The XX Factor

Who is a Female Suicide Bomber?

The most alarming detail about Monday’s bombings in Moscow is that they may have been committed by female terrorists. The Black Widows, female avengers from the war with Chechnya, have been around for more than a decade. They made up over half the bombers in the 2002 attack on the Moscow theater. Still, their existence has the power to shock. The maternal instinct and resistance to violence are assumed to be so hardwired into women, that despite their growth in the ranks of the suicide bomber, we still can’t get used to the idea.

Of course, the way the press unlocks this brain freeze is by grafting extreme domestic tragedies onto the bombers to explain their aberrant behavior. News stories always describe the Black Widows in the terms of a Greek tragedy, as women so burned up and denatured by personal loss that they set themselves to Medusa-level violence as a form of revenge. In today’s New York Times, an attorney describes a Chechen female bomber as “emotionally distressed after her husband was murdered in what appeared to be a business dispute.” These girls, said Natalya V. Yevlapova “are just pushed into a corner.”

The first female suicide bomber was a 17-year-old Palestinian girl who drove a truck into an Israeli convoy in Lebanon in 1985. News reports at first described her as pregnant, and then depressed, but it turns out that neither of those were true. Since then explanations of the motives of female suicide bombers have stuck to a few female friendly tropes: Young and psychologically disturbed, revenge seeking, or naïve and under the sway of charismatic male influence ( Said Buryatsky in the case of the latest Chechen women). But researchers who study female suicide bombers have found that none of those are true, or any more true than they are for men.

“There is precious little evidence of uniquely feminine motivations driving women’s attacks,” wrote Lindsey O’Rourke, a researcher who wrote a dissertation on female suicide bombers for the University of Chicago. Like men, the women have a range of motivations. They may have, say, lost a family member in an attack, but so have most male suicide bombers. In the broad view, the great majority-95 percent-carry out attacks as part of a military operation against an occupying force. What motivates them is loyalty to a cause, and some grievance, in about the same proportion as it motivates men.

Instead the rise of the female suicide bomber has been motivated by something else entirely: They are remarkably effective. In her dissertation O’Rourke discovered that their attacks were almost twice as lethal as the attacks of men. A female suicide bomber is more likely to be successful, and kill 9 victims, as opposed to 5.5 for a man. They have the advantage of surprise, and societal norms often prevent security officers from searching them thoroughly. Also, as British agencies discovered, women in Muslim societies can hide 12 pounds of explosives under a chadora. Women, it turns out, make excellent terrorists, and recruiters have not failed to notice that.

Does this count as some kind of twisted feminist progress? In the case of some terrorist groups, maybe. Female suicide bombers started out in terrorist groups that were secular but still very male dominated. These secular groups used an aggressive equality idiom to recruit women. A secular Palestinian group described a suicide mission as a way for a woman to escape “the box of a weeping, wailing creature always crying for help.” When the Tamil Tigers set out to assassinate the Indian prime minister they gave the honor to their sister group, the Birds of Paradise.

But in most cases, equality does not seem the driving force. Hamas leaders are still very reluctant to use female bombers, and often require them to have chaperones, or get permission from their husbands or fathers. As a reward they are offered not male virgins but a form of domestic bliss-extreme beauty and a husband who is pure.

O’Rourke proposes an interesting theory that many female suicide bombers are in fact operating out of very traditional instincts. They want to restore gender norms that they have somehow violated. They are, she writes, “women who realize they have deviated, intentionally or unintentionally, from the gender behavior norms of their society and may feel pressure to reaffirm a connection to it.” They have lost their rightful place by being raped, or divorced, or infertile, or failing to get married, and bombing restores them to a place of honor in their community. Female suicide bombers, for example, tend to be a few years older than their male counterparts, and past marrying age. One failed Palestinian bomber O’Rourke profiles, for example, is 35 and tomboy-ish, maybe even transgendered. When asked what motivated her, she said, “Who would want to marry someone like me?”