulana not to force the government to take stern action. “They have misjudged the government’s resolve,” he said. “We want to avoid the use of force against them. We want to resolve all issues through peaceful means” (Daily Times, April 7). Others demand an appropriate government response to resolve the Jamia Hafsa incident. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) indicated the government should take stern action against religious organizations challenging the government and disrupting law and order in the country (Daily Times, March 31). A former Pakistani military officer told the author, “Musharraf has to act. If the protestors were men, the state may have already used force.”

Time to Act

The fact that male jihadis could drive these women to become tomorrow’s suicide bombers has serious implications for the war on terrorism and the region’s security. It is unclear if Pakistan’s extremist women would conduct suicide attacks. The former information minister told the author, “I do not think these girls can be suicide bombers; they are timid and lack historical perspective like that of the Palestinians. However, I cannot predict the future.” Regardless of their operational capability, Pakistan’s radical women pose a threat to civil society, law and order and the forces of moderate and liberal Islam that have permeated Pakistan since its independence. Absent an immediate solution to the Jamia Hafsa crisis—and the images of women in black—the government of Pakistan will be viewed with skepticism by the international community and some might judge the country too harshly as an unwilling partner in the war on terrorism. Such perceptions, while falsely construed, can be damaging to U.S.-Pakistan relations and could further the opposition’s view that Pakistan is allied with firebrand clerics and jihadi groups.


1. Lal Masjid or Red Mosque is known for training and funding the holy warriors of the Afghan jihad. Firebrand pro-jihad clerics Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Abdul Rasheed manage the Lal Mosque.

2. The women have demanded the release of Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistani intelligence officer with links to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. He is currently in a Pakistani jail for instigating the women of the Jamia Hafsa seminary to speak against the state for demolishing mosques and madaris built in the city on government property.

3. No single list of al-Qaeda women exists publicly, but these women include Europe-based Malika al-Aroud and the women of the Hofstad Group.

4. Many Muslim women proudly indicate that they are all freedom fighters and have the same rights as Muslim men to die for the cause and attain the rewards of martyrdom.

5. Information about the JI’s women wing is available at https://jamaatwomen.org.

6. Author’s visit to the largest girls’ seminary in Balochistan province in late 2005.

7. Conversation occurred in late February 2007. The author met with the journalist in Islamabad, although she is based in Karachi.

8. This period is the pre-Afghan jihad era. The female professor is of the Pashtun tribe and has lived in Peshawar her entire life. The trend of young girls now adopting the black burqa raises concerns of an austere “Islamization” process that is undoubtedly led and arguably enforced by men.

9. Interviews conducted in February and April 2007 on two separate visits to Islamabad and Karachi.

10. Interview in Islamabad in April 2007 with a former high-level Pakistani official. His statement was aired on Pakistani national television. Also, note his sentiments are not unique to him. They are shared by many in the country.

11. The interview was conducted by Indian researcher Swati Parashar, who conveyed the meeting to the author on April 10, 2007 at Tufts University at a “Women in al-Qaeda” conference. Both the author and the Indian researcher were guest speakers at this event.

12. Information passed to the author from Parashar, who interviewed Asiya in her home in March 2007 in Srinagar.

13. Interview conducted in April 2007 in Karachi.

14. Mir shared his views with the author in April 2007. The judicial crisis ensued after the government’s dismissal of Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, in March 2007. The judge’s refusal to step down has sparked a debate over democracy in Pakistan and Musharraf’s intentions to remove Chaudhry. See editorial “Crisis in Pakistan: The Suspension of the Chief Justice,” available at https://www.khilafah.com, accessed April 14, 2007.

15. Ibid.