It’s the story that launched 1,000 headlines. And it’s not hard to see why: Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou announced last week that Tunisian women were traveling to Syria to wage "sex jihad," where they were having sex with "20, 30, [or] 100" militants, before returning pregnant to Tunisia.
There’s only one problem: There’s no evidence it’s true. The Tunisian Interior Ministry has so far failed to provide any further information on the phenomenon, and human rights activists and journalists have been unable to find any Tunisian woman who went to Syria for this purpose.
"Everything I’ve heard were very broad allegations that didn’t really have all the features of a serious reporting about the case," said Amna Guellali, the Tunisia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "All I have is very sparse, very little information, and I think that’s true for a lot of people working in the human rights community, in addition to reporters."
According to Guellali, the political context of the statement could shed light on why the interior minister chose to make this accusation now. The Tunisian government has been under fire for allegedly asking adult women for authorization from their husbands or fathers before they travel to certain countries in the Middle East — Ben Jeddou was justifying any restrictions by saying that the government was attempting to prevent women from embarking on "sex jihad" in Syria. The interior minister has also made the fight against extremist Salafi groups a centerpiece of his term in office. Suggesting that Tunisian Salafi women are sleeping with dozens of Syrian rebels could be another way to discredit them.
Reports of Tunisian women engaging in "sex jihad" in Syria have ping-ponged around the media for months, though the interior minister’s statement is the first time it has been given an official imprimatur. As journalist Sana Saeed catalogs, the first reports appeared on Lebanese new channel Al Jadeed and in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, which cited a fatwa by famed Saudi cleric Mohammed al-Arefe justifying the practice. Arefe, however, subsequently denied that he had done so, saying that "no sane person" would sanction such a thing.
Pro-Assad media have been only too eager to advance the idea of "sex jihad" as a way to tar their opponents. Syrian state television ran an interview with a 16-year-old girl named Rawan Kaddah in which she admitted to the practice. The Syrian opposition, however, denounced the program as staged and blasted the regime for exploiting children in such a way.
The only real evidence of women embarking on "sex jihad," comes not from Syria but from Tunisia’s Chaambi Mountains, an area in the west of the country that has often been the site of clashes between the military and jihadists. Tunisian security forces there arrested several girls who were allegedly involved in the practice. Guellali said that she spoke to the mother of an 18-year-old female who was involved — the mother said that a woman close to the Tunisian militant group Ansar al-Sharia got her daughter tangled up in a network of girls in the area.
But the scope of the problem — and whether it is related to Syria in any way — remains a complete mystery.
"It’s a bit disturbing that we have these kind of declarations and then there is no follow-up," said Guellali. "[The authorities] threw out this information that they had several cases of women coming back pregnant, but there is no tracking of the cases either by the Ministry of Women or the Ministry of Interior. And they won’t give any further information."