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Feminism and Female Suicide Bombers

dchin's picture

Feminism for Female Suicide Bombers and The Imagined Community

            Recent American engagements in the Middle East have renewed the spotlight on the role of women in radical Islam, in particular—the seemingly contradictory nature of female suicide bombers. Alissa Ruben’s article, “Despair Drives Suicide Attacks by Iraqi Women,” exemplifies the tendency to portray female suicide bombers as victims, coerced by fathers, husbands, relatives, or other community members. On the other hand, M. Bloom argues that many of these women were just as willing and politically motivated as their male counterparts. As she writes in “Bombshells: Women and Terror,” “violence is an altruistic act, and one of the key ways in which [women] can contribute to the good of the nation” (Bloom, 8).

            However, Bloom does not shy away from the fact that female suicide bombing is a complex and contextual phenomenon defined by the co-existence of agency and victimization. Bloom lists revenge, redemption, relationship, and respect as the four primary reasons that women become involved in terrorism (Bloom, 11). Generally, redemption and relationship comprise situations where coercion is evident. Redemption involves martyrdom to repent for past wrongdoings—real, imagined, or entirely contrived. In this case, terrorist groups use rape in order to create a situation where women have a “choice” between glorious martyrdom and public ostracism. Women often feel that the only way to address the shame of that violation is to seek redemption by becoming a suicide bomber. Relationships also play a key role in the recruitment process—“The best predictor that a woman will engage in terrorist violence is if she is related to a known insurgent or Jihadi. The relative provides both the entrée and introduction to the organization that use this family connection to vet new recruits and guard against potential government infiltration” (Bloom, 12). Women who are financially (and often legally) dependent on their male relations participate in terrorists groups because they have no other support networks available to them. Conversely, after the death of their fathers or husbands, terrorists groups can also provide vital resources and support.  In such instances, coercion is not explicit but structural- a result of women’s legal and social status in many Muslim societies.

            If redemption/relationship is defined by the lack of options, revenge/respect is characterized by the ability to make a choice. While it is an oversimplification, we can consider that on one hand, women are forced to become suicide bombers and on other hand, women choose suicide bombing as a means to convey a message. In this aspect, female suicide bombers do not differ from their male counterparts. Women, like men, become suicide bombers to avenge as well as bring attention to (real and perceived) wrongs committed by political powers. Political grievances are often accompanied by personal ones. For example, a suicide bombing can be committed to protest the presence of foreign military forces and the imprisonment and/or death of family members. Nevertheless, this phenomenon has inherently gendered implications.  The desire for respect demonstrates how suicide bombing can be a vehicle of female agency and empowerment. In a religious culture that does not afford many rights or societal mobility to women, martyrdom through suicide bombing is a way to gain a level of recognition that otherwise might not be possible. By choosing death, women gain access to a domain previously denied or severely restricted to them. Performing the ultimate sacrifice for her community is both a declaration and confirmation of her right to participate in the public sphere.

            Bloom’s categorization of the motivations behind female suicide bombings provide a useful background for discussing the larger question posed by this paper. Can Muslim female suicide bombers be considered feminists? Certainly, for women who were coerced into committing suicide bombings, it constituted an elaborate form of murder rather than martyrdom, much less feminism. After all, martyrdom implies self-sacrifice and so, choice and agency. What then are the feminist implications of the women who willingly chose this path? After all, suicide bombing is an extreme form of political activism. Giving support to political/social/cultural causes, joining terrorist networks, and finally, committing acts of violence are all expressions of agency. Considering that women’s access to the public sphere is still more often than not strictly mediated by men, female suicide bombings do indicate a certain discontent with the status quo.

            Benedict Anderson describes the nation-state as an “imagined community.” In other words, the nation-state does not have a fixed character but a malleable one- subject to continuous change for as long as it exists. Terrorist organizations and networks usually seek to redefine or reimagine their respective national communities. For such groups, terrorism is nation-building. Women are slowly becoming more important in this project. The (re)imagining of the national community is inextricably linked to the ways in which terrorist organizations often build family and kinship ties to the surrounding community so as to “construct a cohesive network” (Bloom,12). These networks are crucial in the recruitment of women for insurgent movements. For the women who willingly joined these groups and ultimately sacrificed their lives, it is a demonstration of their agency. Moreover, it is indicative of their desire to participate in the nation-building process that if female suicide bombers have died for their imagined national communities, then they have hopefully earned their place within it.

            The reasons listed by Bloom portray female suicide bombers as either victims or agents. However, she takes care to emphasize that these women are motivated by a variety of reasons. Her emphasis on the complexity of women’s motivations highlights the importance of context when considering the question of whether female suicide bombers are feminists. It is a question too contextual and nuanced to have a definitive answer.  If a woman chooses to become a suicide bomber, according to a definition of feminism that prioritizes agency, then this woman’s choice to commit an act of violence makes her a feminist- especially if such an action is contrary to cultural expectations. Moreover, if once again, we accept that being a part of the imagined community of the nation is an expression of our relationship to that nation, then a women’s politically motivated suicide bombing is a declaration of her place within that nation. This violent declaration is especially relevant to contexts in which women are not afforded the same rights as men; for a woman to martyr herself fighting for her imagined community, and then subsequently reap the same rewards for doing so as a man might, she is claiming a sort of equality with men.         

            Finally, considering the sensitive nature of this topic, we should ask final question. Can we, with our specific subject positions as citizens of a country with whom such groups in Iraq have engaged in combat, consider female suicide bombers feminists? Or does our natural repulsion to such acts block our ability to recognize the greater implications presented by female suicide bombers?  


Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. “From Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.” Theory                  of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 414-434. Print.    

Bloom, M.. "Bombshells: Women and Terror" Gender Issues 28.1-2 (2011): 1. Research Library, ProQuest. Web.  3 Mar. 2012.

Rubin, Alissa J.. “Despair Drives Suicide Attacks by Iraqi Women.” New York Times. New York Times, 5 July 2008. Web. 3 Mar. 2012. 


Nancy Kobrin, PhD's picture


You might find my book The Banality of Suicide Terrorism, Potomac, 2010 of interest. The female merely internalized male hatred of the female as self hatred and then projects it outward. The imagery of the female suicide bomber as pregnant speaks to the male hatred of the prenatal mother. Both have a problem with maternal attachment which is also called traumatic bonding -- a facet of an attachment disorder,

All the cultures which spawn suicide bombing are shame honor where the little girl is horrendously devalued. It spreads to the West into pockets of shame honor families or converts who experienced this kind of abuse growing up. This is NOT to blame the female but to understand the developmental context in which she lives.

They lack empathy for their targets. This means that they probably were not able to develop mirror neurons sufficiently early on during the first years of life during this critical phase of development. This is what neuroscience is beginning to find. I was just interviewed for the forthcoming documentary The Body Does Not Lie. It is the imagery of thensuicide attack site and the body language of the terrorists which are critical. We are still only at the model T Ford stage of understanding the phenomenon but we will get there. Well adjusted, happy children grow up and they don't commit suicide bombing regardless of their sufferings.

Anne Dalke's picture

"Violence as an altruistic act"


In response to your first webevent, I tried to nudge you "beyond textual analysis," beyond "the walls of the literary garden of paradise"--to begin thinking about the political implications of the sorts of texts we have been reading. You have done that here with a vengence (sic), in turning your attention to those who think that "real life is in paradise," that concrete reality lies, not here, in the material world, but in the world beyond this one, and that our goal should be to get there, w/ honor.


There is so much here that challenges my own presumptions about how the world operates, and about how we all might best negotiate this world--> for starters, that “violence is an altruistic act" for the subjects you discuss; that "bombing can be a vehicle of female agency and empowerment"; that "martyrdom implies choice and agency"; that it indicates a viable response to a political position, "a certain discontent with the status quo"; that one might well become a suicide bomber "to avenge as well as bring attention to wrongs committed by political powers."

You give space, too, to alternative interpretations, to the possibility that, "for women who were coerced into committing suicide bombings, it constituted an elaborate form of murder rather than martyrdom, much less feminism."

And you bring in the political theorizing of Benedict Anderson, who described the nation-state as an “imagined community," not with "a fixed character but a malleable one, subject to continuous change for as long as it exists." In such an understanding, "terrorism might indeed operate as "nation-building," constructing a "cohesive network"
for the practice of insurgency.

There's so much more to think about and understand in all these realms. One place to start (again) might be with your "definition of feminism that prioritizes agency," and that is rights-based ("if women aren't afforded the same rights as men...can they reap the same rewards?"). In a society which doesn't take human life as the supreme value, are there yet other ways to understand the behavior of suicide bombers?