Female suicide bombers, women suicide bombers, female terrorists
Hadi Mizban/AP
An Iraqi soldier points his rifle after a woman refuses to cooperate by discarding
her purse in the Mansour neighborhood in western Baghdad, Iraq.

The Rise of Female Suicide Bombers Sparks a Range of Reactions

August 29, 2008 08:00 AM
by Josh Katz
Female suicide bombers are an increasing concern in Iraq and worldwide. While some struggle to contemplate their motives, others are not surprised.

Women Look to Suicide Bombing

A television report from Lebanon’s Al-Jadid/New TV that aired on Aug. 19, 2008, portrays the mindset of some female terrorists in Gaza. “When the goal is the defense of the homeland, there is no difference between man and woman,” the reporter said. “The mothers and daughters of Palestine believe that death for the sake of a free Palestine is a cheap price to pay, compared to a life of humiliation under the boots of the occupation.” The reporter went on to say, “They believe that the upbringing of men requires mothers whose actions do not fall short of the actions of the men."      

While Israel is struggling with the threat of female suicide bombers, Iraq has also become a breeding ground for their activity. There were few of them until last year, when eight women launched attacks. The number has skyrocketed in 2008, with 30 reported cases. The increased incidence of female suicide bombings ironically coincides with decreased levels of violence in the country this year.

On July 28, four women staged suicide attacks in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk, killing more than 40 people. The majority of female suicide bombings this year—15 so far—have occurred in Diyala province, the Los Angeles Times reports. According to Iraqi commanders, the Sunni group al-Qaida in Iraq is targeting women for recruitment in the area.

Women “will get married to more than one man [from al-Qaida in Iraq] and get pregnant without knowing who the father is," said Saja Quadouri, the only female member of Diyala’s provincial council's security committee. "Eventually, due to despair, hopelessness and fear, they get exploited to commit such crimes, as they become unwanted by society.”

U.S. commanders think that al-Qaida in Iraq is trying to use the grief experienced by women who have lost family members for recruitment purposes by preaching the potential for revenge. In response, the United States is supporting the work of the group Daughters of Iraq, consisting of about 200 female volunteers, to “search women at checkpoints,” the Associated Press reports.

Background: Recruiting women since the 1980s

The first female suicide bomber attack is believed to have occurred in 1985 in Lebanon, when Khyadali Sana of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) drove a truck into an Israeli Defense Force Convoy, killing two Israeli soldiers, according to an article in The Huffington Post.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka have become renowned for their use of female suicide bombers. “In fact, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka use women between 30 and 40 percent of the time when carrying out such attacks,” the Huffington Post article claims. In 1991 a Tamil Tiger woman assassinated India’s prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, an op-ed in the New York Times notes. 

But in the Middle East, female suicide bombers have continued to be a rarity until recently. An April 2, 2002, article from Slate reported on the suicide attack of Ayat Akhras, who blew herself up in front of a Jerusalem supermarket, and became the third Palestinian woman to choose that path. The 2002 bombing pinpointed the “changing nature of the Palestinian terror campaign,” according to Slate. 

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Israel made it very difficult for unmarried men under the age of 40 to cross into Israel. “Terrorist groups have therefore begun to look further afield for potential volunteers,” Slate writes. Yet Ayat Akhras, aside from being a woman, didn’t fit the typical profile of a suicide bomber. She was “not overtly religious, not estranged from her family, not openly associated with any radical groups. She can hardly be described as a woman without a future.”

Now, Muslim women provide the perfect weapon for terrorists, the Los Angeles Times states. They can easily hide the explosives in their long gowns and, as is the case in Iraq, “it is culturally unacceptable for the men who make up the bulk of the Iraqi security forces to frisk them.”

Opinion & Analysis: Why do they do it?

Lindsey O’Rourke, a doctoral student doing research on female suicide bombers, criticizes those who look for an inherent difference between men and women on the matter. Their motives are almost the same, she says. “Blaming Islamic fundamentalism is also wrongheaded,” she writes. “More than 85 percent of female suicide terrorists since 1981 committed their attacks on behalf of secular organizations ... Further, Islamist groups commonly discourage and only grudgingly accept female suicide attackers.” She said that most cases involve women rebelling against occupying forces

Courtney E. Martin of The Huffington Post agrees with many of O’Rourke’s assertions that most women are not coerced into becoming suicide bombers, but that they make the choice themselves. “It is easier not to acknowledge women's agency, because then we would have to acknowledge the depth of desperation that both women and men feel in these war ravaged countries, and by extension, our own role in contributing to that desperation.” 

Michelle Tsai of Slate looks at the issue of female suicide bombers from a different perspective. If Muslim men are guaranteed 72 virgins in paradise for becoming a martyr, then what is the incentive for women? she asks. There are a number of theories on the matter. According to Tsai, “Some modern clerics argue that in heaven, husbands never grow bored of their wives, even with so many huris [maidens] around. That may explain why some would-be female suicide bombers have spoken of becoming ‘chief of the 72 virgins, the fairest of the fair.’”

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