In the days leading up to the Olympic Games in Sochi, the tension level in Russia rose due to more than human rights issues: Just a week before the opening ceremonies in Sochi, Russian officials announced that they were looking for three women associated with a massive cell responsible for earlier attacks in Volgograd, one of whom they suspect to be in Sochi. The attacks in Volgograd were a clear shot across the bow — a warning to expect more such resistance during the Games.
Reading about the hunt for these Russian women reminded me of words I read years ago, by Maaka, a then-19-year-old Chechen Muslim girl mourning her sister, who had died in a terrorist hostage operation. “If the situation does not change, if they don’t let us live as we want, I would gladly join her in Paradise.”
Maaka’s sister is one of a growing number of Islamic female terrorists. Some of these women, like Maaka’s sister, engage in hostage takings, such as the Dubrovka theatre siege in Moscow in 2002. Others claim their place on the stage by participating in suicide bombings. Red Crescent volunteer Wafa Idris’ successful suicide bombing in Ramallah in 2002 marked the first female suicide attack in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Over a hundred women have followed in her footsteps.
Islamic women who become terrorists seem to contradict the conservative readings of Islamic holy texts, which — like many religions — dictate the place of the woman to be in the household. It feels counterintuitive that the women that come forth from such conservative surroundings leave home and hearth, seize opportunity themselves and actively participate in an armed conflict. So why do they do it? Is it a type of Islamic feminism? A way to take control and free oneself from the stove? There are two major schools of thought as to why these women do what they do: feminism and, well, desperation. The truth is that it’s some combination of both: circumstances pile up until the pot boils over and women want to participate. They want to take matters into their own hands, and to do this they need some level of equality.
Female terrorism in Islamic society
Historically, Islamic women were not allowed to fight in violent jihad. They were kept off the battlefield because “earthly women represented a tie that bound [men] to this world, whereas the whole focus of the fighter was supposed to be on the next.” Rather than giving their lives, women were encouraged to raise the next generation of fighters. As terrorism expert Mia Bloom points out, even today, as martyrs, women are represented as the “wives and mothers of the revolution.”
Seeing how deeply this idea is rooted in conservative Islamic society, it comes as no surprise that Islamic groups were not the first to have female bombers. National-secular groups like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka were the first to adopt the tactic, having no objection object to women on the battlefield. Over time, it was adopted by Islamic terrorist organizations as well, and we have seen a staggering increase in female Islamic suicide bombings since: from eight bombings in the 1980s to over 100 in the first decade of this century. In fact, since 2002, the majority of Chechen suicide attacks have been conducted by women.
The Accidental Terrorist
Some scholars explain these actions as women grabbing the opportunity to shake off the shackles of male-dominated society by fighting in violent jihad while fighting for gender equality. Christine Sixta claimed:
“I don’t think that women can participate in violent activity that is traditionally outside of sanctified social behaviour without in some way advocating political equality for their gender. (…) Female terrorism is a way to claim political space for women in a patriarchal world.”
Conservative leaders and media and at times the public initially were not wild about embracing the ‘liberated woman’ narrative. Lindey O’Rourke:
“several terrorist leaders argue that women make poor attackers because they lack the psychological and physical prowess of men (…) that the role of women in society should be limited to the private realm, (…) that [female suicide terrorism] will continue to be unnecessary as long as there are sufficient numbers of male attackers [and that a] woman martyr is problematic for Muslim society. A man who recruits is breaking Islamic law. He is taking the girl or woman without the permission of her father, brother or husband”
Whereas men are said to have political and religious motivations, and are celebrated in the community for their sacrifice for the struggle and their martyrdom for religion, women’s involvement in suicide mission tends to be explained by personal rather than political reasons. Think of the Russian women on the loose in Sochi. They are nicknamed ‘Black Widows’, implying that they are blowing themselves up because their husbands died.
Some blame these women’s martyrdom on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), wherein the suicide is pursued to restore the woman’s honor after some traumatizing experience such as infidelity, pregnancy out of wedlock, infertility and rape. In these cases, it is said the women are allegedly pushed towards their actions by men, or are used as mere weapon delivery systems. The first female bomber Wafa Idris’s death was said to be an accident, based on the fact that she carried the bomb in a backpack, and not around her waist, which led some to believe she was only meant to have it delivered when it exploded. These explanations allow men to diminish a woman’s contribution following a successful operation.
In fact, the typecasting of women as the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators, only increases our shock when women step out of their expected pattern and engage in suicide terrorism. Terrorist suicides by women have a far greater psychological impact on society and result in greater media attention, which are both important goals for the terrorist.
And because suspicion is lower, women can travel where men cannot go as easily. Especially in the Muslim world, thorough searches are far less likely, given the cultural sensitivity towards women’s bodies and honor. There have been several cases where terrorist organizations have exploited this advantage to the fullest, having a woman feign pregnancy to hide explosives, or concealing them near her more intimate parts. After the 9/11 attacks the United States government failed to include women in the profile of potential terrorists.
So which version should we believe?
Are female suicide bombers feminists pur sang, or are they they driven to death and destruction by desperation? Both explanations are a type of wishful thinking. So, a woman is driven to suicide upon crossing the boundaries placed on her by a conservative interpretation of Islam. But if she wanted to take her life out of shame or hopelessness, why do this with a terrorist attack? Why kill others and make a political statement? Even if they are instructed by their society to take a back seat, these women do not live in a vacuum. They are victimized by the same enemy that victimizes their husbands, brothers and sons. However, unlike men, they are ordered to stand by the sidelines and simply raise the next generation of men, relying on them to sort out the situation in which they are also bound. These suicides are political, as these women seek a more active role in the struggle.
However, to say it is just about feminism seems hard to believe too. It is this context of the struggle that is crucial. Their eagerness to participate in the political activity of violent jihad is a direct consequence of living in a de facto war zone, such as Palestine. Unemployment, religious discrimination, grief over lost family members and hopelessness are a direct consequence of conflict, and affect both men and women directly and harshly.
But the fact that women embrace equality on the battlefield does not mean they are necessarily motivated to push this into the realm of (peacetime) politics, or even further, into the realm of the home and the marriage, as is the aim of the feminist organizations.
It’s also worth pointing out that these women do not just want win the struggle, they want to defend their religious beliefs. Generally speaking, these are conservative religious beliefs that actually promote the traditional readings of Islam. It seems unlikely that these conservative women want to overthrow the beliefs they are defending in the first place.
Levelling out the gender roles in the case of suicide terrorism is not a call for overall gender equality, but rather a temporary concession in order to preserve society and religion from the encroaching threat of the enemy in the long run.
Once the first cases of Islamic female suicide terrorism took place, the leadership of radical organizations did not necessarily stand in line to sign women up. When first confronted with something seemingly egalitarian, Islamic leaders and terrorist leaders retreated into their radical interpretation of Islam, which by and large rejects the use of female suicide bombers.
But in recent years the decision makers within several terrorist organisations came around and changed their rhetoric. Just like ‘suicide’ (which is forbidden in Scripture) became ‘martyrdom’, so women became proper warriors. In 2004 the online magazine Al Khansaa published an article that struck a tone quite different from O’Rourke’s quote:
“The woman in the family is a mother, wife, sister and daughter. In society she is an educator, propagator, and preacher of Islam, and a female jihad warrior. Just as she defends her family from any possible aggression, she defends society from destructive thoughts and from ideological and moral deterioration, (…) When jihad becomes a personal obligation, then the woman is summoned like a man, and need ask permission neither from her husband, nor from her guardian, because she is obligated, and non need to ask permission in order to carry out a commandment that everyone must carry out.”
It’s not that the leadership of terrorist organisations had a change of heart when it came to the role of women in society. Rather, they used female suicide bombers because the women turned out to give them an enormous advantage. I already mentioned that they have access to places men can’t go as easily. But there is more. As Mia Bloom proposes, women are a great recruiting tool. Through her willingness to go on these missions, a woman shows courage that is read as an emasculating affront, a violation of a man’s honour, which pressures him into participating. In fact, women openly accuse men of cowardice and lack of action and ambition within the struggle. Lastly, there is evidence that the effectiveness and mortality rate of female suicide attacks is in fact higher than that of men.
The very thing that make women turn to suicide bombing — inequality, religious passion, a desire to be necessary and important in their community — is also what makes them effective terrorists. Something the men in the higher ranks of the organisations are also noticing. So are these Islamic women desperate or feminist? Well, they’re both. And they’re neither.
I used some wonderful sources for this article, which I encourage you to read:
Barlas, A. (2002). “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (1 ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bloom, M. (2005). Mother, Daughter, Sister, Bomber. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November/December, 54-62.
Cunningham, K. J. (2003). Cross-Regional Trends in Female Terrorism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 26, 171-195.
Cunningham, K. J. (2007). Countering Female Terrorism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 30(2), 113-129.
O’Rourke, L. A. (2009). What’s Special about Female Suicide Terrorism?. Security Studies, 18(4), 681-718.
Sixta, C. (2008). The Illusive Third Wave: Are Female Terrorists the New ‘New Women’ in Developing Countries?. Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, 29(2), 261-288.