BEIRUT: The Tunisian Interior Ministry said the practice of women traveling to Syria for sex jihad had now been completely halted, following controversial accusations last week that the government was “doing nothing” to tackle the phenomenon.
An Interior Ministry spokesman told The Daily Star Tuesday that “trafficking networks” to the war-torn country had been shut down and dozens arrested over the issue in the five days since the interior minister made the comments.
The statement comes in the wake of a media storm over the role of so-called “jihad al-nikah,” where women have extramarital sex with multiple partners to advance the goals of holy war – a permissible practice according to some extremist Islamist doctrine.
Tunisia’s Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou told Parliament last Thursday that Tunisian women were engaging in such activities with rebels who are engaged in a prolonged struggle to oust President Bashar Assad from power in Syria.
“They have sexual relations with 20, 30, 100 militants and they come back bearing the fruits of sexual contact in the name of sex jihad,” he said at the time. “We are silent, doing nothing and standing idle.”
However, speaking to The Daily Star, the minister’s spokesman Mohammad Ali al-Aroui said after a major crackdown at the country’s borders, the movement of women looking to undertake sex jihad had completely halted.
“This trend has now totally stopped thanks to the government efforts in reinforcing the checkups of people who wish to leave Tunisia by improving both our land and air border controls,” he said by phone, emphasizing that only “tens” of women had taken up the cause.
He added that “trafficking networks” responsible for organizing the journey to Syria’s border with Turkey had been “disbanded” and that 82 smugglers had been arrested.
Some traffickers had been operating in exchange for money, he said, while others were motivated by jihadist ideology.
The phenomenon of jihad al-nikah appeared to gain traction in Tunisia following a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by a Saudi cleric in March.
Sheikh Mohammad al-Arifi had called on girls aged 14 and up to take up the cause of sex jihad in Syria through temporary marriage contracts and provide support to rebel forces. He has since retracted the comments, according to pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper.
Aroui, the government spokesman, was adamant that the women journeying to Syria were doing so of their own free will.
“No one can leave Tunisia forcefully. Those girls chose to leave for jihadist ideology, like it happens everywhere else,” he said.
However, speaking to the media in April, the country’s former grand mufti said the women were prostitutes.
“For jihad in Syria, they are now pushing young girls to go there. Thirteen have been sent for intercourse marriages ... What is this? This is called prostitution. It is moral educational corruption.”
Aroui would not be drawn on the precise route the women took, but said that Libya was a key transit point for jihadists – both men and women – going to Syria.
The phenomenon of sex jihad is also a problem in Iraq, according to a governor in Diyala province.
“Intelligence cells commissioned with monitoring Al-Qaeda’s activities within Diyala’s borders have reported that the highly ranked officials in the organization urged the widows of the commanders and members to abide by the sexual jihad fatwa,” Oudai al-Khadran said last month.