Monthly Archives: August 2008

Second Place Citizens: Susan Faludi at the US Democratic Convention

Second-Place Citizens
Published: The New York Times, August 25, 2008
San Francisco

MUCH has been made of the timing of Hillary Clinton’s speech before the Democratic National Convention tonight, coming as it does on the 88th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Convention organizers are taking advantage of this coincidence of the calendar — the 19th Amendment was certified on Aug. 26, 1920 — to pay homage to the women’s vote in particular and women’s progress in general. By such tributes, they are slathering some sweet icing on a bitter cake. But many of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are unlikely to be partaking. They regard their candidate’s cameo as a consolation prize. And they are not consoled.

“I see this nation differently than I did 10 months ago,” reads a typical posting on a Web site devoted to Clintonista discontent. “That this travesty was committed by the Democratic Party has forever changed my approach to politics.” In scores of Internet forums and the conclaves of protest groups, those sentiments are echoed, as Clinton supporters speak over and over of feeling heartbroken and disillusioned, of being cheated and betrayed.

In one poll, 40 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s constituency expressed dissatisfaction; in another, more than a quarter favored the clear insanity of voicing their feminist protest by voting for John McCain. “This is not the usual reaction to an election loss,” said Diane Mantouvalos, the founder of, a clearinghouse for the pro-Clinton organizations. “I know that is the way it is being spun, but it’s not prototypical. Anyone who doesn’t take time to analyze it will do so at their own peril.”

The despondency of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters — or their “vitriolic” and “rabid” wrath, as the punditry prefers to put it — has been the subject of perplexed and often irritable news media speculation. Why don’t these dead-enders get over it already and exit stage right?

Shouldn’t they be celebrating, not protesting? After all, Hillary Clinton’s campaign made unprecedented strides. She garnered 18 million-plus votes, and proved by her solid showing that a woman could indeed be a viable candidate for the nation’s highest office. She didn’t get the gold, but in this case isn’t a silver a significant triumph?

Many Clinton supporters say no, and to understand their gloom, one has to take into account the legacy of American women’s political struggle, in which long yearned for transformational change always gives way before a chorus of “not now” and “wait your turn,” and in which every victory turns out to be partial or pyrrhic. Indeed, the greatest example of this is the victory being celebrated tonight: the passage of women’s suffrage. The 1920 benchmark commemorated as women’s hour of glory was experienced in its era as something more complex, and darker.

Suffrage was, like Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, not merely a cause in itself, but a symbolic rallying point, a color guard for a regiment of other ideas. But while the color guard was ushered into the palace of American law, its retinue was turned away.

In the years after the ratification of suffrage, the anticipated women’s voting bloc failed to emerge, progressive legislation championed by the women’s movement was largely thwarted, female politicians made only minor inroads into elected office, and women’s advocacy groups found themselves at loggerheads. “It was clear,” said the 1920s sociologist and reformer Sophonisba Breckinridge, “that the winter of discontent in politics had come for women.”

That discontent was apparent in a multitude of letters, speeches and articles. “The American woman’s movement, and her interest in great moral and social questions, is splintered into a hundred fragments under as many warring leaders,” despaired Frances Kellor, a women’s advocate.

“The feminist movement is dying of partial victory and inanition,” lamented Lillian Symes, a feminist journalist.

“Where for years there had been purpose consecrated to an immortal principle,” observed the suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, her compatriots felt now only “a vacancy.”

Even Florence Kelley, the tenacious progressive reformer, concluded, “Keeping the light on is probably the best contribution that we can make where there is now Stygian darkness.”

The grail of female franchise yielded little meaningful progress in the years to follow. Two-thirds of the few women who served in Congress in the 1920s were filling the shoes of their dead husbands, and most of them failed to win re-election. The one woman to ascend to the United States Senate had a notably brief career: in 1922, Rebecca Felton, 87, was appointed to warm the seat for a newly elected male senator until he could be sworn in. Her term lasted a day.

Within the political establishment, women could exact little change, and the parties gave scant support to female politicians. In 1920, Emily Newell Blair, the Democratic vice chairwoman, noted that the roster of women serving on national party committees looked like a “Who’s Who” of American women; by 1929, they’d been shown the door and replaced with the compliant. The suffragist Anne Martin bitterly remarked that women in politics were “exactly where men political leaders wanted them: bound, gagged, divided and delivered to the Republican and Democratic Parties.”

Male politicians offered a few sops to feminists: a “maternity and infancy” bill to educate expectant mothers, a law permitting women who married foreigners to remain American citizens, and financing for the first federal prison for women. But by the mid ’20s, Congress had quit feigning interest, and women’s concerns received a cold shoulder. In 1929, the maternity education bill was killed.

Meanwhile, male cultural guardians were giving vent to what Symes termed “the new masculinism” — diatribes against the “effeminization” that had supposedly been unleashed on the American arts. The news media proclaimed feminism a dead letter and showcased young women who preferred gin parties to political caucuses.

During the presidential race of 1924, newspapers ran headlines like “Woman Suffrage Declared a Failure.” “Ex-feminists” proclaimed their boredom with “feminist pother” and their enthusiasm for cosmetics, shopping and matrimony. The daughters of the suffrage generation were so beyond the “zealotry” of their elders, Harper’s declared in its 1927 article “Feminist — New Style,” that they could only pity those ranting women who were “still throwing hand grenades” and making an issue of “little things.”

Those “little things” included employment equity, as a steady increase in the proportion of women in the labor force ground to a halt and stagnated throughout the ’20s. Women barely improved their representation in male professions; the number of female doctors actually declined.

“The feminist crash of the ’20s came as a painful shock, so painful that it took history several decades to face up to it,” the literary critic Elaine Showalter wrote in 1978. Facing it now is like peering into a painful mirror. For all the talk of Hillary Clinton’s “breakthrough” candidacy and other recent successes for women, progress on important fronts has stalled.

Today, the United States ranks 22nd among the 30 developed nations in its proportion of female federal lawmakers. The proportion of female state legislators has been stuck in the low 20 percent range for 15 years; women’s share of state elective executive offices has fallen consistently since 2000, and is now under 25 percent. The American political pipeline is 86 percent male.

Women’s real annual earnings have fallen for the last four years. Progress in narrowing the wage gap between men and women has slowed considerably since 1990, yet last year the Supreme Court established onerous restrictions on women’s ability to sue for pay discrimination. The salaries of women in managerial positions are on average lower today than in 1983.

Women’s numbers are stalled or falling in fields ranging from executive management to journalism, from computer science to the directing of major motion pictures. The 20 top occupations of women last year were the same as half a century ago: secretary, nurse, grade school teacher, sales clerk, maid, hairdresser, cook and so on. And just as Congress cut funds in 1929 for maternity education, it recently slashed child support enforcement by 20 percent, a decision expected to leave billions of dollars owed to mothers and their children uncollected.

Again, male politicians and pundits indulge in outbursts of “new masculinist” misogyny (witness Mrs. Clinton’s campaign coverage). Again, the news media showcase young women’s “feminist — new style” pseudo-liberation — the flapper is now a girl-gone-wild. Again, many daughters of a feminist generation seem pleased to proclaim themselves so “beyond gender” that they don’t need a female president.

As it turns out, they won’t have one. But they will still have all the abiding inequalities that Hillary Clinton, especially in defeat, symbolized. Without a coalescing cause to focus their forces, how will women fight a foe that remains insidious, amorphous, relentless and pervasive?

“I am sorry for you young women who have to carry on the work in the next 10 years, for suffrage was a symbol, and you have lost your symbol,” the suffragist Anna Howard Shaw said in 1920. “There is nothing for women to rally around.” As they rally around their candidate tonight, Mrs. Clinton’s supporters will have to decide if they are mollified — or even more aggrieved — by the history she evokes.

Susan Faludi is the author, most recently, of “The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America.”

Emergency dash may help drive change

by Donna Abu-Nasr

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

When Ruwaida al-Habis’ father and two brothers were badly burned in a fire, she had no choice but to break Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers to get them to a clinic.

Using the driving skills her father taught her on the familyfarm, al-Habis managed to reach the clinc’s emergency entrace without a hitch.

“When I pulled up, a crowd of people surrounded the car and stared as if they were seeing extraterrestrial beings,” the 20-year-old university student said. “Instead of focusing on the burn victims, the nurses kept repeating, ‘You drove them here?’.”

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans all women – Saudi and foreign – from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and women who cannot afford the US$300-US$400 ($410-$550) a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.

But there are signs support for the ban is eroding.

Al-Habis’ story was first published in one of the biggest Saudi newspapers, Al Riyadh which even called her “brave”. Her father, Hamad al-Habis, praised his dauther’s action.

“Why should it even be an issue?” said Hamad al-Habis in his hospital bed. “My daugher took the right decision at the right time.”

Al-Habis is one of several women whose driving has made headlines. It is not clear whether the reports are a sign that more women are driving or that newspapers are just more willing to report about them. But in either case, it suggests the long-unquestioned nature of the ban is crumbling.

That may in aprt be because ofthe signals from the top: King Abdullah, considered a reformist, has said the issue is a social one, not religious, opening the door for society to spur change.

Previously, women who spoke out against the ban paid heavily. In November 1990, when United States troops were in Saudi Arabia following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, some 50 wmen drove family cars in an anti-ban protest. They were jailed for a day, their passports were confiscated and they lost their jobs. The reaction was so harsh that lifting the ban was barely broached again until recently.

Recent media reports have high lighted women driving not as organised protests, but out of necessity or just a desire to be behid the wheel. Five women were breifly detained in separate incidents across the kingdom.

One was a 47-year-old woman detained by the religious police after they received calls from Saudis who had seen her drive repeatedly in the eastern city of Qatif, sasid Muhammad al-Marshoud, a member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, speaking to Al-Watan newspaper.

Last month, two women died while driving. One, in her 20s, was speeding in a famly car when she hit a power pole in Riyadh. The second, in her 70s, died in a collision with another car in the northern region of the Hail.

Supporters of ending the ban on female drivers point out that the prohibition exists neither in law nor in Islam.

There is no written Saudi law banning women from driving, only fatwas, or edicts by senior clerics that are enforced by police.

No major Islamic clerics outside the country call such a ban.


NZ Herald, 23 August 2008

Gender norms for teenage girls?

Hello All

The day of Auckland’s “‘Boobs’ on bikes” parade, this article arrived in my inbox and relates well to a discussion that came up at the beginning of last week’s Women in Politics morning tea with R. and also to the ‘post-feminist’ debate.

What do you think about the idea of such activities as teenage bikini car washes necessitating social agency action?


It’s Summer: Time to Clean Up the Bikini Car Wash By Kimberly Gadette – WeNews commentator

Underage, underdressed girls’ fundraising activities are more than merely tolerated. They seem to be fully sanctioned by the parents. Kimberly Gadette says that if this is the charity that begins at home, perhaps it’s time to call in child services.

Full Story:

Postfeminism? Is Feminism Irrelevant today – Noelle McCarthy writes

Noelle McCarthy: Press your shirt dear? Pass me the irony …

Do you consider yourself a feminist? Noelle McCarthy believes very few women in her generation (30s) do.

5:00AM Saturday August 09, 2008
By Noelle McCarthy

My hairdresser asked me last week if I was a feminist. I was flummoxed.

I am used to random questions from my hairdresser; she is a singular person with an unusual capacity for lateral thinking. And yet, on this occasion I found myself stuck for an answer.

Ten years ago, a teenage me would have railed at her. A feminist! Of course I’m a feminist, I’d have bellowed in my most unladylike baritone, and flung an Ani Di Franco CD at her for having the temerity to even ask the question.

Heading into my twenties, head full of Adrianne Rich poems and bons mots from de Beauvoir, my feminist credentials were as firmly established as my penchant for black velvet swing-coats and Rimmel Black Cherry lipstick. And yet, how we change.

A decade on and it is far harder to say whether the term still has any meaning at all for my generation, or whether it has simply been subsumed into the morass of labels and -isms that reek of days gone by.

In our post-modern era of fractured texts, virtual realities and multiple layers of meaning, the idea of having only one system, one theory through which one sees the world, is impossibly old fashioned, quaint even. Feminism, Bolshevism, pacifism, post-structuralism, dadaism. “Ism”s belong to a more innocent time, when people had the luxury (or the misfortune) to see things only one way.

We live – as we are constantly reminded by everyone from Paris Hilton to Barack Obama – in an age of irony. Irony is the most important filter in the way we see, and talk about, our world.

It’s the reason John McCain can use a video of Paris to take a pot shot at Obama, and Paris can use a video of herself to take a pot shot at McCain. Parody, satire, self-reflexiveness. If I ever was a feminist, all of these things mean I can’t be one any more.

Twenty years ago, or even 10, a sentence like the last one would have been enough to ensure a predictable deluge of what is euphemistically referred to as feedback.

The denial of feminism used to be a fairly dependable kick-start for a nicely rabid debate. And in between the “how dare yous” and the “good on yous” would have been many expressions of valid opinion on the issue. Because it was an issue that people – men as well as women – cared about. And now, I’ll be surprised if there are any at all.

How many women of my generation would consider themselves feminists? Very few, I’d wager. It’s a hopelessly dated term, and also, really, a given. Most of the women I know work, talk, and live in a state of equality with men.

They’re paid as much, or more, and are just as ambitious, if not more. If single, they’re likely to pursue exactly the sorts of sexual relationships that suit them, and ensure their own financial independence, rather than bet on Prince Charming ponying up when the time comes.

If they’re married or attached, they’re less likely to assume the traditional carer roles in the household, and more likely to share childcare duties in order to have a family and a career. This isn’t a state of affairs that is endlessly pontificated on, or even discussed in anything beyond a cursory manner. Really, we just take it for granted and get on with it.

Anything else is just navel gazing, and we’re far too busy lorrying back the pinot gris, blowing our disposable income and enjoying equally disposable love affairs to have too much time for that.

The equality enjoyed by women of my generation, and of the generations on either side of it, is a legacy of hundreds of years of thankless, fruitless-seeming juggling, grafting and struggling by all the women who came before us, and yet it is harder now than ever to identify with women’s liberation as a movement.

Why? Because it is an artefact, because it has ceased to be contemporary and vital and real. That’s not to say women aren’t still struggling. The statistics don’t lie; the lowest-paid workers in the world are women, the mothers and the daughters and the sisters who are still bearing the brunt of subsistence-level agriculture all over the world.

It is the women who work in sweatshops and the women who harvest the crops and the women who are trying to feed families in Sierra Leone.

But improving the lot of women like that is a question of global economics, rather than feminist dogma in action. Raising their consciousness and imbuing them with ideas of sisterhood are not the answer to the question of whether the developing world is owed a fair price for its labour.

I realise the iniquities and indignities that have been visited on my gender from the first witch ducking to headlines calling Britney fat. I know we live in an unfair world; it’s the reason why, no matter how much money I earn, or how important my job, I won’t ever feel comfortable asking a man out or splitting the bill on a date. Does that make me anti-feminist, or just confused and contemporary?

A retro-style Lady? And what the hell is a Rules Girl anyway? The post-Sex and the City generation can be forgiven for being confused about what exactly constitutes an evolved woman; we’re told she can have it all, but all she really needs are the two “Ls” – labels and love.

I don’t remember there being much about Vuitton in The Second Sex, but de Beauvoir’s arrangement with Sartre was certainly a very modern sort of love. Alas history doesn’t recall if he called her by Wednesday for a Saturday night date, so we don’t know if she followed The Rules on that one or not.

De Beauvoir being de Beauvoir, I suspect she would have done exactly whatever the hell she wanted, which is really the only true feminist template those who wish to honour her legacy should be aiming to follow. That, despite what Andrea Dworkin or Germaine Greer would have you believe, is really all there is to it.

The legacy of feminism is freedom to choose, and it is that freedom that remains important and worth celebrating even though the term itself has gone the way of key-parties, macrame and fondue.


Last year we had quite a debate about this parade – freedom of speech or degrading to women and society generally? Your thoughts?

Boobs on Bikes man indignant at injunction threat
3:45PM Thursday August 14, 2008

Steve Crow
The Auckland City Council have gone to court to try and stop a topless parade from travelling down Queen St.

A majority of Auckland City Councillors have today voted to seek a court injunction to prevent the Boobs On Bikes parade from happening in Auckland’s CBD next week.

However, the parade’s organiser says he won’t stand by and let a court injunction prevent the event from going ahead.

The display is to promote the Erotica Lifestyles Expo.

Organiser Steve Crow says it is not against the law to ride on the back of a motorbike topless, so there is little the council can do. He says he does not have a permit for the parade, and has never needed one.

Mr Crow says it is hard to see how the District Court could issue an injunction which would overturn the Bill of Rights.

Some members of the city council, however, are unimpressed.

Councillor Cathy Casey says the organiser’s claim the parade is about freedom of expression is “absolute crap”. She says it just free advertising for a porn show, and the council finds the parade offensive. Ms Casey is confident the District Court will grant the injunction.

However, councillor Bill Christian believes the council is overreacting, saying the parade attracts a decent crowd.

“It’s simply an aspect of life in the 21st Century that we have to accept there are times when women will bare their breasts, let’s hope it stops at that.”


Should Australia and New Zealand Law Allow Polygamy?

Many new immigrants come from polygamous countries where the penalty for adultery is severe. Allowing polygamous marriage could protect both women and men in the groups. What do you think? Read the arguments in the news article below….

Australia – Polygamous Marriages: Multiple Reactions
By Neena Bhandari

Sydney (Women’s Feature Service) – Aamina was 27 when she married Ayoub to become his second wife in Tripoli, Lebanon. While Aamina viewed her marriage as something that fate had ordained, the family’s decision to migrate to Australia meant that Ayoub had to divorce his first wife, as polygamous marriages are not legally recognised in Australia.

Like Ayoub, who ensured that his first wife was sponsored to Australia by their son, there are Muslim men from countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Sudan, who have migrated with more than one wife, but their multiple marriages don’t have the legal sanction in their adopted country.

The issue of polygamous marriages is causing a furore in the country with the government categorically stating that polygamy shall remain forbidden. However, some Muslim leaders argue that such marriages exist and should be recognised on cultural and religious grounds to protect the rights of women.

Recently, two senior leaders of the Islamic community in Sydney called on the government to recognise polygamous marriages, or men marrying more than one woman, in order to protect the rights of women in such marriages.

One of the most vocal advocators of changing the Australian law to accommodate the multiple marriages is Keysar Trad, the president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, who grew up in a home with a mother and stepmother. “There was nothing out of the ordinary in our extended family. My mother and my stepmother were best of friends. Even though a polygamous marriage was not the norm, the Lebanese society even in the 1960s was very open-minded,” recalls Trad.

“My father’s first wife was ill and could not look after their five children when he married my mother. For the children my mother was a godsend and they addressed her as ‘khaala’, or maternal aunt, and made her feel tremendously appreciated and respected,” he says, “It’s a solution that our faith offers to social problems.”

As marriages in the 21st century go beyond the traditional to encompass de facto relationships and recognition of gay and lesbian alliances, some are arguing for polygamous marriages to be protected and granted equal rights under the law.

According to Sheikh Khalil Chami of the Islamic Welfare Centre in Sydney’s Lakemba suburb, polygamous marriages, although illegal, exist in Australia. He reveals that he has been asked almost weekly to conduct polygamous religious ceremonies. But while he refuses, he knows there are ‘imams’ (clerics) who do not.

Those seeking legalisation of polygamy cite that in traditional indigenous Aboriginal communities in Australia’s Northern Territory, unofficially, such marriages exist and that these relationships are even recognised when the government grants welfare benefits.

In fact, in February this year, the United Kingdom ruled that it would grant welfare benefits to all spouses in a polygamous marriage, if the marriages had taken place in countries where polygamy is legal. Nearly 1,000 men are said to be living legally with multiple wives in Britain.

Polygamy is also common in Indonesia, but remains a controversial lifestyle choice. In the United States, polygamous sects such as the Mormons and practicing polygamists have conflicts with the law constantly.

“For religious men, polygamy essentially protects them from committing adultery. Adultery in Islam is strictly prohibited. If a man decides to have a sexual relationship with another woman, he has to marry her. In countries like Saudi Arabia, where polygamy is legalised, adultery or extra marital affair is rare,” says Faten Dana, 45, President, Muslim Welfare Association of Australia.

“In Australia, one of the benefits of legalising polygamous marriages would be that men would openly talk about their relationships rather than under the garb of secrecy. Making these relationships formal will also grant the women and children in such relationships certain rights as men would have obligations and responsibilities towards them,” says Dana, who migrated to Australia from Lebanon 19 years ago.

In 2006, there were 114,222 registered marriages, but there is no figure for polygamous marriages. The author of ‘Islam: Its Law and Society’, Jamila Hussain says, “The origin of polygamy dates back to the early days of Islam, to the battle of Uhud, when many men were killed. Men marrying more than one woman was a social welfare measure, ensuring that widows and fatherless children were looked after, as during those days there was no government social support system.”

Citing similar situations that still exist, Hussain explains, “If we look at the massacres of men in Srebernica and Bosnia, polygamy can be justified on the grounds of providing material and emotional support for the women left behind. However, polygamy is and was never meant to be an excuse for men to indulge their sexual fantasies. Some men over the years have abused this right and maintained harems, but that doesn’t affect the original rule which imposes a restriction of a maximum of four wives to be treated equally.”

Hussain further adds, “In Australia there is a great deal of hypocrisy. The government recognises de facto relationships as legal. According to some estimates, as many as 75 per cent Australians are living in de facto relationships, which has become normal and acceptable. Even married men may be living in de facto relationships and, in some cases, in more than one de facto relationship. These are perfectly legal – no fuss. There is also a push for homosexual relationships to be legalised. But there is an outcry if Muslims want to marry more than once.”

“A polygamous marriage is like any other marriage with trials and tribulations. It is not always a burden for women. In the current scenario, given the rise of HIV and STDs, in any sexual relationship one must tread with caution,” says Hussain, a lecturer in Islamic Law at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The Qur’an allows Muslim men to have four wives as long as they can support and treat them equally. However, evidence shows that polygamous men cannot always adequately and equitably feed, shelter, educate, and emotionally cherish all their spouses and dependents.

The Australian Muslim population, at 340,400 or 1.7 per cent of the total population, is noteworthy for its diversity in terms of ethnicity, national origins, language, and class and not all in the community want polygamy to be sanctioned by law. The National Imams Council says, “As Australian Muslims we recognise that the Marriage Act 1961 prohibits polygamy and we are not proposing any changes to this law.”

The government is in no mood to take a liberal view on the issue. Australia’s Attorney-General Robert McClelland says, “There is absolutely no way that the government will be recognising polygamist relationships. They are unlawful and they will remain as such. Under Australian law, marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. Polygamous marriage necessarily offends this definition.”

But what do the ordinary Muslim women have to say on this issue. Safiya Husain, 75, who migrated to Australia in 1981, feels polygamous marriages are not in the interest of women and children. She says, “In the times we live today, no man can treat all his wives equally. The women in such relationships can never be happy. The worst affected are the children.”

Silma Ihram, an Anglo-Australian convert to Islam and one of the pioneers of Muslim education in Australia, believes most women are smart, educated, financially independent and don’t want such relationships.

Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service

Should ALAC's 'Lisa' ad be taken off air?

Click here to watch the Lisa Ad

For those who haven’t seen the ad, or are unable to follow the link above (sorry, could not embed it):

It shows a young woman who has a few drinks with her workmates to relax, a few turns into a lot – we then see her dancing uncoordinatedly in a bar, finally stumbling outside into a dark alley where she is grabbed and led away by a man who has been watching her earlier. We see her struggle and protest, and the ad fades to black….’It’s not the drinking, it’s how we’re drinking.’

There have been several concerns about this ad, mainly that it perpetuates rape myths, and that it implies the victim bears some responsibility for the rape.

What are people’s thoughts? Is the ad effective in that it will encourage women to drink moderately in future, and so should remain on air? Or should it be taken off, due to it’s problematic implications?

Women's role in terrorism alarms EU

EUROPE: Females involved in everything from suicide bombings to logistics


By Jason Burke

Monday, August 4, 2008, NZ Herald


European intelligence chiefs have launched a major investigation into the threat posed by female Islamic militants within the EU, whose involvement they say runs from logistics or propaganda to suicide bombing.


“This phenomenon has not been really taken into account yet and we need to explore and understand it,” said one diplomat connected with the probe. “It is a new strategy by al Qaeda.”


 The moves follow a spate of attacks in the Middle East by women bombers and concerns among European security services about increased radicalization of female militants. The officials specifically cite Britain and North Africa as problem areas.


Women’s involvement in recruiting volunteers is a key concern


Though the only known European female suicide bomber was Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old convert from Belgium who killed herself in Iraq in 2005, European security officials said services were monitoring dozens of women involved in logistics or propaganda. There are also fears of women bombers being sent from overseas, particularly North Africa.


“The problem is knowing who is just fundraising or running websites, who is recruiting and who is a potential bomber,” said on French intelligence specialist. “Then how do you pick up someone coming in from outside the EU? That’s hard to do.”


Gilles de Kerchove, European counterterrorism co-ordinator, has asked British, French, Spanish, German and other security services to pool their intelligence through Brussels’ strategic analyst unit, the Joint Situation Centre, to produce a report by the northern autumn.


“The issue is a very high priority,” one EU official said.


In Britain, the involvement of women in militant activities has been limited. Yet security services fear that this may not last.


“Time and again we have seen al Qaeda trying tactics in one place and, if they work, trying them again elsewhere,” said the French specialist.


Women bombers have become relatively common in Iraq because they can more easily penetrate much-tightened security. They elicit less suspicion, can hide explosives under their clothes, and male soldiers are unwilling to search them.


In Algeria, according to security sources, the “al Qaeda in the Maghreb group” now use women in bombing campaigns.


“Women are largely responsible for support material: medicine, food, clothes,” said one. “But some have more major roles. Last year we dismantled a logistical network run by a woman.”


The source said militants “seek to recruit women with a brother, father or son already with the extremist groups”.


Expert say this may be because, in traditional Islamic societies, women without close male relatives are exposed to economic and social problems that make them more vulnerable to recruitment.


In Iraq, US intelligence officers say militants are marrying women then allowing them to be raped knowing that the subsequent dishonor will make them easier to groom as bombers. The officers have also noted women who have had relatives killed in the fighting turning to violence.


The issue is not without controversy in militant circles. Recent statements by al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri that women should restrict themselves to caring for the homes and children of male fighters provoked an outcry on extremist websites.


A Taleban spokesman has denied an American news report that Zawahiri might have been killed or wounded in a missile strike in Pakistan’s border region last week.


“Zawahiri has been killed by them several times, but once again this is baseless,” Maulvi Omar told Reuters from an undisclosed location.


US broadcaster CBS said it had obtained an intercepted letter from Pakistani Taleban commander Baitullah Mehsud requesting urgent medical help for Zawahiri, who was in “severe pain” with infected wounds.


-Observer, additional reporting Telegraph Group Limited