By Anne Preesman
In the early 2000s, Russia engaged in a violent war with its southern republic of Chechnya. During the conflict, the Chechen insurgents increasingly resorted to terrorist attacks, the hostage crisis in a Moscow theatre in 2002 being one of them. The attacks were characterised by female suicide bombers who the press named ‘Black Widows’ because many had lost their husbands during the conflict. These women are not unique; other terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, also employ female jihadis as suicide bombers.
There is a broad literature on how conflict is related to gender roles; Enloe, for instance, argues in her work ‘Bananas, Beaches, and Bases’ that militarisation enforces the masculine social order. At the same time, we observe that women take over traditionally ‘male’ roles during war, such as working in military factories. However, society tends to be more uncomfortable with the idea of women being active combatants. Elshtain argues that this is caused by the fact that society tends to view women as ‘life-givers’ instead of ‘life-takers’. According to Cook, this leads to women’s roles in war and terrorist organisations not being accurately recognised.
Although women historically played a more passive role during times of conflict because they were often not conscripted, we should not neglect those who were active in combat. For example, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) sent women to occupied France to sabotage German operations during the Second World War. Female suicide bombers are, thus, not the first women to act as active combatants during times of conflict. Still, female suicide bombers are unique because of their high commitment; they are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. The common view of female suicide bombers is that they are from highly traditional Islamic societies where they have an inferior position. Although this piece will focus on Islamic female suicide bombers, it is essential to note that not all female suicide bombers are connected to Islam. Furthermore, the idea that women in Islamic societies have an inferior position is a Western perspective; instead, the Quran argues against female oppression in various verses.
However, it remains interesting to study if women’s social status pushes them to suicide attacks; therefore, I ask: Does a woman’s place in society push her towards suicide bombing roles?
Although women have been active in combat for centuries, men have actively resisted the idea of using women as a weapon, let alone employing their weaponised bodies as a tactical ‘tool’. It namely conflicts with the idea of women as ‘life-givers’. Using women, however, offers a tactical advantage. Women can pass security checks with greater ease, allowing them to have better access to potential targets. This makes female suicide attacks often more lethal than male attacks. Female attacks also receive more media attention, giving the terrorist group a broader reach. The Chechens were not the only ones trying to benefit from these tactical advantages. One of the first known attacks dates back to 1985 when a teenage girl drove a bomb-laden car into an Israeli defence force in Lebanon. In the modern day, other acts of terrorism committed by women can be found in Sri Lanka, Israel and Palestine, Turkey, Nigeria, and Russia.
In the literature, views on female suicide bombers and their motivations differ enormously. There is the idea that female suicide bombers are ‘failed women’; they are divorcees, infertile, victims of rape, or they lost their husbands, meaning they cannot fulfil their designated societal roles as wives or mothers. This can have two reinforcing consequences. First, these grievances can cause women to commit to the cause and make them willing to participate in suicide attacks. Interestingly, research finds that female empowerment is only a minor motivating factor for women joining a terrorist group, let alone perpetrating a suicide bombing. Second, being more controversial, one could also argue that such ‘failed women’ feel useless in society, making them useful to terrorist groups. These women may feel that the only way to become worthy to society again is by sacrificing themselves. Additionally, because women are hardly ever found in leadership positions, they are ‘replaceable’ to the group and thus suitable suicide bombers. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Samantha Lewthwaite, the White Widow who likely orchestrated the terrorist attack on a university in Kenya. Still, terrorist organisations remain very much a man’s world.
However, it should also be pointed out that not all female suicide terrorists are necessarily ‘failed women’. We also see highly educated, politically engaged, and/or married women committing suicide terrorism acts. Furthermore, female suicide bombers are not only from non-Western states; Western women have committed suicide bombings too, Muriel Degauque being a notorious example.
In short, it would be incorrect to argue that there is one specific ‘type’ of female suicide bomber. At the same time, however, the attacks also affect women’s roles after they have occurred. Female participation does not necessarily lead to emancipation; instead, suicide attacks can reinforce women’s inferior positions. Although some female suicide bombers have been romanticised, like Palestinian Wafa Idris, most of them are perceived as ‘failed women’ after being involved in terrorism. Palestinian terrorism especially, elevates men but shames women. Thus, women who were unsuccessful in perpetrating their suicide attacks are not only forced back into their traditional roles; their positions are even worse than before they joined the fighting. Finally, it should also be noted that not all female suicide bombers are voluntary perpetrators. Boko Haram, for example, is known to coerce women into committing suicide attacks, although it denies these allegations. For these women, suicide bombings are not a process of female liberation but a method of female oppression and a sign of male domination.
The presence of female suicide bombers shows that women are not only passive actors in times of conflict. However, there is no exact ‘type’ of woman that commits such attacks; different female suicide bombers can come from different societal positions. These women do have in common that their attacks do not elevate the positions of women in their societies. Although some women become martyrs, most societies look down on their terrorist acts. If women were to survive their time in a terrorist group, their positions are more likely to deteriorate instead of improve.
Anne Preesman is an MA student taking Intelligence and International Security. She is interested in the role of women in terrorist groups and conflict in the Post-Soviet space.