Cairo, Egypt Muslim extremist women are challenging al-Qaida's refusal to include - or at least acknowledge - women in its ranks, in an emotional debate that gives rare insight into the gender conflicts lurking beneath one of the strictest strains of Islam.
In response to a female questioner, al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman Al-Zawahri said in April that the terrorist group does not have women. A woman's role, he said on the Internet audio recording, is limited to caring for the homes and children of al-Qaida fighters.
His remarks have since prompted an outcry from fundamentalist women, who are fighting or pleading for the right to be terrorists. The statements have also created some confusion, because in fact suicide bombings by women seem to be on the rise, at least within the Iraq branch of al-Qaida.
'I am powerless'
A'eeda Dahsheh is a Palestinian mother of four in Lebanon who said she supports al-Zawahri and has chosen to raise children at home as her form of jihad. However, she said, she also supports any woman who chooses instead to take part in terror attacks.
Another woman signed a more than 2,000-word essay of protest online as Rabeebat al-Silah, Arabic for "Companion of Weapons."
"How many times have I wished I were a man ... When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri said there are no women in al-Qaida, he saddened and hurt me," wrote "Companion of Weapons," who said she listened to the speech 10 times. "I felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest...I am powerless."
Such postings have appeared anonymously on discussion forums of Web sites that host videos from top al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. While the most popular site requires names and passwords, many people use only nicknames, making their identities and locations impossible to verify.
However, groups that monitor such sites say the postings appear credible because of the knowledge and passion they betray. Many appear to represent computer-literate women arguing in the most modern of venues - the Internet - for rights within a feudal version of Islam.
"Women were very disappointed because what al-Zawahri said is not what's happening today in the Middle East, especially in Iraq or in Palestinian groups," said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors militant Web sites. "Suicide operations are being carried out by women, who play an important role in jihad."
Role of women
It's not clear how far women play a role in al-Qaida because of the group's amorphous nature.
Terrorism experts believe there are no women in the core leadership ranks around bin Laden and al-Zawahri. But beyond that core, al-Qaida is really a movement with loosely linked offshoots in various countries and sympathizers who may not play a direct role. Women are clearly among these sympathizers, and some are part of the offshoot groups.
In the Iraq branch, for example, women have carried out or attempted at least 20 suicide bombings since 2003. Al-Qaida members suspected of training women to use suicide belts were captured in Iraq at least three times last year, the U.S. military has said.
Hamas, another militant group, is open about using women fighters and disagrees with al-Qaida's stated stance. At least 11 Palestinian women have launched suicide attacks in recent years.
"A lot of the girls I speak to ... want to carry weapons. They live with this great frustration and oppression," said Huda Naim, a prominent women's leader, Hamas member and Palestinian lawmaker in Gaza. "We don't have a special militant wing for women ... but that doesn't mean that we strip women of the right to go to jihad."
Al-Zawahri's remarks show the fine line al-Qaida walks in terms of public relations. In a modern Arab world where women work even in some conservative countries, al-Qaida's attitude could hurt its efforts to win over the public at large. On the other hand, noted SITE director Katz, al-Zawahri has to consider that many al-Qaida supporters, such as the Taliban, do not believe women should play a military role in jihad.
Al-Zawahri's comments came in a two-hour audio recording posted on an Islamic militant Web site, where he answered hundreds of questions sent in by al-Qaida sympathizers. He praised the wives of mujahedeen, or holy warriors. He also said a Muslim woman should "be ready for any service the mujahedeen need from her," but advised against traveling to a war front like Afghanistan without a male guardian.
Al-Zawahri's stance might stem from personal history, as well as religious beliefs. His first wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. airstrike in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in 2001. He later accused the U.S. of intentionally targeting women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I say to you ... (I have) tasted the bitterness of American brutality: my favorite wife's chest was crushed by a concrete ceiling," he wrote in a 2005 letter.
The role of the Internet
Al-Zawahri's question-and-answer campaign is one sign of al-Qaida's sophistication in using the Web to keep in touch with its popular base, even while its leaders remain in hiding. However, the Internet has also given those disenfranchised by al-Qaida - in this case, women - a voice they never had before.
The Internet is the only "breathing space" for women who are often shrouded in black veils and confined to their homes, "Ossama2001" wrote. She said al-Zawahri's words "opened old wounds" and pleaded with God to liberate women so they can participate in holy war.
Another woman, Umm Farouq, or mother of Farouq, wrote: "I use my pen and words, my honest emotions ... Jihad is not exclusive to men."
Such women are al-Qaida sympathizers who would not feel comfortable expressing themselves with men or others outside their circles, said Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on terrorism and Islamic movements at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"The Internet gives them the ideal place to write their ideas, while they're hidden far from the world," he said.
Men have also responded to al-Zawahri's remarks. One male Internet poster named Hassan al-Saif asked: "Does our sheik mean that there is no need to use women in our current jihad? Why can we not use them?"
He was in the minority. Dozens of postings were signed by men who agreed with al-Zawahri that women should stick to supporting men and raising children according to militant Islam.