When Tunisia’s authorities announced that a stream
of young women had been leaving their homes to
provide sexual services to Islamist militants in
Tunisia and Syria, the statement was greeted with
both shock and scepticism. The BBC’s Ahmed Maher
went to Tunisia to investigate the reports.
For months, there have been rumours about what the
world’s media have dubbed a “sexual jihad”, but the
scope of the practice and its possible links to the
conflict in Syria have been shrouded in mystery.
The story is rooted in the Jebel ech Chaambi
(Chaambi mountains) area of western central
Tunisia, on the border with Algeria.
This remote region has witnessed fierce battles
between the Tunisian army and militants linked to al-
Qaeda since December 2012.
The authorities say they have arrested a number of
girls and women in cities around Chaambi, whom
they accuse of having sex with battle-weary militants
as part of a campaign to improve morale.
The official statements were met with scepticism
from Tunisians and shock from the families of the
detained girls.
I met the family of one of those girls in the city of
Kasreen, a four-hour drive west of the capital, Tunis,
near Chaambi.
Her mother says the 17-year-old is among 19 women
and girls arrested in the past two months in this city
alone.
She believes her daughter is innocent. And she is
especially worried as she says her daughter has
“mental health problems” and is being detained with
adults, despite being a minor.
“She has never been to the Chaambi mountains.
These are false accusations. She was religious and
went to mosque,” the mother told me. She requested
anonymity because “this is a sensitive issue in our
conservative city.”
“She wore the full-body veil – we say it’s a sign of
chastity, not extremism.”
‘Brainwashed’
The mother says that her daughter used to go to al-
Tawba mosque where she was arrested.
“She might have been brainwashed by extremists, I
don’t know. But I urge the interior minister to release
her, as she is minor and goes into convulsions.”
For months there have been rumours about “sexual
jihad”, but the scope of the practice and its possible
links to the conflict in Syria or the militants fighting
the army in Tunisia have been shrouded in mystery.
The controversy in Tunisia was renewed in
September, when Interior Minister Lotfi bin Jido said
women and girls had travelled both to remote parts
of Tunisia as well as to Syria to support militant
fighters.
He particularly singled out Syria.
“Tunisian girls are swapped between 20, 30, and 100
rebels and they come back bearing the fruit of sexual
contacts in the name of sexual jihad and we are
silent doing nothing and standing idle,” he told the
National Constituent Assembly.
A month earlier, the head of the National Security,
Mostafa bin Amr, said at a press conference that
police had arrested a stream of Tunisian women and
girls performing “sexual jihad”
Critics dismissed such statements as unfounded and
political propaganda.
‘No hard evidence’
Radio broadcaster Zuhir Eljiis believes the aim is to
suggest that the ruling Islamist Enhada party is
turning a blind eye to extremism.
“The interior minister has not come up with hard
evidence. He gave no statistics,” he said.
“He’s caused controversy, giving the impression this
is a big issue. He is known for his political
independence, but I think he might have been
caught in a political game between rival parties.”
The ministry declined our request to meet any of the
girls in custody. But the minister’s spokesman,
Mohammed Ali al-Arawi, told us they have evidence
and confessions which will be presented in court.
“The evidence is based on tip-offs, the interception of
phone calls and Facebook pages. We also have
confessions, but we cannot disclose the identity of
those women and girls because it is such a sensitive
issue in our society,” he said.
In April, the most senior Muslim religious authority in
Tunisia, Mufti Othman Batikh, caused an uproar in
the media when he alleged that Tunisian girls were
visiting Syria to take part in a sexual jihad.
‘Punishment’
Three months later, he was sacked by President
Muncif Marzouk. Mr Batikh says that was in
punishment for speaking out.
Another prominent Muslim scholar in Tunisia, Sheikh
Fareed Elbaji, told the BBC he personally knew
families who had discovered that their daughters had
gone to Chaambi and Syria to offer sex in support of
the militants, apparently in obedience to fatwas or
religious edicts issued on the battlefields of Syria.
“Those extremists base their malicious fatwas on the
rule that necessity allows forbidden things – in this
case temporary marriage to meet the sexual needs of
the rebels.
“Islam forbids this practice, which amounts to
voluntary prostitution,” he said.
In largely secular and liberal Tunisia, the idea of
sexual jihad comes as a shock. Many dismiss it as a
politically motivated hoax.
But others, already alarmed by growing extremism in
the country, say it cannot be so easily ruled out.

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