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…

9 thoughts on “Female terrorists

  1. In certain Islamic countries, women are barred from becoming suicide bombers. But some women take to the streets and protest for the right to become suicide bombers. Imagine that. Fighting for the right to blow yourself up. You cannot be more radicalised than that.

  2. Hi Vasanth. Difficult to imagine, indeed. Though under a different description, the women might maintain that they are campaigning for equal rights with men. Which is, on the face of it, a familiar and admirable thing to campaign for. So clearly having knowledge of the details of any such campaigns (e.g. WHAT rights, in particular) is essential!
    We might agree with the women that equal rights are desirable, but insist that neither men nor women have the right to be suicide bombers.

  3. Following on your point, Stoat, about what would lead someone to suicide as an option. i do remember a discussion by Philippa Foot about a group of soldiers, I believe in WWII, who gave up their lives rather than betray friends, even though their silence would make no practical difference. (I’ve forgotten why that was – perhaps the friends were already condemned for something else.) As I remember, Philppa said they accepted their deaths with some calm since they recognized clearly that they could not have a good future. They chose against living as traitors.

    So it could be that the woman being discussed did not so much want suicide as that she felt there was no good future available to her.

    Interacting with this might be the hierarchy of values, with at least men’s suicides seen as bringing lots of value to the community. In fact, in this situation, it doesn’t seem so far to feel that women are being cheated if their suicides do not also bring value.

    On the other hand, she may have been deeply depressed and depressed people can often gain relief by getting a sense of control over their lives, with planning its ending a way of doing that.

  4. Vasanth, could you please list the countries where women “take to the streets and protest for the right to become suicide bombers”? I have not ever heard of such a thing.

    I’m planning a piece on this for our site, and I think the discussion here is a good one. I hope you won’t mind if I link to you!

  5. FWM – yes an excellent film! Thanks for mentioning that.

    Zeynab – please do link us! Let us know when the post is up.

  6. I find it quite depressing that someone can influnced that death and destruction is the only way in which a war can be solved, even worse if you’ve been raised to believe you are second best to men. All through out history even in western societies people have come to believe that for a woman to show exterm acts of curelty she must be beyond the emointional state of understanding. I hate how the media must blow up a story if it envoles a woman acting voliently, not only does it shead a bad light on feminist but it inforces the idea that men must always be stronger both physical and emointaly than women. Female terrorists are no different to male, they both have had the same influnces to complel them to sarcific themsevles in order to kill the innocent only that they are forced to behave stronger. Force to be harder because of society expectation of failure because of being female, it was society expectations itself that made the saying “women are more deadly than men”.

  7. If people believe they are defending their country,is that not more honourable than the paid mercenaries(Western soldiers) invading a country far away to bring a more corrupt regime into power?How can you hope to understand suicide bombers in Muslim countries if you cannot see what your own country has been doing the last two hundred years?-And is still doing.

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