As Hend T. Alsudairy explains, this book is meant to be a historical document, as it studies the radical Islamist movement in Saudi Arabia from the 1960s to 2019 and tries to expose the causes of female terrorism.
Notoriously, momentous evolutions and developments took place within the international jihadi milieu in the last decade, such as the rise and fall of the Islamic State or Daesh; the growth in different kinds of lone-actor attacks; the advancement in jihadi communicational skills and pervasiveness; and much more.
During the same period, Saudi Arabia witnessed a number of crucial changes—political, social, cultural.
For these reasons, diving into the participation of Saudi women in jihadism and the radicalization processes taking place within the Kingdom’s dynamic society became even more imperative than before.
Alsudairy, a Professor of English Literature at Princess Norah University and Assistant Dean of Admission at Alfaisal University in Saudi Arabia, has produced significant prior research on women and gender roles in her country. She is the author of Modern Woman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Rights, Challenges and Achievements and The Role of Social Media in Empowering Saudi Woman’s Expression.
Two years ago, Prof. Alsudairy was also interviewed by EER about the relationship between Saudi women and social media and, more broadly, the deep social transformations happening in the Kingdom.
In her most recent book, Women and Radicalism in Saudi, the author tackles extremely complex topics “for the sake of the coming generation to distinguish between real, religious, moderate, and extremist ideologies and to help improve counterterrorist methods and policies.”
The book is smooth and quite brief and can easily be appreciated by readers who are not familiar with Saudi Arabian history thanks to its accessibility. The topics, however, are far from being easy. When it comes to the issues of women, radicalization, and Saudi Arabia, audiences tend to be tentative, and more averse still if these three subjects are addressed in conjunction with each other.
In this respect, Alsudairy notes that terrorism and women’s involvement in it have attracted different disciplines, where the focuses differ based on the approaches used, but most of the literature does not read the Saudi woman’s involvement, and if it tackles it, then it is from the perspective of an outside observer who may not have first-hand information.
The book—written by a Saudi female intellectual with deep knowledge of the ways in which Saudi social and cultural dynamics are portrayed abroad—partly fills this vacuum. In order to do so, it attempts to answer complex and multilayered questions such as: Why does the Saudi woman join jihadist groups? Does she have different reasons to men, and how much is she willing to sacrifice? What is the age range of the participants? How do they get involved? What are their roles? Do they have official positions in their workplace or society? Is there still any risk of Saudi young women joining terrorist organizations? What is their marital status?
In addition, the book also discusses names and figures who have been officially designated as terrorists by the Saudi government, as well as those who have been arrested and put on trial.
Within the women and radicalism framework, the case of Saudi women is among the most interesting contexts as it may seem even more confusing for many reasons. Saudi women are not financially needy, therefore falling outside the scope of the radicalization theories based on economic deprivation and economic relative deprivation. Many of them are highly educated and employed.
Moreover, the author highlights from an insider perspective that “reputation is part of the identity of a Saudi citizen, and any tarnishing of that reputation will affect the family. This is made clear in the declaring of the names of the female terrorist arrested. Only a few of their names are revealed as, out of respect for the family, the authorities rarely announce names except for those that have already written them and exposed themselves.”
Around 2004 women were assigned many unprecedented roles in Saudi Arabia by terrorist entities. The jihadi woman went gradually from a traditional housewife to a logistic helper, financial supporter, and recruiter.
As far as the book’s structure is concerned, Hend Alsudairy’s work is divided into four chapters.
Chapter One, ‘The Ancestry of the Saudi Jihadi Woman’, provides an extremely useful historical background to radicalism in Saudi Arabia. It gives special attention to the events following historical landmarks such as the ascent of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the first Gulf War in 1990-91.
Chapter Two, ‘Local and International Events and Motivations’, provides an insider account of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood growing influence in the country and the actions of Al-Sahwa Al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Awakening). In this respect, the author notes that many female activists within the Sahwa movement were active until lately, giving lectures and being invited as socially recognized speakers on matters of religion and everyday life.
In Alsudairy’s words, the Sahwa movement was in disagreement with, if not at war with, modernization, as they were cautious or suspicious of any change and viewed it as Westernization. Opposition to gender equality was deeply ingrained into their discourse. The Sahwa believed in eliminating a woman’s evil, seductive nature, and so they announced that working in a mixed-gender environments was banned and against the religion.
Chapter Three, ‘Conservative Intellectuals and Their Impact on Saudi Women’, scrutinizes the cultural influence of Sahwa discourse on women and gender roles. Interesting insights are provided in relation to the notion of Iltizam. Alsudairy notes that this word was new to Saudi society. Before the Sahwa period, the people were equal as Muslims, meaning that each one believed the other was applying Islam in his or her life. With Al-Sahwa, however, people started to distinguish people based on their level of religious rigor. A person who strictly followed the tenets of Islam would be called Multzim, in this context meaning, “a person who is strictly binding herself/himself to Islamic teachings”.
This radical Islamic discourse made Saudi women, especially those born in the 1980s, easy prey, as they did not really have a solid memory of the previous social climate. Many female preachers were influential in coloring and motivating such a radical understanding of Islam. Their discourse used to concentrate on reminding women of the afterlife and of the Day of Judgement and its horrors.
At the same time, none of them exploited their position to produce any kind of counternarrative on terrorism and political violence. As Amal Zahid explains: “An observer of the female dawee discourse can see that there is no obvious interest in countering terrorism or informing the woman of her important role in creating an atmosphere of love, forgiveness, and accepting the Other. (…) It is possible that there is a reference to terrorism in some lectures, but it does not take a real place within dawee discourse, even though terrorism is one of the biggest problems that our society faces now.”
Chapter Four, ‘The Jihadi Woman: Why?’, tackles the general belief that the jihadi woman is the weak side of the problem and usually just a follower of the male guardian. In particular, Alsudairy reminds us that Daesh opened a new era for women’s extremism. The woman is no longer a wife and a follower of her husband—at least not just those things. She became a doer, able to decide and act on the path of jihad.
Overall, Prof. Hend T. Alsudairy’s book provides a useful starting point for those who want to acquire knowledge on religious radicalism in Saudi Arabia and women’s role in Saudi domestic and international terrorism. Reading it means also listening to the fundamental voices of Saudi female intellectuals, scholars, and journalists who offer multiple insights in the book and represent a contemporary resource to understand a country that is too often essentialized and oversimplified.