Saturday, 17 April 2010

The Girl Who Blew Herself Up

By Gabriel Fraga de Cal

After the last attacks perpetrated in the Moscow subway the debate about female suicide bombers has been reopened. These women and girl bombers are always a hot media topic; what on earth moves a teenager to kill herself and everyone close to her body-bomb? The truth is that the more we gossip about the motives behind female violent behaviour the more women will join terrorist groups.

The female suicide bomber phenomenon is a fairly new one. The first woman to commit a suicide attack was 17 years old Syrian Sana’a Mehaydali. In 1985 Mehaydali blew herself up killing five Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. Since then she has been coined as “the bride of the south” – she was Christian.

In 1991 Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by one the female members of the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Thenmozhi Rajaratnam approached the Prime Minister while she was campaigning on the streets of Sriperumbudur. When she bent down to greet the Indian Prime Minister Rajaratnam touched her feet an activated a bomb killing Gandhi and many others.

These were the first and most striking attacks perpetrated by women. Unfortunately, and since then, the number of female bombers has increased considerably. In Palestine, Iraq, and Russia – among others – they have become a common figure in the current political-violent scenario. In the case of Russia females have conducted most of the suicide attacks in the last decade. The last one took place two weeks ago and, as stated by Caucasian terrorist leader Doku Umarov, it will not be the last.

Aggression is inherent to men, not to women

Female violence causes a much greater social impact than male aggression. The reason is straightforward: male violence is socially accepted. For instance, if we think of sports it can be easily noticed that violence is, to a large extent, inherent to men. Male icons such as Rambo, Terminator, Mike Tyson, Jack the Ripper and so on and so forth exemplify the fact that violence and men are not only compatible but also sometimes synonyms.

From a social point of view women are not supposed to be violent. Remarkably femininity is somehow socially constructed in opposition to violence. In war cinema and literature women are generally fated to be rescued by men. As a matter of fact, historically and culturally, females are preys rather than predators.

Due to this chauvinist cultural background female violence is incomprehensible for our societies. Culpability keeps falling over men, even when women are the perpetrators of attacks such as the last ones in Moscow. Either by her husband, boyfriend or father she is always pushed to commit violence. Because women are, by nature, hostile to violence

The female suicide bomber vs. the male suicide bomber

Is there any difference between a male and a woman terrorist? Although the answer must be ‘no’ there is a big difference regarding the way we look at each of them. As far as media coverage is concern we can claim that media accounts ‘prefer’ female than male suicide bombers. When the person responsible for the attack is a woman reports tend to focus on her personal background and physical appearance. Some trauma of the past must explain her unnatural behaviour, think journalists.

As US Professor of communication Terri Toles Patkin has claimed media ‘‘appears to actively search for alternative explanations behind women’s participation in terror in a way that does not seem paralleled in the coverage of male suicide bombers, whose official ideological statements appear to be taken at face value’’.

Female suicide bombers are presented as incapable of committing such acts on their own or having any political motivation. When the bomber is a man little attention is paid to the bomber as an individual. Fanaticism is often seen as the reason for having blown himself up. Somehow females are separated from the political and religious realm and usually depicted as emotionally distressed.

Angels of death

Israeli journalist Iva Issacharoff has admitted that in Israel the press is much more considerate when talking about female than male terrorists. The reason cannot be other but the supposition that women do not consciously and willingly chose to commit suicide bombing. Women are seen as perpetrators and victims and the same time.

This double-faced treatment can be easily noticed by looking at the names given to female terrorists. The Army of Roses (Palestine), the Black Widows (Chechnya) or the Freedom Birds (Sri Lanka) are not the names of feminist music bands, but similes to identify female radical groups. Roses are interestingly beautiful flowers linked in literature to blood and death. Women are then like roses, beautiful and deadly at the same time, pure and impure, victim and killer.

Women are historically and culturally seen as particularly skilled to raise children and take care of the family. Although this is an outdated assumption, these old-fashioned stereotypes become especially clear when it comes to gender and violence. The 3rd of April, a couple of days after the attack in Moscow, an article in the New York Times commenced as follows:

"Baby-faced, she looks barely a teenager. But the pistol she is holding in the photograph suggests the violent destiny that she would choose: blowing herself up in a subway station in Moscow during the morning rush on Monday”

Dzhanet Abdullayeva – one of the perpetrators of last attacks in Moscow – was indeed a 17 years old baby-faced suicide bomber. However it should not be forgotten that suicide bombers have no gender, no baby faces, no age. Black, white, Christian, Muslim, man or woman, a suicide bomber is a suicide bomber.

Beyond the faces

Women do not fit within the terrorist stereotype but, in practice, they are more suitable than men for suicide bombing. Firstly, and because they do not fit the stereotype of the suicide bomber, it is easier for them to evade security controls and reach targets. Secondly, they can hide the bomb underneath their dress and pretend they are pregnant. And thirdly, searching female’s bodies can be seen as an offense or socially unaccepted in certain countries.

Our societies must understand that violence is not only men’s business. Women can be as deadly as men – or even more. Besides being victims of manipulation, female suicide bombers might have definitely suffered from unthinkably awful circumstances. However it is difficult to probe that that is not the case for males too.

Regardless the gender of the perpetrator some say that suicide bombing is a coward practice – it targets civilians in crowed public places and it seeks to kill as many as possible. However it might be also said that for some small activist groups it is the only chance they can afford to harm a much superior enemy. Did not David use a stone to kill Goliath?

Violence is always an undesired alternative and suicide bombing is incontestably an intolerable practice. However, as Professor of Political Science Robert A. Pape wrote in the New York Times, “suicide terrorist campaigns are almost always a last resort against foreign military occupation”.

The reason why a girl decides to blow herself up remains unclear, each case may be different and generalizations are undesirable and inaccurate. Hatred and revenge may be common reasons for both man and woman. One way or another it seems unquestionable that after having shaken a beehive you will possibly get stung by the bees.

(Images: Creative Commons)

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