On the street, Malika El Aroud is anonymous in an Islamic black veil covering all but her eyes.
In her living room, Ms. El Aroud, a 48-year-old Belgian, wears the ordinary look of middle age: a plain black T-shirt and pants and curly brown hair. The only adornment is a pair of powder-blue slippers monogrammed in gold with the letters SEXY.
But it is on the Internet where Ms. El Aroud has distinguished herself. Writing in French under the name “Oum Obeyda,” she has transformed herself into one of the most prominent Internet jihadists in Europe.
She calls herself a female holy warrior for Al Qaeda. She insists that she does not disseminate instructions on bomb-making and has no intention of taking up arms herself. Rather, she bullies Muslim men to go and fight and rallies women to join the cause.
“It’s not my role to set off bombs — that’s ridiculous,” she said in a rare interview. “I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb.”
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The rise of women comes against a backdrop of discrimination that has permeated radical Islam. Mohamed Atta, the Sept. 11 hijacker, wrote in his will that “women must not be present at my funeral or go to my grave at any later date.”
Last month, Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s second in command, said in an online question-and-answer session that women could not join Al Qaeda. In response, a woman wrote on a password-protected radical Web site that “the answer that we heard was not what we had hoped,” according to the SITE monitoring group, adding, “I swear to God I will never leave the path and will not give up this course.”
The changing role of women in the movement is particularly apparent in Western countries, where Muslim women have been educated to demand their rights and Muslim men are more accustomed to treating them as equals.
Ms. El Aroud reflects that trend. “Normally in Islam the men are stronger than the women, but I prove that it is important to fear God — and no one else,” she said. “It is important that I am a woman. There are men who don’t want to speak out because they are afraid of getting into trouble. Even when I get into trouble, I speak out.”
After all, she said, she knows the rules. “I write in a legal way,” she said. “I know what I’m doing. I’m Belgian. I know the system.”