A new magazine is “making waves” in Europe and North America—or so it would seem from the media coverage. Al-Shamikha, a publication directed to women and published by Al-Fajr Media Centre (Al-Qaeda’s online propaganda distributor), has been defined as “Al-Qaeda’s Cosmopolitan” or “Jihad Cosmo.” The magazine, which is roughly 30 pages long, covers a variety of topics that range from beauty to “proper” wifehood and motherhood. The magazine’s conception of “jihad,” which it defines specifically as violent actions against those deemed to be against Islam, including Muslims who reject these acts of violence or befriend those against them, is always present explicitly or implicitly in the articles.
The magazine has received lots of media coverage. The Week questioned its authenticity, while The Toronto Star reports that the magazine not only encourages women to marry mujahideen, but it also teaches them how to raise children who will want to follow in their footsteps. The Mail Online states that suicide bombing is glamorized in this magazine and the women featured are proud of the men that risk their lives in the name of “jihad.” The magazine also invites women to join the “struggle” and to support their men, while offering beauty tips and interviews with fellow Muslim women who have complied with the lifestyle that the magazine promotes.
Much has been written describing the magazine, but little attention has been paid to what Muslim communities think of the magazine around the Western world. None of the articles covering Al-Shamikha include Muslim women’s voices— either those who might be interested in the publication, or those who are against it. In addition, once again, the media makes it difficult to distinguish between extremism (religious and political) and Islam.
There is no doubt that the publication of such a magazine is troubling for Muslims and non- Muslims. However, the high profile coverage Al-Shamikha has received isn’t ordinary. Extremist magazines are not uncommon: publications such as Bombardero Skinhead and American Renaissance feature racist and anti-Semitic content for white-supremacist readers. Moreover, Al-Qaeda has also published Inspire, to encourage people to become fighters, just as the Tea Party advances its own agenda through its online magazine. And yet, the only publications to receive press are Al-Shamikha and Inspire.
Not surprisingly, the magazine’s cover shows a woman wearing niqab, with a gun in the background. Pictures are scarce, but the ones that are shown portray mostly men and few women wearing niqab. This last point has gotten special attention in the media, where articles describing Al-Shamikha are often accompanied by pictures of women wearing niqab. While Al-Shamikha uses women in niqab as its identification symbol, Western media relies on this stereotype to further the condemnation of women who wear niqab and their connection to “conservative” (which is often read as “dangerous”) Islam. Much of the media coverage implicitly warns against the presence of women who wear niqab by highlighting the “connection” between niqab, terrorism, extremism and Al-Qaeda.
Few extremist publications target women specifically. The editor of Al-Shamikha, who is a man (surprised?) named Saleh Youssef, said that the importance of targeting women lies in the fact that women are not only half of the population, but they also give birth and raise the next generations, who could potentially join the struggle. For Youssef, women should know the “true” Islam that calls them to his version of “jihad.” On one hand, the (male) editors are telling women who to marry, the importance of an armed struggle and their gendered responsibilities within this context. On the other, the editors are also telling them how to take care of their skin.
The magazine highlights an alternate form of agency for women. In this publication, women are portrayed as the source of the “jihad” struggle. In this view, female “jihadis” are not only warriors, but also mothers and wives that are responsible for keeping the effort alive. The magazine characterizes it so the entire movement rests on these women.
Although the existence of this magazine is problematic on so many levels, it is also problematic that Muslim women continue to be political weapons that are used in different settings and at different levels. Muslim women continue to be the excuse for military interventions or banning of specific garments because of the supposed oppression that Islam brings on them. However, they are also the nationalist symbol of “the real” Islam that calls for conservatism and, in some instances, even extremism.
There are no female Muslim voices on either side. Conservative political Islam remains controlled by a patriarchal structure in which women acquire agency only through men, like in the case of Al-Shamikha. On the other, the Western media ignores the diversity of female voices within Islam and the existence of anti-extremist Muslim movements. Moreover, both of them continue to be patronizing by pointing to either the “need” or the “inappropriateness” of niqab and the “duties” or “oppression” that it entails.
Al-Shamikha promotes a lifestyle and opinions that are by no means the views of the majority of Muslims around the world. Yet, in the Western world, Al-Shamikha is a tool to keep the question of Muslim women alive within the public sphere. Although the media’s aim may be to warn against political and religious extremism, it continues to shut down Muslim women’s voices and to promote Islamophobia by equating Islam with political and religious extremism.