Ahlam Tamimi, the Palestinian woman who helped plan the suicide bombing attack at the Sbarro restaurant in the center of Jerusalem in 2001, is now hosting a talk show on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Quds TV.

Gender issues[i] are not among the most discussed in suicide terrorism studies[ii]; here, just as in all literature on security, “the experiences and roles of women have rarely been of interest”.[iii] In the last few years, the situation in the academic debate has little changed despite the growing understanding that “without consideration of gender, security is an empty concept.”[iv] In other words, gender could be a meaningful category of analysis only if is “defined inclusively so as not to remain synonymous only with women.”[v] While being “a contextual, socially constructed means of assigning roles and norms to given sex categories,”[vi] gender not only is related to personal and social identity and the ways people live their lives, but also matters in distributing power, privileges and prestige.[vii] Gender roles systems and relations impact all aspects of human existence, including those ones which have to do with violence and its extreme form – terrorism.  Photo: 2012 Aspiring to be the Oprah of the jihadist world, Ahlam Tamimi, the Palestinian woman who helped plan the suicide bombing attack at the Sbarro restaurant in the center of Jerusalem in 2001, is now hosting a talk show on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Quds TV. http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=260074&R=R3

Larger Implications of Female Suicide Bombers

According to statistics, female suicide missions amount to roughly 3% of all successful missions carried out. Although this seems to be a relatively small percentage, there are larger implications that make women’s participation in terrorist activities an important issue.  This is a phenomenon with strong public repercussion that calls the attention of mass media and general public, but – above all - because studying gender aspects of the security gives us “a lot more realistic notion on how the world operates”[viii] and sheds light on the driving forces of choices made by personalities, organizations and societies.   With the insight of studying why gender makes a difference to certain groups, one can begin to unravel the jumbled knot of political violence.

Photo: 2013 Female fighters under the banner of The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant with AK47s, shopping at the local supermarket in Syria, most likely in Aleppo. Credit Laith Alkhouri.

The relationship between gender and violent behavior is complex and is best understood in a broader social context. “Perhaps, as Afghan scholar Amy Caiazza points out, our collective neglect of the treatment of women in Afghanistan was a missed opportunity to foresee or even prevent the events of September 11, 2001. Societies that condone and even promote violence against women have shown over and over again that they tend to be violent in other ways as well.”[ix] However, the connection, if any, between violence against women and violence in general is still to be studied. The analysis and evaluation of gendered violence is a challenge – the media and every day discourse still conceptualizes women as victims of violence and local peace-keepers rather than as victimizers. Such a gender trap can make the research “blind” for the fact that women, just as men, are perfectly able to perpetrate violent acts: “the fact that women are spared in certain settings, does not necessarily signify that [they] … stand for more “peaceful” attitudes than their fellow males.”[x] Actually, “there is no evidence that male and female terrorists are fundamentally different in terms of their recruitment, motivation, ideological fervor, and brutality.”[xi]

Suicide Bomber (female)

Photo: 2011 Female Suicide Bomber holding Quran.  Location unknown.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/politicalworlds/5452777780/

[i] Among few authors who have been publishing on the topic are: SKAINE, R. 2007. Female Suicide Bombers, privately published; ZEDALIZ, D. 2004. Female Suicide Bombers. Strategic studies institute; VICTOR, B. 2003. Army of Roses. Robinson Publishing; SCHWEITZER, Yoram. (ed). 2006. Female Suicide Bombers& Dying for Equality? Memorandum N84. Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Telaviv University, http://www.tau.ac.il/jcss/memoranda/memo84.pdf

[ii] In the last years, several valuable texts on the female suicide terrorism appeared: GAMBETA, Diego. (ed) 2005. Making sense of Suicide Missions. Oxford, Oxfor Univerity Press; BLOOM, Mia. 2005. Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror,  New York, Columbia University Press; REUTER, Christopher. 2004. My Life is a Weapon. A Modern History of Suicide Bombing. Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press; PEDAHZUR, A. 2006. Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism. Routledge; OLIVER, A and P. STEINBERG.2006. Oxford University Press.

[iii] ALISON, Miranda. 2004. Women as Agents of Political Violence: Gendering Security, Security Dialogue; 35; 447. SAGE.http://sdi.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/4/447

[iv] HANDRAHAN, Lori Handrahan. 2004. Conflict, Gender, Ethnicity and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. Security Dialogue; 35; 429. http://sdi.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/4/429

[v] CARPENTER, Charli. 2006. Recognizing Gender-Based Violence Against Civilian Men and Boys in Conflict Situations. Security Dialogue 2006; 37; 83. http://sdi.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/37/1/83

[vi] HANDRAHAN, Lori Handrahan. 2004. Conflict, Gender, Ethnicity and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. Security Dialogue; 35; 429. http://sdi.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/4/429

[vii] INDRA, D. 1999. Engendering Forced Migration: Theory and Practice. New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, р. 14

[viii] A Conversation with Cynthia Enloe: Feminists Look at Masculinity and the Men Who Wage War Author(s): Carol Cohn and Cynthia Enloe Source: Signs, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer, 2003), pp. 1187-1207 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3175849 Accessed: 23/08/2009 05:07

[ix] CAIAZZA. Amy. 2001. Why Gender Matters in Understanding September 11: Women, Militarism, and Violence. IWPR Publication #I908, November

[x] Excerpt from LINDER, Evelin Gerda (2005). Humiliation, killing, war, and gender. In Fitzduff, Mari and Stout, Chris E. (Eds.), The Psychology of Resolving Global Conflicts: From War to Peace. Volume 1: Nature vs. Nurture, pp. 137-174. Westport, CT, London: Praeger Security International, http://www.life-peace.org/sajt/filer/pdf/New_Routes/nr200604.Evelin%20Lindner%20Humiliation.pdf

[xi] NACOS, B. 2005. The portrayal of female terrorists in the media: similar framing patterns in the news coverage of women in politics and terrorism. Studies in Conflict &Terrorism, 2005, 28, 413-419

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