Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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APRIL 5, 2010 8:08AM

What motivates female suicide bombers?

Rate: 8 Flag

Wafa Idris
Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa Idris
(Source: wiki)

This news story practically wrote itself. Within less than an hour on March 29, two Islamist suicide bombers struck the Moscow subway, blowing themselves to bits and taking forty commuters with them. Their motive: revenge for Russia’s oppression of their Muslim brethren in the Caucasus. Clearly they were driven not only by hatred, but also by ambition, machismo, testosterone, and the dream of seventy-two virgins in paradise, right? Except that this time the killers were two young women, one of whom – a Chechen widow called Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova – was only seventeen years old. The pair has since joined the swelling ranks of female suicide bombers in Palestine, Iraq, and now Chechnya. How does this phenomenon fit the alleged Muslim stereotype of women as subordinate, veil-wearing, second-class citizens? A new book promises to shed light on a troubling – and accelerating – trend.

Israeli scholar Dr. Anat Berko has been studying female suicide bombers for years. A former lieutenant colonel in the IDF, she holds a PhD in criminology from Bar-Ilan University and is a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. Her family is of Iraqi origin and she not only speaks fluent Arabic but is intimately acquainted with the Arab and Muslim outlook on life. Her new book, Isha Ptzatza (“The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers”) will be published next week in Hebrew by Yedioth Books. She based it on hours of interviews with would-be suicide bombers held in Israeli prisons as well as on a close biographical analysis of Palestinian women who succeeded in their objective of killing as many enemy civilians as possible.

Berko’s study, which is previewed in today’s Haaretz, paints a disturbing tableau of the inner world of female suicide bombers, the vast majority of whom “were exploited by the terrorist organizations, by close friends or even by their own families, and were pushed into carrying out terrorist attacks.” It appears that women’s motives for such attacks are rooted less in ideology than in histories of physical, mental, and sexual abuse within their own families. Their motives rarely involve free will, but rather blackmail or the hope of redemption for sexual indiscretions through violence and self-sacrifice.

Isha Ptatza

Berko cites the case of Palestine’s first female suicide bomber, medic Wafa Idris, who blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem in January 2002, killing an eighty-one year-old Israeli man and injuring 100 bystanders. Berko focuses her attention on Idris’s recent divorce: her husband had divorced her after a miscarriage leaving her unable to conceive a child and married another woman, with whom he proceeded to father two children. Her spectacular suicide “redeemed” her from this perceived disgrace and inspired nine successful imitators during the Second Intifada. In Berko’s view, female suicide bombings have as much to do with a sort of proactive “honor killing” as they do with classic (and stereotypical) “Islam vs. the West” terrorism.

But once captured and forced to justify their actions, these bombers consistently cite ideological motives. “[I]n prison, since they are now part of a group, these women are expected to rewrite their personal stories and to reconstruct them as acts of heroism on behalf of the Palestinian homeland,” Berko writes. “Yet, there is almost always a complex family history involved. For instance, a divorced woman is in a very weak position in Palestinian society, and it is thus easy to recruit her. Many of these women have an absent father - that is, the father is either chronically ill, dead or has other wives. One of the terrorists told me that, given her father’s absence, she needed a man to defend her; in return for his protection, she assisted him in his terrorist work.”

While female bombers cannot expect a reward as such, Paradise does have its consolations. Once there, some of them expect to be restored to youth and to become virgins once more with a free choice of husbands. “One of the women I interviewed told me that women do not menstruate in heaven,” Berko writes. “The men always claim that they will father children in heaven but the women say that in heaven, they will not have to pray for children and will not have to give birth.”

Anat Berko
Israeli criminologist Anat Berko
(Source: Potomac Books)

Berko has been covering this ground for years. Her dissertation, published in English in 2007 as The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers, uses case studies and exhaustive interviews to show how suicide bombers are recruited as “smart bombs” – as “a tactic of war” – by ruthless operators who pull their strings from the shadows. This earlier book also examines female bombers and contains a number of surprises. For example, for from being a “weaker sex,” women who have committed themselves to carrying out suicide attacks can be even more ruthless than men. “While men consistently emphasize that they wish to spare women and children, female assassins focus specifically on these groups. It is an emotional rationale: if I can’t have children, the Jews shouldn’t have any either.”

Berko's thesis may sound excessively reductionist at first, as if the Moscow attacks and other atrocities were merely a question of female suicide bombers losing (or finding) their groove. Clearly Muslim women who strap explosives to themselves are endowed with a free will and believe they have at least as much motivation to kill as their male counterparts. After all, the women of both Palestine and the Caucasus have grown up in an atmosphere of violence, hatred, revenge, and hopelessness, where blowing yourself up and taking as many enemies as possible with you might seem like a reasonable step to take. But Berko's book is positively revolutionary in the way it actually listens to female assailants and explores their gender-specific vulnerabilities, rather than just making up stories about them. It shows that the solution lies not only in improved law enforcement and finally addressing the root causes of the violence, but also in advances in civil society, particularly gender equality.

Shortly after Wafa Idris’s 2002 attack, the Egyptian Islamist weekly Al-Sha’ab proclaimed: “It is a woman who teaches you today a lesson in heroism, who teaches you the meaning of Jihad, and the way to die a martyr’s death ...with her thin, meager and weak body... It is a woman who blew herself up, and with her exploded all the myths about woman’s weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement.” But sadly for Palestinian women, not even suicide bombing can elevate their status in this profoundly sexist society. Not only prison, but death itself is regarded as a scandal. “Sheikh Muhammad Abu Tir, a leading member of Hamas in the West Bank, told me explicitly that his organization strongly opposed women’s participation in terrorist activities,” Berko writes. “He said that he would never allow his daughter to carry out a terrorist attack. One reason is a religious one - the lack of modesty. Female terrorists disguise themselves as Israeli women and sometimes wear revealing clothes; in the eyes of Hamas members, their innocence is thereby compromised.”

One male suicide bomber Berko interviewed in prison told her that “he was very angry with his sister who had tried to carry out a suicide bombing after she got a divorce. ‘A woman must not expose her body,’ he argued. ‘When a woman blows herself up, not all the parts of her body become tiny bits of flesh.’”

Berko concludes: “Even after they have died, these women do not have full rights to their own body.”

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so sad to me. I don't understand at all. I don't understand why I woman would ever join the military, either, though. To me it seems contrary to our nature. thoughtful post here. r.
Interesting. We as a modern western-world country, cannot even begin to understand the motives of these women. I believe that it is driven by the culture and the power-brokers (men). It is a shame that they are forced to choose an easy way out.
Stellaa,
Your skepticism is certainly jusified, and I have no doubt she has one or more agendas of her own. But her approach - i.e. actually TALKING to people rather than making stuff up about them - is what fires my imagination.
There are probably as many different reasons why each suicide bomber would blow himself to pieces. However, I've got to believe there is one common denominator..."Allah will reward you if you do this for the faith".

While there are individuals (men and women) who would go on a suicide mission to avenge a killing of a relative, or as we have often heard, for money to the bombers family, I don't believe you could find the numbers that we are seeing these days. The subway bombing in Moscow, the killing of innocent women and children in in the markets of Bagdhad, in Pakistan and assults by women in wide areas of the world all have that common radical muslim denominator.

Everything else is just a variation on the theme, in my view.
This is a great post. I feel I have been approached by extreme leftist groups here who attempt to prey on what they are hoping is a lot of guilt for being gay...or anger over that, or that I'm feeling very angry about being a Jew...they want lots of dedication...no invitation to explode myself...but the same mentality less pronounced to be sure...xox
Is it also possible that a suicide bomber was motivated to take his or her life because family members had been brutally killed by the IDF; their water and power had been cut off, their food and medicines denied; their ambulance fired upon; their orchards had been destroyed; their lands stolen, their homes had been bulldozed, they had been kicked and beaten at check points, they couldn't step out of their homes without the risk of a 'civilised' laser-guided missile reducing them to smithreens.

I guess the great psychologist was just trying to prove a point.
I think I recently had a dream about one of these agents...

and I have to admit that I never before considered the lack of modesty involved in blowing yourself up. amazing. nor the concept of a heaven without menses....they really know how to create a paradise...

great reporting as usual....
I think Salmandar hit the nail on the head. Or check out Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com about how the U.S. military slaughtered 5 people in Afghanistan including 2 pregnant mothers then tried to cover it up by digging the bullets out of the women's bodies and cleaning the wounds with rubbing alcohol. They then claimed the women had been bound and gagged and stabbed by insurgents or the Taliban and their families as an honor killing. Turns out that was all bullshit. The U.S. military murdered these people. Do you think this might motivate people to take drastic actions like suicide bombing or joining a "terrorist" group? Although, you have to wonder who the terrorists are, when we are the ones who routinely commit terrorist acts.
Interesting piece, but I'm going to have to second what Salmandar.
Is it also possible that these women can think for themselves? It seems as thought the book is pushing the reader to believe that it's usually because Palestinians live in a very "sexist environment," and are pressured into this by the men in their lives and of course, terrorist organizations (presumably run by men).

This bothers me because I'm sure there are those patterns, but by perpetuating that throughout all of your case studies it starts to look like "holier-than-thou" feminism, or another way of demeaning the Palestinian people. (i.e.: They're just not "cultured" enough yet to have independent, self-thinking women.) Haven't read the book of course, so this is all just my speculation.
Colleen,
These are all excellent points and I have nothing to add to them. As I told Stellaa, I am intrigued by the research. To me, this book does not say that female terrorism is solely motivated by these factors, but rather that the topic is much more complex than we outsiders imagine.
Well done all I know about adults and children that have been abused it they often have low self esteem so suicide can often show up in there thoughts. check this out if you have time http://www.piamellody.com/audios.html the one you may enjoy is Permission to be Precious
I was shocked at how many people had issues that didn't have anything to do with sex or physical.
Abuse could look like a Religion that tells you your a sinner for having normal procreation thoughts.
Or a parent that says things like your a stupid child.
Or a military family that doesn't mean to but demands correct behavior or a little military discipline if you spill the milk or wet your bed, You may become a great little soldier, but inside the pain!
I haven't been to Gaza but to punish a whole group because some criminals fire rockets, seems like you would almost have to have a tremendous amount of people with abused symptoms.
I would think a lot of people don't think there is a lot to look forward to why not share some of my pain with my abusers.
In working with kids I do know if you beat them when they are little and they get bigger than you they will strike back at least once.

I think the book and I haven't read it yet is on target but maybe as humans we need to go a little farther.
Compassion "The humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it"
JM