Female terrorists

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…

On the unexpected variety in human choices …

The NY Times today contains a feature about Pashe Keqi, the last of Albania’s sworn virgins. 

The practice of the sworn virgin occurred “under the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct that has been passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than five centuries. Under the Kanun, the role of women is severely circumscribed: Take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a virgin’s value is the same – 12 oxen.”

In a land of war and disease, women might take on the role of a man to replace a dead father, to avoid an arranged marriage, or just to live a better life.  Their assumption of the role was very thorough and they ranked, behaved and were accepted as a man.

Pashe Keqi’s observations on her choice:

“Back then, it was better to be a man because, before, a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” says Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of Raki and smoking cigarettes. “Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men and are even more powerful, and I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”

Borrow a Person

The Living Library sounds like an exercise in objectification– volunteers are classified as ‘Gay Person’, ‘Immigrant’, ‘Police Officer’, etc, and customers come in to borrow them for 30 minute chats. In fact, it’s meant to be– and apparently turns out to be– a fascinating, innovative experiment in achieving understanding between people from different sorts of lives. Here’s a bit of Gay Person’s story:

Earlier in the day, Alternative Medicine Therapist… had said to me that she was learning a lot about her own prejudices from readers and her words came flooding back when I found two young black men waiting for me at the desk. As I sat down with them I braced myself for a stream of invective when one them gently asked, “Do you experience homophobia often?” It surprised me to find myself saying yes and we began one of the most fascinating conversations I have had for a long time. They said that they both had often had strongly anti-gay opinions. I said that if I saw them on the top deck of the night bus I’d probably go back downstairs. And once that had broken the ice, the conversation became an exhilarating opening of hearts. It was a shame we didn’t have more time to talk – 30 minutes can pass very quickly – but I left with real hope. If all young people were like this, I felt, the world would soon be a better place.

Of course, there are lots of problems, perhaps foremost amongst them the way it may shore up idea that a single individual can serve as representative of a whole group, or the apparent presupposition that there will be no overlap between groups (e.g. no Gay Immigrant). But it still sounds like a valuable start toward provoking dialogue, and these problematic assumptions can of course be explicitly discussed in the conversations.

Thanks for the link, lydia!