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  • Terror and the Family: How jihadi groups are redefining the role of women
  • Rafia Zakaria (bio)

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The first issue of Sunnat-e-Khaula, the flagship women’s magazine of the Pakistani Taliban, has as its central feature a story of rebellion. Written in the first person, it begins with the narrator, a single woman named Khaula, waiting at an airport in the West. [End Page 41] She is eager to leave, abandon the land of the infidel, and make her way to Khorasan, the name used by the Taliban for what is now Afghanistan. Reading on, we learn that Khaula is a doctor, the daughter of an officer in the Pakistan Army. She was educated in the military’s secular schools, which kept her from truly understanding Islam. After medical school in Lahore, she makes her way to the West. There, after initially being dazzled by the glitz of Western life, she experiences an existential crisis that leads her to embark on a global search for true spirituality.

She doesn’t find it anywhere. Khaula is deep in a pit of desolation when she encounters a teacher, a pious Muslim woman who guides her religious awakening. The decisions that come next are not easy; in the remaining pages of the essay, Khaula documents how she must eventually abandon her family, including her father, to follow the spiritual path. Though she loves him, he is morally compromised, a pawn officer in the British-style Pakistani military awash in the blood of Taliban martyrs. The final exit is dramatic: Her father follows her in his car as she departs for the airport, presumably en route to Khorasan. He tries to stop her, tries to make her conform, but she is stalwart, as true warrior Muslim women must be. She leaves, never to return.

At its outset, the story, repetitive and roughly told, is not particularly notable. There are the usual propagandist claims common to jihadi literature, the crude binaries exempting all but the group’s adherents from true and correct Islam. The novelty of the story is that it is told by a woman, and that it overtly prescribes rebellion against the strictures of home, family, and even male guardianship. That the story is the central feature of the very first issue of the Pakistani Taliban women’s magazine, released in August, is even more noteworthy. The group, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has issued edicts banning women from public spaces and requiring them to be accompanied by a male guardian at all times. Yet, in Sunnat-e-Khaula, TTP advocates a complete role reversal. Per its revamped recruitment efforts, designed to help the group compete with the Islamic State for female recruits, TTP reminds women in the pages of the magazine that “Islam’s first martyr was a woman, first to accept Islam was a woman, first to spend for the sake of Allah was a woman, and first to support the Holy Prophet was a woman.” It is impossible to know whether the author is actually female, who she says she is, a compendium of several others, or the creation of a male propagandist. It is notable, however, that the Taliban want to create the impression of autobiography. Those who silenced women with such cruelty now seemingly seek to give them a voice.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s turn from seeking to eliminate women from the public sphere to envisioning them as warriors who must forsake their families to make the hijra, or migration to Khorasan, denotes a crucial change in direction. It reflects a new female identity that advocates rebellion against traditional structures, the same structures the Taliban resolved to uphold and resurrect when it first came to power in Afghanistan in 1996. While TTP is not announcing it will abandon these policies, the fact that one of its publications would encourage women to defy their fathers and migrate alone is revolutionary. It signifies how notions of femininity, domesticity, and family are being transformed by the efforts of jihadi groups to vie for female recruits. [End Page 42]