Skip to content

Female Suicide Bombers

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?

Terrorism is “the use or threat of violence, by small groups against non-combatants of large groups, for avowed political goals.” (McCauley, 2007) 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 action uses few resources yet causes both immediate and long term damage of the enemy (McCauley, 2007). The immediate damage is the large-scale destruction of life and property. 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 terrorists blur the immorality of the act by placing the killer and the targets at the same level, suggesting that both are victims (Beyler, 2003).

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.

Some terrorist organizations, such as the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, have been recruiting women for many years and started successfully using female suicide bombers in the early 1990s. It is perhaps their success that the Middle Eastern terrorist organizations are trying to emulate (Zedalis, 2004). 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, which can be easily hid in their clothing (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.

Why, after all these years, did terrorist organizations in the Middle East start to recruit women? The most obvious reason is that women do not fit the profile of the typical suicide bomber. Because of the gender and cultural stereotype of Middle Eastern women as being submissive with few rights, 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. 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 (which would not participate otherwise) feel the need to be a part of it. Often times, women are also used as a way to “sham[e] men into participating” (Bloom, 2005).

One might wonder what incentives make someone want to give up his or her own life, as well as that of others’. 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 honour 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. They view their participation as a means to achieve equality in a society that grants them very few rights and to disprove myths of womens’ “weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement” (Beyler, 2003).

A study (Berko and Erez, 2006) conducted in Palestine investigated the role of women in terrorist organizations in Palestine by interviewing security prisoners. 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 restraining attitude towards women in their culture 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). 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.

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 by turning herself into a bomb. 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)

Some women see their participation as suicide bombers a sign of their empowerment and equality with men. It may seem to grant women a better sense of self worth beyond their current low status. Yet, the examples of the Palestinian and Sri Lankan women suggest that it is only accentuating the discrimination they experience in their societies. In fact, 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 reinforces the conventional repression they are trying to rebel against. In trying to assert a meaningful representation of their own life, female suicide bombers feel that they must take the life of others.


Arun, Neil. “Women bombers break new ground.” 15 Nov. 2005. BBC NEWS. 19 Feb. 2009 <>.

Berko, Anat, and Edna Erez. “Women in terrorism: a Palestinian feminist revolution or gender oppression?” 12 June 2006. International Institute for Counter – Terrorism. 02 Feb. 2009 <>.

Beyler, Clara. “Messengers of Death – Female Suicide Bombers.” 02 Dec. 2003. International Institute for Counter – Terrorism. 02 Mar. 2009 <>.

Bloom, Mia. “Mother. Daughter. Sister. Bomber.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 61 (2005): 54-62.

Copeland, Libby. “Female Suicide Bombers: The New Factor in Mideast’s Deadly Equation.” 27 Apr. 2002. The Washington Post. 19 Feb. 2009 <>.

“Female Suicide Bomber Kills 2 in Iraqi Province.” 12 Aug. 2008. The New York Times. 04 Mar. 2009 <>.

Ghosh, Bobby. “The Mind of a Female Suicide Bomber.” 22 June 2008. 02 Mar. 2009 <,8599,1817158,00.html>.

Goodwin, Jan. “When the Suicide Bomber Is a Woman.” Marie Claire. 3 Mar. 2009 <>.

Kingsbury, Alex. “The Rising Number of Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq.” 28 July 2008. US News & World Report. 19 Feb. 2009 <>.

Klein, Leah. “The female suicide bomber: Why do we differentiate?” 5 Jan. 2009. Gender Examiner. 19 Feb. 2009 <–Why-do-we-differentiate>.

Martin, Courtney E. “What Makes Female Suicide Bombers Different?” 6 Aug. 2008. AlterNet. 19 Feb. 2009 <>.

McCauley, Clark. “Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism.” Psychology of Terrorism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 13-31.

Rubin, Alissa J. “Despair Drives Suicide Attacks by Iraqi Women.” 5 July 2008. The New York Times. 19 Feb. 2009 <>.

Van Natta, Don. “Big Bang Theory; The Terror Industry Fields Its Ultimate Weapon.” 24 Aug. 2003. The New York Times. 01 Mar. 2009 <>.

Yusuf, Huma. “Female suicide bombings in Iraq: Why the recent surge?” 08 July 2008. The Christian Science Monitor. 19 Feb. 2009 <>.

Zedalis, Debra D. Female Suicide Bombers. New York: University Press of the Pacific, 2004.

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 16, 2009


    A very impressive bibliography: you performed a real power search here, and have assembled quite a range of material to describe the horrific phenomena that is female suicide bombing.

    Your last paper traced the fascinating (im?)balance between liberation and oppression that hymenoplasty points to–offering (on the individual level) a freedom from past sexual activity and its consequences, while reinforcing (on the social level) conventional oppressive restrictions on the sexual behavior of women. This essay resembles that one, in that it also juxtaposes what “may seem personally liberating” with what is surely, socially, a reinforcement of conventional gender repression.

    Your paper ends with the irony that, “in trying to assert a meaningful representation of their own lives, female suicide bombers feel that they must take the life of others.” But I don’t know that I see you taking a position or arguing a point in this paper, but rather describing the complexities of a phenomenon in which technology and gender interact tragically. You have done a very good job of describing cause and effect; can you move on to the next step, and think about interventions, about changing the pattern that seems so inexorable in your account of it? How (in short) to reduce terrorism?

Comments are closed.