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Saudi Women Consigned to Second-Class Status, Even as Terrorists

Thirteen women are arrested in a terror crackdown, but their role is limited to helping the men

They can’t drive or travel abroad without a male relative’s permission. They are barred from jobs where they would have to mingle with men. And, unlike their sisters in the Middle East and parts of central Asia, Saudi woman also can’t carry out terror attacks either.

So when 13 Saudi women were arrested by Saudi authorities on Saturday as part of a crackdown on terrorism, the charges leveled against them were for secondary roles in   propagating Jihadist ideology and assisting terrorist cells. The women, who were identified only through pseudonyms such as "Bright Star" and "The Stranger," were limited to moral and logistical assistance. 

"Saudi society is conservative, with strict gender segregation," Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who researched government rehabilitation efforts in Saudi Arabia, told The Media Line.

Militants fighting to separate the republic of Chechnya from Russia adopted the suicide bombing tactic for the first time in 2000, but initially the bombers were men.
Female suicide bombers emerged in 2003 and were responsible for killing 35 people on a Moscow subway in 2009.

Wafa Idris became the first Palestinian female suicide bomber after detonating herself on a Jerusalem’s street in 2002. Subsequently, Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin cleared up the religious ambiguity about women’s involvement by issuing a legal opinion allowing women to undertake attacks.

Al-Qaeda began focusing its recruiting efforts on women as it spread from Afghanistan to the wider Muslim world. The apex of women recruitment in Iraq, Chechnya and North Africa took place between the years 2000 and 2005, Abd Al-Mun’im Al-Mushawwah, the director of a Saudi terrorist-rehabilitation program, told the Saudi daily Okaz.

In ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, women are no less attracted to the extreme ideologies of Al-Qaeda and other Jihadist movements, but the country’s Wahabist ideology insists on strict segregation between the sexes. That also leaves them with a lot of time on their hands and often not much to do.

"In a life where women are largely home-bound, this is a way to get involved," Thomas Lippman, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told The Media Line. "These women have time, money, access to the Internet and an education which until recently taught extremist ideology."

The 13 women belonged to 19 terrorist cells affiliated with Al-Qaeda that the Saudi Ministry of Interior said it had dismantled over the past eight months. Some 150 suspected terrorists were arrested by security authorities, including 124 Saudi nationals and 25 foreigners of Arab, African and South Asian origin.

The suspects intended to "spread chaos and destruction throughout Saudi Arabia," by carrying out suicide operations against military targets in the kingdom and assassinating government and military officials, according to Saudi authorities. The large number of women apprehended in the last campaign may indicate a new strategy of inserting at least one woman to each Al-Qaeda cell to enable easier movement and reduce suspicion.

Major General Mansour al-Turki, the Saudi Interior Ministry’s security spokesman, told the Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat that the role of women involved in terrorism was limited to fundraising, spreading Jihadist ideology and providing shelter to wanted male relatives.

The Saudi government has launched a major campaign against extremist indoctrination in the Kingdom. Dubbed A-Sakeena, or "tranquility". The program, run by the Ministry of Interior, targets online extremist forums by promoting religious moderation through Islamic religious opinions (fatwas) and sermons.

Abd Al-Mun’im Al-Mushawwah, the program’s supervisor, said that women were more susceptible to extremist indoctrination, but were also more likely than men to renounce that ideology due to "their emotionalism and easily influenced nature." He added that 70% of those receiving guidance from A-Sakeena were women.

Boucek of the Carnegie Institute said the rehabilitation efforts led by the Saudi government were directed both at male and female convicted terrorists, but while men received religious and social guidance in their prison cells, women were rehabilitated at home.

"Saudi authorities tend to treat women less seriously than men," John Burgess, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Saudi Arabia, told The Media Line. "There are a dozen or so women’s prisons around major Saudi cities. Extremist Muslim women are just as involved as men, even though they’re not in the field." 

But whether they conduct the deprogramming at prison or at home, the Saudi government has been remarkably successful in tackling terrorism over the past few years.

"There is no other country that has managed to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism like Saudi Arabia," Boucek said. "Today, there are no first or second-tier leaders left there."