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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.

A related view to that is that the women are brainwashed by extreme religious fundamentalism. Yet that view is apparently counteracted by the rapid spread of the use of the tactic, involving at least half a dozen women, in Iraq, a country in which Islamic fundamentalism is foreign.

Women attackers might even see their actions as overtly feminist: Skaine quotes Yoram Schweitzer, who suggests these attacks might open "a Pandora's Box of demands by women for rights and freedoms currently denied Them". Denied other opportunities to fight, women might see this as their only option.

Undoubtedly there is also a "pull" factor, in that attack organisers realise that women are less likely to be suspected, less likely to be searched, and Skaine quotes a US official saying "the official profile of a typical terrorist – developed by the [Department of Homeland Security] DHS to scrutinize visa applicants and resident aliens – applies only to men."

There's much to be learned to in the (rare) testimony of those who pulled out of attacks. Two Fatah woman who backed out of suicide missions report differing reasons for doing so. One, a devout Islamist, felt her controllers were "making a business out of the blood of shaheeds". The other concluded that Allah would not approve of her killing babies, women, invalids".

Overall, it seems that it is impossible to create a general profile of "the female suicide bomber", or to set out a range of likely characteristics. Their range of motiviations, of temperaments, of socio-economic backgrounds, is likely to be just as varied as that of male attackers.

After surveying general suicide bombing and female suicide bombing, and putting the general state of international conflict – quoting an estimate that in conflict since 1900 62.2 million civilian men women and children have been killed, compared to 43.9 million military personnel – Skaine then moves on the detailed accounts of attacks in Lebanon and Turkey, in Sri-Lanka, Russia and Palestine and Israel. Finally she briefly surveys "US policies and new strategies".

It would be kind to describe the writing as pedestrian; Skaine has a liking for simple declarative sentences, heaps and heaps of them all stacked together without any particular attempt to link them together. That occasionally got in the road of this reader's progress. There should also be a warning that there's no original research, and little original thought in this book. It is a survey of the current state of academic and media thought. But still, as a survey, Female Suicide Bombers conveniently collects the current state of knowledge of the subject, and is worth having on your bookshelf to provide perspective for the next inevitable outrage.

It is also a corrective to attempts often made to use female exceptionalism as an excuse not to look seriously at the causes behind the women’s attacks. Skaine concludes:

Information about the lives of suicide attackers is seriously needed to identify risk factors that led them to this type of mission. Listening to their stories does not dishonor the innocent victims but failing to listen will bring more bombings and more victims, states Basel Saleh. The Rev. Dr Naim Ateek reminds us of our humanity when he says, "When healthy, beautiful, and intelligent young men and women set out to kill and be killed, something is basically wrong in a world that has not heard their anguished cry for justice. These young people deserve to live along with all those whom they have caused to die." As more research on female bombers becomes available, we will have more complete profiles about their lives and their courage with the hope of saving their lives and the lives of those who would be killed." (p. 167)

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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

    Natalie,

    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.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk 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’.