Women suicide bombers have conducted attacks in Lebanon, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Chechnya and Israel. Female suicide bombing needs to be understood within the framework of the patriarchal societies in which these women originated, and by taking into account how deeply rooted the values are which separate the female roles from that of the male. In every culture from which female suicide bombers have originated, women are restricted to the private sphere: taking care of the home and the children. While women stay at home, men’s tasks are conducted in the outer world.
Societies are organized around the dichotomy that man is the productive warrior and woman the reproductive womb. However some organizations, such as the LTTE or the PKK, have welcomed women’s involvement into the male dominated public sphere of the terrorist group. Other organizations, like the Chechen rebels or Palestinian terrorist organizations, are more reluctant to give women full membership status -as defined as adequate training, even if the male dominated leadership allows them to go on martyrdom missions. The cases of female suicide bombers in Chechnya and Israel are particularly interesting in as much as such events came as a surprise not only to the victims, but also to the members of the terrorist groups themselves.
The first suicide attacks conducted by women were organized by the Syrian Socialist National Party, the SSNP/PPS in Lebanon in 1985. Out of 12 suicide attacks conducted by the SSNP, women took part in 5 of them.  Of the suicide bombings conducted by the PKK in Turkey, 66 % (14 out of 21 suicide attacks) were carried out by women (this number includes both successful and thwarted attacks).
“Women participated in about 30 to 40% of the group’s overall suicide activities.” The LTTE credited suicide bombings number close to 200, and, to this day, they remain leaders in suicide bombing attacks. Because these cases are so numerous, they are not going to be described in this essay. The Tamil Tigers is the only terrorist group that has targeted and killed important political representatives using suicide bombings. One of the most famous and successful of these attacks is the one committed by the woman who murdered India’s former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Dhanu, a young Tamil woman, exploded herself during a political rally held by Rajiv Gandhi just before the Indian elections on May 20, 1991.
One of the biggest losses inflicted upon the Russian army was conducted by twenty year old Hawaa’ Barayev. However, it is difficult to compare what seems to be a unique and onetime attack to other countries that have been targeted by more than one female suicide bomber.
Wafa Idriss was the first female Palestinian suicide bomber when she blew herself up in 2002,and she was quickly imitated by others. Although some of the Palestinian women did not commit the attacks they had planned because they were arrested by the IDF before they could commit the lethal attacks. Others seem to have refused to carry out the bombings for several different reasons, a phenomenon that still needs to be further analyzed. “Out of the 20 suicide bombings since the beginning of the year 2002, 4 have been committed by women.” In the first six months of 2002, women have participated more and more in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and represented one fifth of the suicide killers. The rapidity and willingness of other women to imitate female suicide bombers, and the present inability to profile them point to a changing situation to which society needs to understand and adapt.
All these attacks could be achieved only because these women were already part of the terrorist infrastructure of the groups to which they belonged. Some groups, such as the LTTE or the PKK have allowed women to participate on every level of the group’s activities – both the physical and psychological training. Suicide bombing became the next logical step. Groups such as the Chechen rebels or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade do not enforce “gender equality”: women do not participate in their terrorist activities, yet they were accepted as would be martyrs to carry out suicide bombings in the names of these organizations.
Founded in 1987, the PKK was directed since its creation by its founder Abdullah Ocalan. The group opted for a suicide terrorism modus operandi in 1995, conducting its first suicide bombing shortly thereafter. Since the founding of the PKK, women took part in all of the group’s activities. They were trained and prepared under the same “Spartan lifestyle” conditions as the men. The PKK’s internal governing rule was one of violence for both genders: the more violent one was, the better off they were. In the 1990’s, the well-trained militia of the Kurdish terrorist group numbered as many as 20,000 members, both men and women. Although the “number of female recruits was substantial, no reliable data is available.” The PKK claimed to be different from the other institutions of Turkish society, but also from its own background: Kurdish society is traditionally described as feudal and tribal. The Kurdish terrorist organization was the only structure that offered women a choice other than the traditional one of wife and mother. The group offered women the opportunity to be upgraded to the status of warrior. Within the organization, women would not be defined as a man’s subordinate anymore, nor as wives or mothers. For the first time they were offered the option of being productive. They were allowed to be active on the battlefield and to conduct suicide bombings. It is, perhaps, more appropriate to say they were allowed to be destructive instead of reproductive. Professor Ergil lists various reasons why women were chosen for the suicide bombing missions.  Amongst them, is the fact that women’s physical performance on the battlefield could not equal men’s. Hence they were more willing to accept a mission that could make up for their lesser physical capacity. Women, social prejudice working to their advantage this time, have not and usually do not undergo the same security body checks as men, especially when disguised as pregnant women. The women in the PKK found an opportunity for freedom from the expected limited role that Kurdish society offered them in an already biased Turkish world. So when they became full members, the organization was not just an organization: “it provided them with a lifestyle”, and replaced the family to which they could not or would never return to.  As members of the terrorist group, they were bound by Ocalan’s orders, and had only one choice: going through with the suicide missions for those he chose.
The number of armed fighters in the LTTE is estimated at 10,000 to 18,000 people (exact numbers are unavailable), of which, according to the Sri Lankan military, half are women. Many of the fighters are recruited when they are children, and some carry out suicide missions as early as the tender age of 10.
Women in the LTTE have been present since its creation by Velupillai Prabhakaran. Other LTTE members call the women’s fighting commando unit the Birds of Freedom. Women have not been stigmatized because of their gender: they go on suicide missions like men; there even seems to be a preference to use females and young boys, because of their innocent appearance. They are trained and prepared like men, they are given arms, and taught how to use them; they must carry with them a cyanide capsule in case they are caught. In an interview with an ex-LTTE cadre currently in hiding, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy reports that part of their training includes hiding a hand-grenade in women’s vaginas. This exercise was also imposed on all the other non-virgin members in the training camps. Tamil society is a traditional one, and some women perceived the LTTE as an entity that would allow them to “do something like the others.” “We are given moral support by our leader and we have reached this position only because of him” declared one female corporal. The report by the BBC points out the importance, similar to the PKK case, of a charismatic and unchallenged male leader, Prabhakaran. Women have carried out numerous suicide attacks for the LTTE and their passage to their target was eased because they were searched less thoroughly than the men, while their dress allows them to hide the bombing device more easily.
The Chechens have claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of Hawa’ Barayev on their official website. This was not the case for another female suicide bomber, Luisa Gazueva, whose suicide attack was unclaimed.
Fatah Tanzim has used women for gathering information, even on the battlefield. In the 1970’s, for instance, Leila Khalid, among others, took part in terrorist actions. But it is only since 2002 that women have attained parity with men on every level of terrorist involvement.
Women committing suicide bombings are an unexpected offset of the anti-Israeli atmosphere that dominates the Palestinian controlled territories, surprising both the IDF and the Palestinians. Evidence of this surprise can, in part, be derived from the fact that Palestinian clerics had to take control of the phenomenon by announcing fatwas in order to justify events they had not planned. The hatred of the Israelis, reinforced by the environmental pressure has influenced women as well, and has given birth to a new kind of woman: the Palestinian suicide bomber. The women who committed suicide bombings volunteered on a freelance basis and voiced their willingness to conduct them. According to claims made by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades after the bombings, these women’s self declared wish to become a “martyr” was fulfilled. However, not all terrorist organizations have been willing to help them. Hamas, for instance, is not interested in allowing women into its ranks. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, however, affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah, did help women to conduct suicide attacks. This terrorist organization, born with the Intifada Al Aqsa in October 2000, is more secular than other more Fundamentalist organizations such as Hamas. However, women’s involvement in the Fatah Tanzim is relative: no woman to this day has been reported as a ranked member of the group. When women get the opportunity to enter a terrorist organization, they “are eager to assert their equality with men as fighters for a cause” by carrying out the final mission. In these groups, women have a history of activism in the organization and receive adequate training. This was not the case in Israel, however, where women volunteered to carry out suicide missions, and were recruited for that purpose shortly after having made their offer . Not all organizations have the same gender equal opportunities, even if all of them have allowed and supported –at least logistically- female suicide bombers. There seems to be a certain degree of coercion evident to induce some of the women to conduct the attacks, but we do not know to what extent, because we lack figures and detailed reports on women’s involvement in some of these organizations.  
The concept of self-sacrifice is “culturally rooted… and can be valued by specific national or religious communities. However, it is not specific to any given culture.”
One of the important aspects of these groups’ actions is the legitimization of the suicide attacks. Differences can be drawn between religious and more nationalist centered organizations. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, or the isolated case in Chechnya involve religious values, as opposed to the LTTE and the PKK, where religious preoccupations do not become the common ground -even if people do share the same religion.  In the case of the Sri Lankan and the Turkish organizations, the main and unique rallying criterion is the establishment of a land of their own, based upon a common nationality and the veneration of their leaders -Vellupilai Prabhakaran for the Tamils, and Abdullah Ocalan for the Kurds- and not on religion. “The Tamil suicide bombers are not the product of a religious cult, but rather followers of a cult of personality”, writes Sprinzak. However, even once the main criterion has been defined, society may intervene. In the case of religiously oriented terrorist groups, society does not always apply or approve of certain fatwas. In addition, the native minorities of the terrorists do not always welcome the suicide bombing policy of these groups. While the spectrum of reaction -- from legitimizing to criticizing -- is quite broad within the international community, with internal dissention in the Arab and Western worlds (as are interpretations by the feminist community or the media).
Even if there is religious unity among the Hindu Tamils, the members of the LTTE do not justify their actions by religious pretexts. The organization functions around Prabhakaran’s orders, which are never challenged, and always implemented. Gunaratna describes Prabhakaran as: “maintaining a tight control, he is the final authority on each and every major issue. For some, he is a demi-god.” Hence if Prabhakaran allowed women to participate, that is the reason they are allowed and encouraged to join rather than any practical use for them. The LTTE has justified women’s involvement as “its way of assisting women’s liberation and counteracting the oppressive traditionalism of the present system.”
Interestingly, the SSNP did not proclaim fatwas at the time. Supposedly, a female member of Hizballah woman conducted the last suicide bombing of the period before Israel left South Lebanon and, at the time, the spiritual leader of the Hizballah, Fadllallah, did not make any statement. It is only in 2002 that he has approved of female suicide bombers.
Chechen and Palestinian terrorist groups justify the murder of soldiers or civilians by a misinterpreted and manipulated faith. In Chechnya, Hawa Barayev was strongly supported by religious fatwas after she became a martyr. Her suicide attack has been defined as a mujaheedah (a fighter) who died as a shaheedah (martyr). However, the fatwa proclaimed in her name under the title “Did Hawa Barayev commit suicide or achieve martyrdom?” was not signed by anyone. On Chechen pro-rebel internet sites, details are given as to what a woman’s role is in the jihad. Their participation is required, but mainly by adhering to traditional roles. They are not required, nor advised, to commit suicide attacks, because “the situation is not that desperate yet” but they are entitled to cling to their ancestral role of care takers, moral supporters, sustainers of food and medical care, and raising of children.
The members of the PKK shared the same Muslim beliefs, but Islam was not an important feature. As Professor Ergil states, it is even “doubtful that religion played any role in suicide bombing.” The incentive and justification for suicide attacks were all based on Ocalan’s orders. The leader had such power and influence on the group’s members, that they did not need the pretext of religion, for Ocalan himself reached the status of God in the organization. It was on this god-like leader’s orders that suicide bombings started. It was also on his command that they stopped.
According to the level of religiosity, terrorist organizations have different policies concerning women and suicide bombing. Saudi Arabia stated a couple of years ago its refusal to legitimize suicide bombings as martyrdom. However, August 1st 2001, “the High Islamic Council in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa encouraging Palestinian women to become suicide bombers.” A respected Muslim scholar in Egypt, Al Qaradawi has, for his part, refused to equate martyr attacks and suicide, like most Muslim scholars from the Arab world. The spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Hamas, Sheikh Yassin first declared on January 31, 2002 to Al-Sharq al-Awsat concerning women suicide bombing that they would only be allowed to conduct them if chaperoned by a man.  In a second statement, dating from February 2, 2002 to the same newspaper, Yassin eventually granted a woman’s right to launch a suicide attack alone only if it does not take her more than 24 hours to be away from home. Even if Yassin has approved of women as shaheedas, it is important to notice that none of the suicide attacks conducted by women have been organized nor claimed by his terrorist organization, Hamas. In the case of the suicide bomber Dareen Abu Aisheh, she is even reported to have gone first to Hamas to volunteer, but was turned down. Even if, in theory, Hamas supports female suicide bombings, de facto, they do not apply nor lack it for a more practical reason according to Yassin, at the present time, they cannot even use all the male volunteers. So they do not need to use women for the time being.
“It is a woman who blew herself up, and with her exploded all the myths about women’s weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement.” In many societies – such as the Kurdish, the Palestinian or the Tamils- there is a glorification of and reverence for suicide attacks. Crenshaw highlights this idea when she states: “the martyr glorifies both himself and the cause. This is a powerful redemptive myth. Salvation is attained through sacrifice… The truth of the cause is established by the individual’s willingness to sacrifice everything in its behalf.”
Women of the LTTE did not have many options as women. According to different reports, a great number of them had been raped, and hence their status as women was “nullified”, for they had been stained by the enemy.  One option was left though: because they could not be considered women, they could undertake a man’s task that would redeem their status (of victims of rape) by dying for a good cause. Cutter even states “acting as human bombs is an understood and accepted offering for a woman who will never be a mother. Family members often encourage rape victims to join the LTTE.”
Organizations only implement suicide terrorism systematically if their community approves of its use. This is the case with the patriarchal and traditionalist Palestinian society of the West Bank, which is more secular than the Gaza Strip where Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are stronger. The terrorist groups who claim most of the suicide attacks approve of women suicide bombers. It seems that Palestinian women in general have more rights and are allowed to chose political action, such as suicide bombing. Compared to other Muslim societies, the Palestinian woman has more opportunities and more freedom than her sisters in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Fundamentalist countries. “… The Palestinian women can vote, hold office, drive cars and own property. They are vocal in what is still primarily a patriarchal society.” Women have equal access to universities; they are not confined to their homes, and they do not have to wear the veil (tchador.) Even if they live in patriarchal societies, they still have some space to be part of the political process, and to support suicide bombing. The difference is that up until recently they were supporting it passively, but now they want to actively participate.
The women that conducted the suicide attacks are revered as heroes, their pictures hung on walls. Hundreds of Palestinians showed up at their funerals to pay their respects.  Even if the Palestinian population has celebrated their deaths at their staged funerals/memorial demonstrations, in reality, the fact that these attacks were conducted by women was a shock to Palestinian society, where men are in charge of terrorist groups, and never sought women’s participation. Palestinian women were not one of their intended political targets. Fassihi describes a gathering of Palestinian men and women, at a Woman’s Center, to “reflect on what once was unthinkable.” Women taking such actions can be seen as the reflection of women’s involvement in Palestinian society. Just as they are involved in relatively more aspects of life in Palestinian society, they also became more involved in the ultimate terrorist act, suicide bombings. In the Muslim world, women suicide bombers have entered immortality by carrying out attacks. When they were alive, the women who committed these actions were just women. However, from the moment they killed Israelis, they died as martyrs, achieving redemption. The only way to become respected citizens was to die. However, they might not have expected to be revered as martyrs, nor was that necessarily their sole intention when they decided to carry out the attack. One of the motives for committing the attack was to transcend human mortality, but there was also another more practical incentive of an economic nature. The families of suicide martyrs benefit from a financial compensation. When male suicide bombers commit their attacks, they have an economic incentive: a reward of 25,000 US Dollars, funded by Iraq will be handed to their families to honor them, and compensating for the death of a “hero.” The Jerusalem Post has pointed out that a parallel for women might exist who wish to improve their family’s economic situation in much the same way.
One of the aims of suicide bombing is to obtain media coverage. The use of women provides a new media dimension, which the terrorist group intends for the media to interpret as an indication of a worsening situation. Bassiouni writes, “These acts ... are conducted in the most dramatic manner so as to draw media attention to the event and maximize its media-created impact. The perpetrator anticipates and relies on media coverage in the planning and execution of his terror-inspiring acts while the media, in covering such acts… further his objective of producing a social impact that would not otherwise occur.” The Sri Lankan terrorist organization has very good media coverage and has learned well how to manipulate that coverage in their favor. Gunaratna found that “recent evidence confirms that the LTTE has manipulated a number of human rights groups in the West into supporting them, but they have also gained excellent access to media organization.” A new facet in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has emerged because of female suicide bombers. This recent phenomenon has allowed the media to give a new dimension –a gender one- to an enduring conflict. Female participation in the conflict is being manipulated by terrorist organizations, which intend to use the image of a female suicide bomber to distort worldwide public opinion. The media becomes a victim of this strategy by describing female bombing actions as the only way for these women to express their frustration; a testimony of utter despair. The fact that these actions are cold-blooded murders planned by men who often manipulate their female human bombs never seems to be mentioned, as if that side of the story is irrelevant. “The campaign (of suicide bombing) has been designed to obscure the wickedness of ethnic mass murder by seeking to place the killer on the same moral plain as his targets –both are seen to be victims.” And to that extent, they have been successful in appearing as victims, particularly reinforced by women’s recent participation. The media also have the responsibility to point out the fact concurrently, that “suicide bombing is not just a tactic… it overwhelms the political goals it is meant to serve; it creates its own logic. Martyrdom became not just a means, but an end.” In the beginning, the Arab world was stunned, but quickly started to praise the boldness of the women who conducted the attacks. At the present time, Arab religious leaders have given their permission, even if sometimes restricting them. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein declared his intent to erect a memorial monument for Wafa Idriss. And, in the aftermath of the first female suicide bombing, Fatah officials stated their intent to create a special female suicide bombers’ unit in the name of Wafa Idriss. Arab women are very proud of these killers’ actions, which have been interpreted as the emancipation of their sisters, who “will not settle for being mothers of martyrs” anymore. The gate of what is now interpreted as women’s freedom, combat, has been opened, and many women rejoice in this new path. Women’s participation in suicide attacks has fulfilled one of the intended aims: it has allowed the Palestinian terrorist groups to generalize the conflict. Reports have indicated that women in other Arab countries support Palestinian women opting to become suicide bombers. For instance, they have “taken to the streets” in support, something which had never happened before. The feminist community has often interpreted these actions as an improvement in women’s status in these patriarchal societies. They have misinterpreted murders as acts of emancipation. As Donnely stated, “it is not a step forward in feminism but a step backward for humanity.” Many scholars have pointed out differences between a male and female terrorist. Laqueur points out that “the female members proved to be tougher, more loyal and fanatical.” If there is indeed such a difference, and in particular concerning suicide bombing, C. Goldsmith found the best explanation for it: “the terrorist women have translated the battle of the sexes into a battle against society in general.” Women have channeled the frustration imposed by their roles in society into a criminal behavior. Within the terrorist infrastructure, they think they can exploit their dynamic not as women, but as human beings. This is where their mistake lies: they will always be defined by their gender, and will be used because of what society perceives as a more gentle and innocent appearance rather than an intrinsic quality.
For the generations of post-suicide bombers, one problem caused by these women is that children have a new kind of heroes to look up to: suicide bombers. They take them as role models, and want to grow up to die. It is alarming especially in places like Sri Lanka where children represent half of the population. The problem is that, “One generation has already seen and become influenced by nothing but war, anti-government and pro-LTTE propaganda… A boy or a girl … would have heard only of violence against the Tamils… By the time they grow up into young adults, members of their immediate family or extended family will have experienced violence… One generation has been completely wasted by war.”
What applies to the Tamils can also be said to apply to the Palestinians and the Chechens. There will be problems in places where children represent a majority of the population, and are not educated to look for long-term solutions instead of dreaming of becoming suicide bombers. The culture of martyrdom is not only supported within these societies, but is also supported by the media. Because of the idealized view of suicide attacks, not only are the killers respected and glorified in their societies, but they receive sympathy from a large part of the international community. From the moment these women become symbols, it becomes impossible for a society to turn down the symbols of what they consider to be a “fight for freedom.” Another problem, pointed out by Bassiouni, is that the success of suicide bombing and the “media-attention given to terror-violence encourages further incidents of the kind… may encourage that group –or others- to repeat these attacks in order to keep the public’s attention on its goals or ideology.” Women -the new actors on the suicide bombing stage- also willing to be part of the process, have been offered the task, while their participation was used to “keep the public’s attention” in enduring conflicts. Women suicide bombers took the opportunity to affirm themselves as human beings after having failed to or been denied the ability to affirm themselves as women. In Sri Lanka for instance, they did so because it was the only role they could take after having failed as women within their own society. For others, it was a way of emancipation that only terrorism was ready to offer them, as in the case of the PKK. However, for all of the cases, there have been various degrees of coercion and manipulation, yet with one qualifying paradox: the fact that these women could be part of such a man’s sphere, in spite of their patriarchal societies. Because of the actions of female suicide bombers, their sisters will pay a high price for it. It opens a new door for sexual harassment, at least from the part of the military (specifically in the case of Sri Lanka), and public humiliation (in societies where honor and modesty are the only recommendations for a woman’s behavior). One way, though, to prevent this from happening is to involve more women in the male dominated police and military. If more women were included in the field of security, they would be able to conduct body searches without the sexual/embarrassing complications that arise when done by men. Encouragingly, as Max Singer declared, “There is no room for negotiation about practical life-saving measures.” Such measures are already planned for implementation. In Sri Lanka, the police are reported to have declared their intention to create a special operations team comprising both male and female military personnel. Have these women really opened the gate for female emancipation in their society of origin? It does not seem to be the case for the Chechens, the Tamils, or the Kurds, nor the Palestinians. The context of inclusion must be noted, female suicide bombings have occurred within terrorist infrastructures and with certain limits. Women’s participation has been included, to some extents, in times of war; it is doubtful that it would have taken place in times of peace.
When dealing with female suicide bombings, specifying the terrorist organization and background society becomes important. The reasons for women’s participation in deadly attacks vary greatly from one country to another, according to the factor of the background societies. It is hard to generalize among all cases, for this phenomenon is too recent and the attacks too few. Either not enough research has been conducted yet on the phenomenon or the sample size is too small to make effective generalizations. However, some similarities exist between specific country cases. In Sri Lanka or in Turkey, suicide bombing was commonly imposed upon the female members of the terrorist organizations. Both the Tamils and the Kurds share common features such as very traditional societies where women’s roles are determined and static. The LTTE and the PKK offered women the opportunity that no other structure could ever offer them, with a background of feminism supporting their participation. The two groups were commanded by charismatic, unchallenged, and non-challengeable leaders, that trained women, just like men, to kill and die for the cause. Women were also eager to prove their devotion to the group, or were dictated to do so, as has been pointed out earlier concerning Sri Lanka. According to several of the preliminary studies that have been done on Palestinian female bombers, they represent a new model of suicide attackers. So far they are the only ones who volunteered for such missions. They are not trained nor were they prepared psychologically for the suicide attack. They did not need it for two reasons: first, they are not welcome in the paramilitary terrorist factions, dominated by men. Even if the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have assisted women with bombings, they remain the only organization that has done so, and, even there, women are not welcome in the ranks of the fighters. The second reason is they do not need to be psychologically prepared is because the anti-Israeli propaganda has already influenced them, acting as a giant frantic “brainwash” session. Hatred and fanaticism already prevail in the Palestinian controlled areas, feeding off itself and perpetuating itself in an endless loop. Palestinian women differ from the ones from other countries because they had options, they could have had a future, yet they deliberately refused it, and chose to die for the sake of martyrdom. The SSNP/PPS does not exist anymore, nor does the PKK. Concerning future women suicide bombers in Chechnya, it is an unwelcome phenomenon, with critics far outweighing supporters. The LTTE will go on recruiting women, as they represent a useful wo/manpower, because they are less suspicious to opposing security forces and therefore have a better chance of success with these kinds of attacks. Female suicide bombers appear to be one of the most extreme forms of exploitation of women, who become objectified, even if they think that their choice is subjective. It is by accepting their mission or volunteering for suicide bombings that they acquire the status of an object. When they agree to go on the missions, they become weapons in the hands of the men of the terrorist organizations.
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