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Book Review: Female Suicide Bombers by Rosemarie Skaine

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The images have become all too familiar in their horror – grim emergency workers, screaming, blood-spattered wounded, all-too-small heaps on the ground covered with blankets. It might be Iraq, Israel, Sri Lanka, Russia or just about any state struck by a suicide bomb attack. Soon, most likely, the organisation responsible will release a video of the bomber's last words, there'll very likely be a retaliatory attack by the targeted state, and the theatre will follow a familiar script.

An attack now has to have some special feature — like the bomb being in the attacker's shoes — to get it into the headlines, rather than just drifting around in the news wraps. There's a logic to that, for one database, quoted in Rosemarie Skaine's Female Suicide Bombers records that there was an average of three such attacks per year in the 1980s, ten a year in the 1990s, 40 each in 2001 and 2002 and almost 50 in 2003.

One thing that will, however, help an attack hit the headlines is if the suicide bomber is female. That's still seen as shocking, surprising. Which is odd, really, since I learnt from Skaine's book that the suicide belt – that bomb image with which we've all become so familiar, was invented for women attackers, by the Tamil Tigers in Sir Lanka. What's relatively unusual there is that the women aren't just used as suicide attackers, but also soldiers. Women's units have been used in battle since 1984 and the first female commander was appointed in 1990. That's in contrast with the groups from Islamic societies, where women are, other than suicide attacks, generally kept out of the active fighting.

Yet interesting Skaine reports on a Islamic website, named Al-Khansaa, after a female poet contemporary with Muhammad, that praised suicide bombing as a way to female liberation. And she reports an account that Yasser Arafat was responsible for coining the term shahida – "previous to his speech [in January 2002], there was no feminized version of the masculine form of the Arab word for martyr."

Overall, the best statistics available suggest, Skaine reports, about 15 per cent of suicide bombers have been female. Given the gender frameworks of the societies from which they come, that's perhaps a surprising figure, and she reports the many explanations that have been used for their participation.

It seems the general Israeli security view is that the female attackers are marginalised individuals, left with no place in their own societies, perhaps feeling the need to atone for some "deviant" behaviour. Yet that would seem to be contradicted by the first Palestinian suicide bomber, Reem al-Rayishi, a young mother in her early 20s who left behind two young children.

Another view is that they are driven by extreme anger, by the damage done to them and their loved ones. Seemingly supporting this case is the Tamil Tiger Thenmuli Rajaratnam, known as Dhanu, who killed Rajiv Gandhi. Four of her brothers were killed in the conflict, her home was looted and she was gang-raped. Similar stories accompany many of the Chechen "black widow" attackers.

Some present the women as victims themselves, duped, drugged or browbeaten into the act. The Chechen Zarema Muzhikhoyeva would seem to support that case. Widowed, deprived of custody of her daughter, she was known as "a person easily persuaded", had taken a loan from her controllers, and seems to have been broadly mentally unstable, a state amplified by the use of drugs by her controllers. She, however, did not go through with the attack, acting suspiciously to ensure that she would be stopped and the bomb defused.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    Shahada (martyrdom) is not a new concept, either in Judaism or Islam. What is new is the idea of blowing oneself in a crowd to kill as many of the enemy as possible. This is still a debated topic in Islam. It, like the concept of the “Palestinian,” is a manufactured concept by secular Arabs trying to find effective weapons of war in the never-ending effort to kill Jews.

    In truth, not enough is known about homicide bombers of either sex to effectively put together a personality profile. What can be said with relative certinty is that religion plays a larger role in a Moslem’s life than in non-Moslems, and the Israelis in the intelligence services who have done research on this tend to be dismissive of religion themselves. This skews their view. I cannot talk intelligently about homicide bombers of other faiths elsewhere on the planet.

  • Natalie Bennett

    The point being made is that Arafat invented, or at least popularised, the feminine form of the Arabic noun, not the actual concept.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Well, Natalie, you’ve given Arafat a saving grace in the world of linguistics. He invented the feminine form of the noun ‘homicide bomber’.