Female suicide bombers and the myth of emancipation

By Tanya Narozhna and W. Andy Knight
andy and gal

Female suicide bombings appeared on the political scene about 30 years ago. The first most commonly cited instance of modern FSBs took place in South Lebanon in 1985. Since then, the number of female suicide bombings grew, with over 300 women embarking on suicide missions in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Russia, Palestine, Israel, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Nigeria and Cameroon. They drove bomb-laden vehicles, strapped heavy explosive belts to their bodies, wore explosive vests, carried grenades, and hid bombs in their purses. In our recently published book on Female Suicide Bombings (University of Toronto Press), we explored the gendered nature of this phenomenon and came to the conclusion that many of the women who carry out this despicable “final” act are not dupes but are agents in their own right.
The majority of Female suicide bombings have occurred in the context of broader collective struggles geared towards emancipatory goals, such as putting an end to foreign occupations or gaining independence for stateless peoples. However, when we look at how female suicide perpetrators and their acts of violence are represented in Western academia and media, we find that the “political” agenda is erased because of the sex and gender identity of the perpetrator. The “political” gives way to the “personal”.
Female suicide bombers are made sense of by most academics and journalists, first and foremost, as “women”. Unlike their male counterparts, whose decision to embark on suicide missions is attributed to politics, female suicide bombers are said to be overburdened by personal problems, i.e. troubled relationships with men, inability to bear children, or experience of sexual abuse, which makes them misfits in their society and culture. They are many times portrayed as “black widows” who are avenging their husbands’ deaths. Alternatively, female suicide bombers are represented as feminist warriors fighting for gender equality and women’s rights. But even in this representation, the promise of emancipation disappears if the only way to overcome patriarchal domination and to attain equality is through self-extinction.
Regardless of whether or not female suicide bombers are said to be motivated by personal misfortunes or feminist ideas, they remain generally powerless victims of patriarchal cultures and societies. Despite the identical nature of their “final acts”, male suicide bombers are privileged over female suicide bombers in academe and the media and granted a higher status because the perpetrators’ sex is utilized to determine differences in their motivations. Thus, female suicide perpetrators remain the devalued shadow of male suicide perpetrators.
No matter what motivates individual FSBs, they do not act alone but are always supported by the organizations which recruit and train them, provide logistical support to them, and assist them in carrying out their mission. These organizations cultivate deeply gendered environments that are hostile to women, subjecting their female members to intense sexism and patriarchal oppression and offering no real opportunities for women’s emancipation. In other words, women who terrorize will most likely never achieve their goal of emancipation. They are trapped in a cycle of patriarchy. The symbolism of strapping bombs to the womb of the person who is supposed to give life, and of exterminating life rather than nurturing it, is powerful and compelling. But at the end of the day, the female suicide bomber, by extinguishing herself, fails to achieve her ultimate goal of freedom from the structures of patriarchy and neo-colonial domination.

(Professor Andy Knight is Professor of International Relations at the University of Alberta. Dr. Tanya Narozhna is Associate Professor of politics at the University of Winnipeg. They are co-authors of Female Suicide Bombings published by University of Toronto Press.)