Time magazine reports, here, on the deployment of women suicide bombers. In sending us the link (thanks!), Time described the article as ‘shed[ing] some light on the cycle of hopelessness some Iraqi women find themselves in, and wonders what their motives are, if not political or religious.’
Brief overview: the piece focuses on one woman, Hasna (not her real name) who undertook a suicide bombing mission, after her brother died in a failed attempt. It is suggested that her motivations were not primarily religious or political, but that rather her state of grief and hopelessness was what made her vulnerable to undertaking terrorism.
First off, it is of course very difficult to imagine what kind of social context and mind set would make suicide bombing seem like a good option. And the article does indeed show that situations of desperation and distress can contribute to the willingness of individuals to put themselves forward for such a role. It’s hard to see a choice stricken by such emotions as unproblematically free. And a context in which such a role is a preferred option in itself casts doubt on the choice; the other options must indeed seem pretty hopeless.
But in reading the piece, I was reminded of some work by Marilyn Friedman on the way that female suicide bombers are regarded by their extremist peers, and how they are portrayed in the media. One of her claims is that, amongst the extremists,there is often a discrepancy between the regard for male and for female suicide bombers; the women are not esteemed as martyrs in the way that the men are. The last line of the Time article suggests as much: “God is great!” says the cameraman. “The stupid woman did it.”
Friedman also claims that from the outsider perspective and in the media, it is frequently the case that the women are regarded as coerced and mere puppets. And whilst it seems pretty clear that, in this case, Hasna’s grief played a key role in motivating her, it is also pretty clear that she wasn’t simply swooped upon by extremists in her state of vulnerability: she was previously helping her brother to prepare for his mission; and it seems she had to persuade the extremists with whom she was to work: ‘The group was initially skeptical — they had never worked with a woman, and felt certain she would lose her nerve at the last moment’.
To see her as entirely coerced, then, seems to make invisible the quite significant agency that she must have exercised to undertake a terror bombing attack. Perhaps it’s simply easier not to acknowledge that women might strongly hold extremist beliefs, and be willing to engage in terrorist action… Hmmm. Many complicated issues. What do readers think?
Final gender-equality related note: part of the problem with detecting female suicide bombers, it seems, is that policemen cannot search women. Yet it is difficult (‘frowned upon’) for women to join the security forces…