February 1, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1062

Tunisian Daily Al-Shurouq's Campaign Against 'Sexual Jihad'

February 1, 2014 | By B. Chernitsky and R. Goldberg*
North Africa, Tunisia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1062


At the close of 2012, a tweet attributed to Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-'Arifi, a member of the Association of Muslim Clerics, in which he allegedly permitted young Muslim women to journey to Syria to have sexual relations with mujahideen fighting the Syrian regime, was circulated on the Internet. The tweet (see below) was construed by many in the media as a religious ruling (fatwa). Al-'Arifi himself repeatedly denied issuing the tweet, adding that 'sexual jihad' was equivalent to prostitution.[1] Regardless of its authenticity, the tweet sparked a lively debate in the Arab media on the phenomenon called 'jihad al-nikah' or 'jihad al-monakaha' – literally, jihad via sexual relations (henceforth, sexual jihad) – in which girls ostensibly travel to jihad fronts to provide sexual services to jihad fighters as a way of contributing to the war effort and earning a divine reward.

Al-'Arifi's alleged fatwa permitting sexual jihad (, September 20, 2013)

The tweet sparked an uproar in Tunisia as well, which reawakened last September after Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said that young Tunisian girls traveled to Syria to perform sexual jihad and returned pregnant after "having sexual relations with 30, 40 and even 100 men."[2] Following his statement, other Tunisian officials criticized the phenomenon as well: Grand Mufti Hamda Sa'id claimed that sexual jihad is "alien to Islam and we never heard about it even in the Prophet Muhammad's era when he embarked on jihad."[3] The Ministry of Women and Family Affairs said that sexual jihad "contradicts the religious and ethical values upon which Tunisian society is based as well as international conventions on human rights to which Tunisia is signed."[4] The ministry also announced that it would launch "information campaigns" to explain to young women and their families the dangers inherent in such actions, in order to prevent this from becoming a social phenomenon."[5] The Minister of Women and Family Affairs, Sihem Badi, said that her office was preparing a plan for handling "victims of sexual jihad".[6] The Ministry of Interior spokesman, Muhammad 'Ali Al'Araoui, noted that the ministry was working to prevent young women from traveling to Syria for sexual jihad purposes.[7]

Conversely, other senior officials in the Tunisian regime, including the prime minister and an advisor to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, denied that the sexual jihad phenomenon existed and said that Al-'Arifi's fatwa had been fabricated by Syrian intelligence in order to blacken the image of the Syrian and Tunisian revolutions.[8] Some Tunisian Salafis also argued that this was a Syrian fabrication intended to distort the image of the regime's adversaries.[9]

Stormy responses in the Tunisian media ranged from denying the existence of the phenomenon to the charge that the government was responsible for this social blight. Among those who denied the phenomenon was journalist 'Adel Al-Sam'ali, who repeated the claim that the fatwa story had been fabricated by Syrian intelligence, and added that pro-Syrian channels had circulated false testimonies by young women who claimed to have participated in sexual jihad. Many Arab columnists from other countries, as well as Western journalists, took a similar stance.[10]

Prominent among those who maintained that the phenomenon was real and blamed the government for it was the Tunisian daily Al-Shurouq, which claims to be Tunisia's most widely circulated independent daily, and prior to the Tunisian revolution it was identified with the regime of former president Zin Al-'Abidin Bin 'Ali. In a series of reports and articles, Al-Shurouq described the severity of the phenomenon, which it termed "a disaster," and quoted religious clerics as saying that Wahhabi ideology was the source of it. The daily accused the regime of causing the problem by allowing the spread of this brand of Islam.

It should be noted that the backdrop to the uproar over this issue in Tunisia is the acute tension between the secularists and Islamists in the country. After winning the largest block of parliamentary seats in the elections following the revolution (89 seats out of 217), the Al-Nahda movement, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, formed a coalition with two secular parties. However, sharp criticism by the opposition and the public of this coalition's management of the country led, following a national dialogue, to an agreement to form a new nonpartisan government that is expected to be headed by independent MP Mehdi Jomaa, the current minister of industry.[11] The articles on the phenomenon of sexual jihad were tinged with criticism of the Al-Nahda government and apparent nostalgia for the regime of former president Al-Habib Bourguiba, who founded the secular state and viewed the family and women's status as the foundation for transforming society.[12]

This report will focus on the Al-Shurouq's article series criticizing the phenomenon of sexual jihad and on 'Adel Al-Sam'ali's article in the portal Babnet denying the phenomenon's existence.

'Al-Shurouq' Series Charges: Sexual Jihad Is A Psychological, Social And Economic "Disaster"

In September 2013, following reports that many young Tunisian girls had performed sexual jihad in Syria, the Tunisian daily Al-Shurouq published a series of reports warning about the phenomenon and its implications. The daily claimed that about 100 young girls had traveled to Syria and returned pregnant, and that they and their children now constitute "ticking time bombs," due to the severe psychological, social and economic implications of this "disaster." It also claimed that a third of the girls had committed suicide while others had been cast out by their families,[13] and that the authorities were responsibile for this.

On November 21, 2013, the daily published an additional report criticizing those who had denied the phenomenon, stressing once again the claims and testimonies it had presented in its article series.[14]

The Tunisian Authorities Are Responsible For The Sexual Jihad Phenomenon

In its September 2013 reports, Al-Shurouq claimed that the interior ministry was already aware of the sexual jihad phenomenon a year ago, after the family of a 15-year-old girl who had returned from Syria pregnant filed a complaint against several radical Salafis accusing them of pressuring their daughter into traveling to Syria.[15] The daily quoted Tunisian clerics who accused the regime of causing the phenomenon by spreading the Wahhabi ideology that engendered fatwas like Al-'Arifi's. For example, Fadel 'Ashour, a member of the Tunisian Imams Union, said that he intended to file two suits against Religious Affairs Minister Noureddine Al-Khademi, because the latter had defended some clerics who had allowed young Tunisian women to perform sexual jihad and they had returned from Syria pregnant. 'Ashour claimed to have warned Khademi that Wahhabi ideology was spreading in Tunisian mosques, and added that he intended to launch a "No to Wahhabism" campaign in the mosques. According to the daily, Tunisia's former grand mufti, 'Othman Battikh, also warned about the sexual jihad phenomenon and blamed Wahhabi ideology for it, and this was the reason for his dismissal from his position.[16]

The Jihadis Have Reduced Tunisian Women To A Commodity For Satisfying Their Bestial Impulses

The daily charged Salafi-jihadis, such as Ansar Al-Shari'a in Tunisia, with responsibility for recruiting the young women. It described them as "forces of darkness" and "preachers of backwardness" that exploited the young women's ignorance on religious matters and their deficient education to recruit them for sexual jihad, in an attempt to tarnish the Tunisian woman's status – hitherto considered a symbol of progress – and reduce her to a commodity designed to satisfy their bestial impulses.[17] Citing government and security sources, Al-Shurouq claimed that the girls seduced into traveling to Syria were persuaded that they were doing an act of charity for which they would be rewarded in paradise, and added that the Salafi recruiters received a cash bounty of 20,000 dinars if they managed to recruit a group of young people to fight the "infidels" in Syria and a group of young women to provide them with sexual services.[18]

The Story Of Lamia, Who Contracted AIDS While Performing 'Sexual Jihad'

In one report, the daily presented the story of Lamia, a 19-year-old Tunisian woman who returned from Syria pregnant. According to the investigative report, in 2011 Lamia met a man who rebuked her for the way she dressed, which he deemed immodest. Knowing nothing of religion, Lamia accepted his words as the true religion that she must follow to gain Allah's love, and gradually became his "slave." She was persuaded that "women can participate in jihad," and travelled to Syria, where "her body became the property of the [mujahideen]." According to the daily, Lamia had sexual relations with men of Pakistani, Afghani, Libyan, Tunisian, Iraqi, Saudi and Somali origins. In Syria she witnessed the kidnapping of women and young girls to "satisfy the sexual impulses of men who are controlled by their sex organ that is prepared to eliminate a woman's self-respect and take her back to the era of ignorance." Lamia returned to Syria five months pregnant and sick with AIDS, causing her family to isolate her, hoping that she would die before giving birth.[19]

Cartoon in Al-Shurouq: A man shows a group of "sexual jihad fighters" the way to "paradise" (Al-Shurouq, Tunisia, September 21, 2013)

'Al-Shurouq' Columnists: The Sexual Jihad Phenomenon Attests To The Country's Liquidation

Alongside its disapproving investigative reports, the daily published articles condemning the phenomenon and criticizing the regime. One article also subtly criticized the immaturity of the girls seduced to embark on sexual jihad. The articles were concerned for the country's character and pined for Bourguiba's secular Tunisia.

Instead Of Becoming The Arab Switzerland, Tunisia Has Become A Purveyor Of Prostitution

Tunisian writer and gender studies lecturer Dr. Amal Qarami claimed that the country's new Islamic government was ignoring the sexual jihad phenomenon although it contravened Islamic values and the Tunsian law. She emphasized that the phenomenon harmed the Tunisian revolution and subtly criticized those young women for preferring "vaginal jihad" over nobler kinds of jihad. Qarami wrote: "There are various kinds and levels of jihad, [each with its] directives and virtues. The first of them is the struggle [against evil within one's] soul and preparing [the soul] for serving others. That is why the leader [Habib] Bourguiba, [founder of modern Tunisia,] believed that, during the establishment of the modern state, true jihad is [the war] against ignorance, poverty, laziness, subordination and dependence on others. After the January 14, [2011] revolution, we believed that we would enlist in a jihad [against] corruption, favoritism, exclusion, discrimination and repression. But now we confront jihad of a different kind: sexual jihad.

"Tunisians head the list of women competing for a place of honor. In fact, it seems that a 13-year-old [girl called] Umm Al-Baraa became an example and a [role] model thanks to her advanced 'capabilities,' not on the battlefield but in bed… Thanks to their distinguished service, these young women, who believed that they were performing a religious duty incumbent upon the Muslim [woman], were dubbed 'bed sisters', 'supporters of the brothers' and 'sexual jihad fighters' – perhaps dreaming to resemble the dark-eyed virgins [of Paradise]… These new jihad fighters preferred jihad of the vigina over jihad of the heart, the hands or the tongue, and they turned their body into a bridge crossed by those seeking to satisfy their needs, constantly and quickly..."

The Islamic Government Turned A Blind Eye To A Phenomenon That Contravenes Islam And Its Directives

"Hence, instead of being transformed, as the interim president promised us, into 'the Arabs' Switzerland,' Tunisia became a supplier of women and expertise in the field of licit prostitution... The senior officials sufficed referred to the matter as 'isolated cases', [and said] that the sexual fatwas did not bind Tunisian women. Under a government of 'men of God,' most [of whose members] come from a party with an Islamic source of authority [i.e. Al-Nahda], the houses of prostitution were closed, [but] the door was opened to actions and doings that empty the [Tunisian] revolution of its humane, cultural and ethical aspects.

"How is it possible that we failed to address the phenomenon when the first symptoms appeared, considering that it destroys Muslim values to the very core...? [This phenomenon] contradicts the Prophet's biography, [which relates] how the Prophet assiduously taught people the etiquette of sex, which begins with beautifying oneself, followed by a kiss and then contact.

"[Sources] of legal authority also mandate opposing this phenomenon and others like it, such as 'urfi ["custom"] marriage,[20]because they contravene the state's laws and the government's commitment to international conventions and agreements, including the CEDAW convention [The Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women], which the Islamists oppose. What logic allows us to trample the honor of Tunisian women and transform their body into a commodity that is sold or leased in the slave markets? What logic allows us to ignore [this] human trafficking, these prostitution networks, this consolidation of a culture of slavery and barbaric violence against women? This situation requires us to care for the 'female jihad fighters' returning from Syria by giving them psychological, ideological, religious, legal and healthcare [assistance] – particularly [those] who are pregnant and will become single mothers who will [have to] support children of unknown descent...[21]

The Sexual Jihad Phenomenon Proves The Tunisian State's Utter Bankruptcy

The Tunisian media personality 'Abd Al-Halim Al-Mas'udi also attacked the country's Islamic government, voicing concern that this government would destroy the secular Tunisia Bourguiba founded and replace it with a regime identified with values such as sexual jihad. He wrote in his regular column in Al-Shurouq: "[Various] Facebook pages feature a picture of [the singer] Fairuz, who sang the song 'I Have Longings but I Know Not for Whom,' alongside a picture of a young pregnant woman dressed in [Salafi] black, who says: 'I have an embryo, I know not from whom.' This sarcasm, born of bitterness and despair, is the Tunisians' shocked response to the interior minister's statement… regarding the involvement of some Tunisian girls in the business called sexual jihad, [girls] who traveled to Syria and returned pregnant with the babies of foreign men... The interior minister continued to pour salt on the Tunisians' wounds when he said that 20, 30 or 100 fighters took turns having sex with them, and they returned bearing the fruit of these sexual encounters, called 'sexual jihad,' while we stood idly by.'

"This was the first official declaration to trample the dignity of the Tunisians, who thought they were part of a nation that they had built generation by generation, from the close of the 19th century to this day. It reminded Tunisians of the processions of Arab [women] that some Arab regimes shipped [to Saudi Arabia] during the second Gulf War, in order to provide recreation for [the U.S.] Marines [stationed] on Saudi soil, which is reputed to be sacred…

"The tragedy [of the Tunisian girls] prompts me to emphasize the government's role in this disaster, that is not confined to 100 young pregnant girls, or perhaps more in the future… but is a disaster [whose repercussions] will become clear in the future, perhaps for years to come. It seems that the first expression [of this disaster] was the famous statement by the leader of the Al-Nahda movement, Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, that the Salafists herald a new culture. He wasn't mistaken at all, because we have already seen parts of this new culture on the highest summit of Mount Chambi,[22] and now in the [Tunisian women's] wombs. Another [expression of it] is the government's indifference, [as reflected by the fact that] the Ministry of Women's Affairs, under Minister Sihem Badi, condemned the sexual jihad yet neglects childrens' affairs... The third [expression] is a statement attributed to an Al-Nahda MP Al-Habib Al-Louz that he is prepared to adopt the children of the sexual jihad fighters who returned from Syria… and calls upon all Muslims to support [those children] and demands that parliament pass a law to protect the rights of the [jihad fighters].[23]

This is how one secures the total collapse of the Tunisian state. We are about to see a new generation of Tunisians that started off being neglected by the former regime, to the point that hundreds of thousands remained without education and a dignified life… [and then,] following the revolution, found the warm bosom of groups trading in religion [such as] the Al Nahda militias... [They] were joined by thousands of students who left their studies, and in the near future they will be joined by the generation of the offspring of the sexual jihad [fighters], this in addition to the Tunisian fighters expected to return from the 'lands of jihad'… This is a huge generation [constituting] the 'army of sacred ignorance'… [Tunisian intellectual] Tahar Al-Haddad[24] understood early on that what determines the country's character and future is the family. This is the [essential] basic unit for constructing a new society based on dignity, progress and liberation… He also understood the need for women's liberation, as did [former President] Bourguiba, who displayed intellectual openness and remarkable practical logic. For him, building a modern state and shaping a new Tunisian society were contingent on restoring respect to women and improving their status within the family and society via personal status laws [that were passed in Tunisia during his era]… And [he did] this without harming the religious legislative tradition...[25]

One of the alleged participants in sexual jihad appears on the Syrian Al-Ikhbaria channel (Image:, September 24, 2013)

Tunisian Columnist: Sexual Jihad Is A Rumor Spread By The Syrian Regime

As mentioned, many in Tunisia and the Arab world denied that the existence of the sexual jihad phenomenon in Syria, and claimed that Syrian intelligence had invented the story. For example, Tunisian journalist 'Adel Al-Sam'ali wrote on the Tunisian portal that the Syrian regime had fabricated the sexual jihad fatwa attributed to Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-'Arifi and had spread it in Tunisia by means of its agents, so as to smear both Al-'Arifi and the Tunisian revolution.

Al-Sam'ali wrote: I never imagined I would take up my pen in order to write about this off-putting subject, this fabrication of sexual jihad, which is connected to a chain of rumors that were manufactured in the laboratories of the shabiha [i.e., the armed militia] of the Syrian Ba'th Party in collaboration with Iranian intelligence in order to save this blood-soaked regime that is on the verge of collapse. [Until now] I refrained from addressing this topic since I was sure that such a fabrication would not manage to deceive [anyone] except the naïve and those with depraved cravings... But that the fact that politicians and educated people spread this idiotic fabrication by word-of-mouth... impelled me to write about the topic, [based] on the available information and data. Perhaps I can lift the veil from the eyes of those who are deliberating whether to believe [the story] or not and take part in rebutting these lies…

"The story or the lie appeared for the first time on Twitter. It is known that Twitter creates honey traps for global intelligence networks and their agents, who pass on the false information and rumor after it has been created… using fictitious or bona fide names… In the same way and using the same technology, fraudsters from the Ba'th party intelligence apparatuses opened a fictitious account in early 2013 under the name Dr. Muhammad Al-'Arifi and published the 'sexual jihad fatwa', as it was subsequently called by the Ba'th intelligence apparatus and its allies in the Iranian intelligence apparatus. The statements [in this fatwa] are despicable and corrupt, and were not uttered by a sane person. This is the action of a person suffused by hatred who cannot prove his arguments. Dr. Muhammad Al-'Arifi… was one of the first who tightened the noose around the Syrian regime, and for this reason they shamed him and incited against him. This regime knew quite well that, from a political standpoint, the Tunisian revolution is the cause of all its problems – particularly after Tunisia severed diplomatic relations with this blood-soaked regime and supported the first Friends of Syria conference and called for Assad to leave office, either voluntarily or under duress. These are some of the basic factors that caused the shabiha and [Assad's] intelligence service… to collaborate with his agents in Tunisia [in order] to disseminate these falsehoods and leak them to websites and forums.

The Al-Jadid and Al-Mayadin channels, and others that are close to the Ba'th party and Iranian intelligence, undertook on many occasions to drive a wedge of lies by hiring underage girls to provide fabricated and mendacious televised testimony for a handful of dirty money… To recap, the origins of the lie regarding the sexual jihad was a false tweet from a fictitious account in Dr. Muhammad Al-'Arifi's name, which was intended to kill two birds with one stone: first, to damage the good name of Muhammad Al-'Arifi, the most bitter foe of the Syrian Ba'th party who exposed the Shi'ite fictions, and second, to harm the Tunisian revolution through its free women who stood in the forefront [of the revolution]…

"I was surprised by when Tunisian interior minister, for whom I have particular respect, when he spoke about the lies of sexual jihad as if they were truth and [even] went into particulars, mentioning details and facts that smack of whorehouses, more than anything else. I took pity on him because he is a victim of these lies."[26]


*B. Chernitsky and R. Goldberg are research fellows at MEMRI

[1] Al-'Arifi denied any connection to the fatwa on a number of occasions, including on the Lebanese channel Al-Jadid, which was among the first to report on it, and claimed that this was not the first time that various statements were falsely attributed to himself and to other sheikhs. He said that the tweet had been Photoshopped, pointing out that it included over 200 letters while a tweet is limited to 140, and that it had never appeared on his official Twitter account.

[2] See MEMRI clip no. 3987, "Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Bin Geddo: We Have Dismantled Networks Trafficking Girls to Syria for “Sexual Jihad" it should be noted that the Tunisian Ministry of Interior also claimed that the sexual jihad phenomenon is common also amongst Salafi jihadis from the pro-Al Qaeda group Ansar Al-Shari'a that are fighting the Tunisian regime in the Chambi mountains in Western Tunisia, and the Tunisian regime recently reported that it had arrested a Jihad Al-Nikah squad in the Chambi mountains., October 26, 2013; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 28, 2013.

[3] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 28, 2013.

[4], September 20, 2013.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 25, 2013.

[6], September 27, 2013.

[7] Al-Rai (Kuwait), September 24, 2013.

[8], October 23, 2013;, September 23, 2013.

[9] For example, Muhammad 'Abd Al-Rahman Khalif ,who is close to pro-Al-Qaeda Salafi-jihadi movement Ansar Al-Shari'a, claimed that there are no Tunisian girls traveling to Syria for sexual jihad purposes and emphasized that the notion of sexual jihad did not exist in Muslim religious law. He added that if a young Tunisian woman wanted to marry a mujahid, she could do so in the customary way sanctioned by shari'a. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 23, 2013.

[10] For example, Diana Moukalled, a columnist for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, accused the Syrian regime of inventing the notion of sexual jihad due to its desperate situation; another columnist for the daily, Mashari Al-Zaydi, wrote that this was a plot by Syrian intelligence against the Salafi-jihadis who were fighting it. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 7-8, 2013; Egyptian intellectual Fahmi Huwaidi wrote in the Egyptian daily Al-Shurouq that the entire story had been fabricated by Assad supporters in order to blacken the reputation of the resistance to the Syrian regime. More specifically, he said that opponents of the Islamic stream, primarily in Egypt and Tunisia, had disseminated this falsehood in order to malign the Islamic stream. This, he said, resulted in the devaluing of the notion of jihad, which became identified with sexual jihad. Al-Shurouq (Egypt), October 7, 2013. The French daily Le Monde also published that the notion of sexual jihad had been concocted by Bashar Al-Assad's allies. Le Monde (France), September 29, 2013.

[11] Jomaa was officially sworn in on January 10, 2014 following the resignation of the former prime minister, Ali Laarayedh. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 20, 2013, January 10, 2014.

[12] Bourguiba (1903-2000) served as president between 1957-1987 and instituted reforms that included awarding rights to women.

[13] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 24, 2013.

[14] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), November 21, 2013.

[15] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 21, 2013; September 24, 2013.

[16] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 22, 2013.

[17] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 21, 2013; September 22, 2013; September 24, 2013.

[18] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 21, 2013.

[19] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 22, 2013.

[20] Common-law marriage, which is not registered with the state authorities.

[21] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 24, 2013.

[22] Mount Chambi in northwest Tunisia has been the site of ongoing clashes between the Tunisian military and armed Salafi-jihadi fighters.

[23] The reference provided by the author for this statement is, September 21, 2013.

[24] A Tunisian politician and intellectual (1899-1935) who championed workers' and women's rights.

[25] Al-Shurouq (Tunisia), September 23, 2013.

[26] September 20, 2013.

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