By Dr. Anat Berko[ii] and Prof. Edna Erez[iii]
The place of women in terrorism and the extensive media coverage received by attacks involving women[iv] have been on the agenda of discussions of global terrorism. Throughout history, women have participated in national struggles for independence, in wars and more recently, in terrorist attacks.
Attention was recently drawn to the rights and status of Arab women in Palestinian society by the strengthening of nationalism and the call to women to take part in the struggle for liberation from the occupation. Palestinian women were invited to participate actively in the public arena in a variety of roles which were defined as nationalist, “as mothers, educators, workers and even fighters…” (Kandiyoti, 1996), and to join “the army of roses which will destroy the Israeli tanks,” in the words of Yasser Arafat (Victor, 2003). At the same time, the nationalist movements, including the Palestinian national movement, have a tendency to determine and preserve the boundaries for the behavior and social activities of women in accordance with cultural and religious codes which bind women firmly to traditional roles. Such movements exert pressure on women to express gender interests within boundaries fixed by the conservative national and religious discourse.
The aim of this study was to examine claims of “the Palestinian feminist revolution” as expressed by the inclusion of women in terrorism. It is our contention, as this study shows, that the said inclusion is another type of oppression and a cynical exploitation of women who become victims and tools of male Palestinian society. The results of our research raise many questions related to the validity of the claim that the involvement of women in terrorism is an index of their liberation, and our findings reinforce the claim that including women in terrorism is another aspect of the systematic gender oppression suffered by Palestinian women.
The family is considered the central unit of economic, social and religious life, and is the individual’s source of support in every area. Unity and mutual support are very important in Arab culture. Relatives receive from the family the help and services a modern country provides and is expected to provide for its citizens, such as mutual aid in raising children, protection, financial aid, employment, etc. Relatives are expected to be committed to protecting the family, its unity and good name. That demands that the good of the family be put before the good of the individual, his needs, aspirations, welfare and future (Barakat, 1985).
Collective orientation stresses individual sacrifice for the general good. For a woman, it means putting the good of the family before her own, expressing unreserved loyalty and making sacrifices for the family of her father, for her husband (and his family as well) and her children. The obligation to preserve family honor is enormous in Arab society, especially in matters related to the woman’s sexual behavior. If a woman’s behavior is immodest she disgraces all her blood relations. Restrictions placed on women also include isolation from the public eye and the narrowing of her life and activity to home and family.
The socio-cultural background helps explain how women are recruited for terrorist activities, their action and the ensuing results. Joining the cycle of terrorism demands that women leave their homes and the supervision of their fathers (or elder brothers) and associate with men. Leaving the house for a “military action” (which is how terrorist activities were described by those taking part in the study) involves a web of lies and excuses enabling the woman to avoid arousing suspicion. Thus, from the time a woman is recruited through her training and ending with the terrorist attack itself, she hides behind lies and excuses which cut off any return home as far as her parents are concerned, particularly her father, even to ask for help. Such a situation makes her especially vulnerable and exposes her to exploitation by terrorist operatives.
This study will show that a Palestinian woman participating in terrorist activity is not a liberated woman. She is one upon whom social, religious and cultural systems of gender oppression are active and whose inferior position in the social hierarchy is preserved in a no-win situation.
For the purposes of this study 13 security prisoners aged 16-26 were interviewed at least twice each over a period of two years. All but one were single. Ten of them were residents of the Palestinian Authority-administered territories and three were Israeli Arabs. All participated willingly. The interviews were conducted in Arabic, Hebrew or English or a combination of the three, depending on which language the interviewees felt comfortable with and the degree of their language ability. They were asked about their lives, childhood, dreams and hopes for the future. As we spoke they opened their hearts and the interviews turned into simple discussions between women, especially after it became clear that the questions were neither threatening nor related to matters of security. In addition, various officials were interviewed, both male and female, chiefly individuals belonging to the Palestinian religious, welfare and educational systems.
The data were processed by qualitative analysis (Glaser, 1992). According to his system, the texts of all the interviews were read and common and unique topics were identified. Identifying common themes enables the researcher to categorize concepts and then rank them according to the frequency of their appearance. That enables the researcher to produce interim findings, in which case every instance which contradicts the finding leads to a newer and more applicable wording of the finding. When new concept categories can no longer be found and the findings do not demand changes, the assumption is that the data have been fully exhausted.
Usually the women are not career terrorists with long histories of terrorist activities and organization membership, and they are not mobile within the organization. As opposed to men, for a woman involved in Palestinian terrorism, membership in an organization is not significant. She usually does not have a history of broad organizational activity, but rather her affiliation begins close to the attack itself, either shortly before or shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, the terrorist organizations are interested in recruiting women to be able to increase the number of casualties they can claim. The concept prevalent in Palestinian society is that the more casualties a terrorist organization causes to Israel, the more glorious its reputation and stronger its influence.
There are women who were drawn into terrorism through Internet chat groups with men from the Arab world. Their communications began innocently as male-female exchanges, and the men used romantic manipulation to recruit the women to terrorist activities. Thus, for example, after online communications lasting from 12 to 20 hours a day with terrorist-operatives, women were recruited for suicide bombing attacks or to help wanted terrorists. Among the women interviewed, only one actively took the initiative (although supported by men), and planned and carried out a murder.
According to the data, most of the women involved in terrorism are employed in subordinate functions of camouflage and support. The findings also show that in terrorist attacks carried out by women or with the help of women, there is almost always another woman in the picture who provides a perfect moral-social cover of visible respectability for the action. The actual planner and string-puller is usually a man who sometimes finds a subcontractor to enlist, recruit and support an attack when women are involved in its operational aspects. For example, a female university student was asked to provide a hiding place in the dorms for a woman who was supposed to carry out a suicide bombing attack; another woman was asked to sit in the car that took a potential female terrorist to training sessions. Sometimes women escort suicide bombers to the site of the attack, and sometimes they bring children with them, so that the suicide bomber will not be seen alone with a strange man in a car, or to allay suspicions.
Paradise, they believe, will enable them to divest themselves of the restrictions and limitations placed on women in this world, including sexual relations. That belief is also an incentive for engaging in terrorist activities, because they perceive paradise as something real. One of the prisoners, who was responsible for the murder of a young Jewish boy, said in that context that in paradise she would meet mythological male figures from the Islamic past. Some of the prisoners hinted shyly that “in paradise even women have sexual relations,” and could marry heroes from the past, would never be tired, would eat good food and would even be one of the 72 beautiful black-eyed virgins who were the companions of the shaheeds (martyrs for the sake of Allah). They also believed that an ugly woman who reached paradise after having carried out a terrorist attack, would become beautiful. They added that they would see Allah, Muhammad and his companions and the shaheeds. In addition, especially if they were shaheeds, in reward for their actions they would save 70 of their family members from the tortures of the grave before their souls rose to heaven.
It is the nature of terrorist activity to demand association with men, since the terrorist organization operatives, managers, modes of thinking and operative proceedings are all male or male-oriented. Women who become involved in terrorist activity, whether they “volunteer” or are recruited, pass the point of no return because their actions have violated the cultural and moral codes of the norms of family (i.e., paternal) supervision and daughterly behavior. For example, one girl looked for excitement and left the house for training with the shabab (boys) although she had no intention of carrying out a terrorist attack, or others wore tight clothing and belly shirts on their way to an attack; all stained the family honor. Such a situation paints them into a corner and makes it necessary for them to invest a tremendous amount of energy in keeping the secret from everyone, including their families (Berko and Erez, 2005).
In addition, a woman who was forced by a terrorist organization to carry out a terrorist attack, even though she only meant to participate in training to satisfy her social needs, could not ask her family for help lest her father discover what she had done. Therefore, leaving to carry out the attack was the only way for her to get out of a dead-end situation. Her parents were unaware that their daughter had been recruited to provide support for a terrorist attack or to carry one out because, as previously mentioned, the very fact of her recruitment was an affront to paternal status, in that the father’s daughter was taken from him without his knowledge or permission, and he was no longer able to control her.
The data indicate that the price paid by women involved in terrorism is far greater than the profit they expect to gain. In the first place, despite the rhetoric honoring women who take part in terrorism and the pronouncements of the importance of enlisting women in the armed struggle, in reality it is all smoke. At the personal, family level, a woman who has turned to terrorism is unacceptable since she failed to fulfill a woman’s traditional roles, i.e., keeping house, raising children and taking care of her husband’s needs. The question of what led the woman to choose the path of terrorism remains forever open, as one of those interviewed, an Islamic cleric, said, “Such a woman was not properly brought up…Even if people say she is heroic, I wouldn’t let my son or brother marry such a woman.”
In the second place, Palestinian women involved in terrorism reach a stage at which the loss is built into the act itself. According to the norms of Palestinian Arab society, if a girl leaves the family home without permission, regardless of her age, there is no way back. Even sleeping one night away from home without her parents’ knowledge is a stain on her reputation, and the honor of all the members of the family is a function of the daughter’s honor. A female security prisoner likened that honor to a terracotta vase, which, “if broken will never be the same, even if all the pieces are glued back together” (Berko, 2004). Women who are caught and sent to jail also suffer the fear of missed motherhood, since even behind bars their biological clocks continue ticking.
In the third place, women who turn to terrorism become especially vulnerable because of the trap they find themselves in from the moment they contact terrorist-operatives, making it easy for the terrorist organizations to exploit them. In certain instances, potential female suicide bombers reported having been sexually exploited before being dispatched, “…because in any case they’re going to blow themselves up, so what difference does it make?...” or having had all their money taken by the dispatchers “…because in paradise there is no need for money…”
In addition, the easy access young people have to the Internet allows women to be recruited for terrorist activity through chat groups with Arab men all over the world. Such technology is beyond the ken of the older-generation father, and it enables women to enter a private world over which the father can place no limitations and in which he cannot supervise his daughter’s relations with men, as is customary in Arab society.
The interviews showed that despite the ferocity of their verbal objections to the occupation and their militant activities, the dreams of female terrorists could be summed up as the desire to marry, start a home and have children. Most of them dreamed of having a traditional role-sharing relationship with a husband. One even said, “I want a man with muscles who will be strong and rule me, and not let me rule him…”
The interviews also showed that security prisoners are trapped within a mindset that neutralizes and rationalizes their actions (Sykes and Matza, 1957). The women feel a need to prove themselves, to achieve some kind of recognition, and use feminism and nationalism to justify the actions ex post facto. The process is also nourished by the group energy generated by the other security prisoners.
The study revealed that the gender oppression from which Palestinian women suffer, which includes forced marriage, multiple wives, restrictions on movement and contacts with members of the opposite sex, and their being considered child-bearing machines, has turned women into rebels, and that rebellion is exploited by the terrorist-operatives who recruit them. The fondest wish of such women is to make themselves more valuable and feel that they belong and contribute to the national effort, and it cannot, in reality, be achieved. The result is that such women, according to the standards of the society in which they live, cannot be both terrorists and “good women.”
As opposed to the claim that women who are involved in terrorism are progressive and liberated, the data of this study showed that they are extremely conservative, firmly fixed in place by the norms of a patriarchal society and that their roles as terrorists are secondary and marginal. It would seem that in terrorism as in the Palestinian society which generated it, there is a strict division of roles between the sexes, and that women continue to obey the terrorist men who pull the strings. When the Palestinian woman turns to terrorism the game is lost before it has begun, because the sensation of freedom (especially in contacts with members of the opposite sex) they have by participating in terrorism is temporary, and the relations between the sexes in Palestinian society, of the ruler and ruled, are transposed into the world of terrorism, according to the Arab model of society from which they came.
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Sharabi, Hishan (1975) Mukadimat li-dirasat al-mujtam’a al-Arabi (Introduction to Studies of Arab society), Beirut, Dar Altali’a Liltiba’a wa al-Nashr. Notes: [i] This article first appeared in Hebrew in Tsohar l’vatei hasoar (A Window on Prisons), Collected Articles No. 10, November 2006, pp. 5-11. An expanded version of the study's findings will appear in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2007. [ii] Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel. Dr. Berko is the author of The Path to Paradise – The inner world of suicide bombers and their dispatchers, soon to be published by Praeger. [iii] Kent State University, Ohio. [iv] In Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Chechnya, Turkey and Sri Lanka.