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Female Suicide Bombers – A Deeper Focus

Compare the following two headings from The New York Times: “Suicide Bomber Kills 15 at a Sunni Mosque in Baghdad” and “Female Suicide Bomber Kills 2 in Iraqi Province.” Both inform us of casualties due to suicide bombings with one difference: the addition of the word “female” in the second one. Why is this distinction so important? Why is it more noteworthy news when the suicide bomber is female? This paper discusses the history and rising phenomenon of female suicide bombers with an emphasis on the Middle East. The motivations behind this tragic intersection of gender and technology must be understood in order to reduce the number of women who are willing to perpetuate suicide bombings.

Terrorism is “the use or threat of violence, by small groups against non-combatants of large groups, for avowed political goals” (McCauley, 2007). The goal is to create terror among the population and force the government to act in the favor of those perpetrating it. The technique of using suicide bombing is not a new technique of creating terror and has many advantages. It is an efficient, low cost affair as it does not require the perpetrator to escape or be rescued and leaves no evidence behind. Making the bomb is relatively easy technology and requires little training to use. In addition, the bomber has full control of the time and location of the destruction. If the bomber has a weak moment and is unable to carry out the attack, other members of the organization, who also have a remote, will detonate the bomb for him or her.

The act of terrorism uses few resources yet causes both immediate and long term damage (McCauley, 2007). The immediate damage is the large-scale destruction of life and property. Suicide bombing is the most efficient form of terrorism in that it causes the most number of casualties. From 1980-2001, half the deaths due to terrorism have been caused by suicide attacks, even though they were only 3% of all the terrorist incidents (Zedalis, 2004). The long term damage is the psychological damage of creating fear, anxiety, and uncertainty among the people. Terrorists force their enemy to wastefully spend limited resources on extra security, rather than using it constructively (McCauley, 2007). In addition, the immorality of the act is blurred by placing the killer and the targets at the same level, suggesting that both are victims (Beyler, 2003).

According to Farhad Khosrokhavar, a professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, current suicide bombing is comparable to the Christian martyrs under the Romans. This act became so popular that theologians had to proclaim this act blasphemous in order to curb it (Bunting, 2005). However, this comparison is not completely accurate as the Christian martyrs only killed themselves and not innocent bystanders.

A similar act in 1963 sparked thousands of others to commit suicide for a cause: the suicide of a Buddhist monk in Vietnam protesting against the oppression of Buddhism. Such acts get a lot of media attention and thus are effective, albeit desperate actions (Bunting, 2005).

Suicide bombing, for the purpose of killing others, was used by Japanese forces against the US in World War II (Bunting, 2005) in which Japanese pilots, the Kamikaze, crashed their planes, which were full of explosives, into US ships.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist organization in Sri Lanka became an expert in using suicide bombers in the 1980s. It is often referred to as the most brutal organization to use this method of terrorism. It is estimated that the LTTE was responsible for 168 suicide terror attacks in Sri Lanka and India between 1987 and 2000 (Schweitzer, 2000).

In 1993, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) started using suicide bombings against Israel. They first targeted military targets, but soon started to target congested areas. They have carried out about 30 attacks, causing 120 deaths (Schweitzer, 2000).

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is a separatist group fighting for a Kurdish homeland and the rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey. They started using suicide bombers in 1996, while confronting heavy military attacks from Turkish troops, but stopped using this mode of attack in 1999 (Schweitzer, 2000).

In recent years, suicide bombings have been used to protest against occupation and to coerce foreign troops to retreat. In fact, the aim of more than 95% of suicide bombings has been to force military forces of other states (or their own if they are fighting for a homeland as in Sri Lanka and Turkey) to withdraw (Pape, 2005).

Traditionally, terrorist organizations in the Middle East have not allowed women to partake in the main warfare activities due to religious reasons. Their roles have been limited to supportive roles such as supplying information, escorting the male attackers, and smuggling weapons (Berko and Erez, 2006). Although the first female suicide bomber is said to be Khyadali Sana of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) in 1985 (Zedalis, 2004), it was not until recently that religious leaders in the Middle East deemed it acceptable for women to participate. Currently, about 15% of suicide attacks being perpetuated by women (Bloom, 2005).

The LTTE followed the SSNP, but uses suicide bombing mainly for performing assassinations. The most famous was the assassination of killed Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India in 1991. A women pretending to be pregnant, detonated the bomb attached to her stomach while kneeling before him, killing 18 people including herself and Gandhi (Bloom, 2005). Since then, the LTTE has carried out the most number of suicide attacks and have used women in 30-40% of them. The LTTE have devised such effective methods for suicide bombings that their models were emulated by organizations in the Middle East (Zedalis, 2004). In 1996, the PKK sent its first female suicide bomber also disguised as pregnant (Zedalis, 2004). Between 1996 and 1999, the PKK perpetuated 21 attacks, out of which 14 were by women (Beyler, 2003).

The first Palestinian woman to be a suicide bomber was Wafa Idris in 2002. In 2003, the PIJ declared that they would accept women as suicide bombers. Soon various religious leaders stated that women should also fight for jihad, with the underlying motivation that women can do what is difficult for men. This reason was cited as enough to defy Islamic regulations of wearing a veil and only leaving the house with a male escort (Beyler, 2004).

While this may seem a road towards greater freedom, Farhana Ali, a terrorism analyst,, cautions against thinking that it is a change in the treatment of women. In fact, she calls it an exploitation of women, who are neither leaders nor are they involved in organization of the activities. They simply follow commands that are given to them by men, and are just used for their convenience. While female suicide bombers are often exalted as heroines, they are still viewed the same way in society (Ali, 2005). Thus, the acceptance and use of female suicide bombers is not a sign of the liberation of women.

The acceptance of women suicide bombers by Islamic leaders provides an insight as to why women were allowed to assume a role that breaks gender stereotypes. However, it is these very stereotypes that contribute to the success of female suicide bombers. Women do not fit the profile of the typical suicide bomber. As security is tightened and more male suicide attacks are intercepted, the organizations have to assume other avenues in order to keep fighting (Ali, 2008). Because of the gender and cultural stereotype of Middle Eastern women as being submissive and disempowered, security personnel do not expect women to take part in such a crime. Women are also not searched thoroughly due to culture and religion, which place restrictions on men touching a woman’s body and thus can easily hide a bomb under her loose, body covering clothes, or on their abdomen disguised as a pregnancy. Farhana Ali writes about an e-mail from a senior Army official saying, “We have never viewed females with the same lethality as we would a male. And because of that cultural sensitivity on our part, it has made the female a very valuable tool of the insurgent” (Ali, 2008).

The use of women also serves a tactical advantage. Female suicide bombers receive more media attention and change the assessment of the situation, which is perceived as that of complete hopelessness since even women (who would not participate otherwise) feel the need to be a part of such a heinous act. Often times, women are also used as a way to “sham[e] men into participating” (Bloom, 2005). In addition, women prove to be a powerful recruitment tool for other women.

Generally, the motivations can be the religious reward of attaining a place in Paradise after death, the economic reward of the bomber’s family being paid money after his or her death, the social reward of attaining the honor of being a martyr, or nationalistic and personal rewards, such as the revenge of the death of a close relative by the enemy. However, for women, the reasons include these, but also reach deep into their treatment in society. Some view their participation as a means to achieve equality in a society that grants them very few rights and to disprove myths of women’s’ “weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement” (Beyler, 2003). It may seem to grant women a better sense of self worth beyond their current lower status. Yet it is the very gender stereotypes, which they are trying to break, that allow them to commit the crime successfully in the first place. These stereotypes allow women past security and acquire greater media attention: two main reasons why women are recruited. While it may seem personally liberating at the time, it only reinforces the conventional repression they are trying to rebel against. In trying to assert a meaningful representation of their own life, some women seeking emancipation feel that they must take the life of others.

A study conducted in Palestine investigated the role of women in terrorist organizations in Palestine by interviewing prisoners (Berko and Erez, 2006). The women confirmed that most of them assisted the male terrorists, although some women did become suicide bombers. It was also found that they were trying to avenge the death of a close relative, or were “rebel[ing] against the repressive gender construct…us[ing] the political conflict as a legitimate, respectable cover for the rebellion” (Berko and Erez, 2006). The restrictive environment that these women are bought up in led them to “express the desire for the excitement that comes from forbidden secret meetings with boys, either for training or to accompany them on attacks, and the chance to wear daring clothing on the way to the attack” (Berko and Erez, 2006). The change in clothing in this case is to blend with the Israeli population. In addition, some of the women were influenced by “romantic manipulation” in Internet chat groups. Often times the women have no desire to carry out the attack, but simply want the thrill and ultimately get trapped as they have crossed all societal boundaries and will no longer be accepted by their families.

In a society which places a family’s honor in the women, no act of indecency is forgiven, sometimes even leading to honor killings. Palestine’s Fatah organization has been known to target young women for recruitment by involving them in illicit relationships and then forcing them to become suicide bombers with hopes that this will elevate their position, rid them of their indecency and remove the stain on their family’s honor. A women’s sense of burden on her family and act of indecency (which may or may not be staged by recruiters) often causes them to choose this extreme path.

Apart from the need to resist restrictions, there are also other societal pressures that force women to partake in terrorist organizations. The LTTE forces a “human tax” in areas under their control in Sri Lanka, in which families must give up a member of their family (Goodwin). Usually the member that is thought to be a burden is given up and is often a woman. Goodwin writes about Menake, who was caught before she could assassinate the Sri Lankan prime minister in a suicide bomb attack. Menake lost her mother when she was a child and was raped by her abusive father. In Menake’s case, not only was she a burden to her uncle’s family, but she was also a rape victim, a stigma which her society claims can never be removed from her life. “Rape is something many female suicide bombers have in common. Considered spoiled goods and unmarriageable in their patriarchal cultures, they view becoming human bombs as a form of purification by fire” (Goodwin). Many female suicide bombers in the PKK are also said to have been raped by the Turkish army (Bloom, 2005). Giving up their lives for a cause provides them with a way to redeem themselves, prove themselves worthy and give meaning to their lives. McCauley calls this the psychology of cause and claims that it gives “a view of the world that makes sense of life and death and links the individual to some form of immortality” (McCauley 2007).

Farhana Ali makes a different argument. She claims that women choose to protect their country, men, and future generations. They use violence as a means of protest against the loss of relatives, loss of their homeland and a breakdown of their society. Since women are nurturers of society, if it breaks down, they feel the need to protect it. They see it as an extension of their nurturing role (Ali, 2005). This goes against other theories which argue that women see their participation in terrorism as a rejection of their traditional role of a caregiver. Also, sometimes women feel so hopeless, that they think they have nothing else to lose and that if they give up their life, something might change (Ali, 2008).

Often the reason is a combination of motives. Many times, due to personal reasons and societal pressures, women choose (or feel that they have no other choice) to take this path. Interviews conducted by Schweitzer revealed that suicide bombers who were intercepted are indoctrinated during imprisonment by the other inmates. Schweitzer conducted interviews as soon as female suicide bombers were arrested and then again a few months later and found that the motive had changed from personal/social to religious/nationalistic (Schweitzer, 2006). Perhaps this is their way of further justifying their actions – that they are killing people for a higher cause rather than for personal reasons. It also serves as a way to advertise their nationalist messages through the media.

By providing extensive coverage of suicide attacks, the media becomes a means for further advertisement and recruitment (Zedalis, 2004). It also helps increase supporters, who are necessary to provide cover, support (in the form of finances and information) and recruits to the terrorists. According to McCauley’s pyramid model of terrorism, terrorists only occupy the apex and are few in number. “The base of the pyramid is composed of all those who sympathize with the terrorist cause, even if they disagree with the use of violence” (McCauley, 2007). By overplaying collateral damage by the enemy (which hurts the sympathizers), terrorists can increase their base and become more influential and powerful.

It is important to take into account the differences in the portrayal of female suicide bombers in Arab media and western media. In Arab media, they are often elevated to the status of idols; someone whose actions should be emulated by all courageous women willing to fight for their homeland. The media in the Middle East has also urged men to emulate these women and help liberate their homeland (Schweitzer, 2006). However, the western media has portrayed female suicide bombers as socially abnormal women as they act outside of their traditional gender roles. The women must have some “defect” because of which she must sacrifice herself. This defect can be a physical disability, being unmarried past the accepted age, being divorced, having illegitimate relationships, or belonging to a family that has been accused of collaborating with the enemy, among others (Schweitzer, 2006).

Many steps can be taken to hinder this rising phenomenon. The foremost would be to increase an understanding of the motivations of female suicide bombers. It is difficult to determine these motives and there is little data on the background and motivations of these women. Thus, steps need to be taken to have a discussion with Muslim women to better understand how their lives can be improved. A development in women’s education, employment and societal conditions can help their lives improve. If the women are given hope and alternatives, they will be less likely to consider suicide bombing as an option (Ali, 2005).

Ali also suggests that women should be integrated into society better and have a role in the nation building process. For example, in Iraq, women enjoyed a relatively large amount of freedom, which was taken away when the occupation began and woman were raped and kidnapped. She points out that women are greatly affected by the breakdown of their society, yet are not given importance during the nation building process. It is important that they are included in this process and given opportunities to participate in the local and federal government.

In order to circumvent the problem of male security unable to search women, female security guards can be employed. However, there are some problems with women in the military as well. Recently, Iraqi women were hired to search other women at checkpoints. However, women who are willing to work for the US may be risking their lives as well as their families. With the Christian martyrs, religious authorities had to step in and declare suicide in the name of God to be a religiously forbidden act. Similarly, suicide bombings must be openly condemned by Muslim religious leaders and scholars. Recently some scholars have said that killing civilians and damaging civilian property through any means is prohibited under Muslim law. If these ideas are endorsed by other prominent leaders and scholars, the religious appeal will decrease for both men and women (Ali, 2005).

The community building measures must be made in all regions were suicide bombings are frequent, including Iraq, Palestine, and Sri Lanka. Women need to be provided with the basic necessities as well as safety, equal rights and education for their children. When women feel helpless they are more likely to be vulnerable to recruitment. If both men and women are provided with socioeconomic opportunities and an effort is made to improve their lives, they will be more likely to dream for a better future for themselves and their future generations.


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