Gender and Terrorism (Female Suicide Missions)


Drawing of Female Suicide Bomber

Photo: 2009. Drawing of Female Suicide Martyr outside school in Bethelhem, Israel.

Female suicide terrorism in Palestine occurred 2 years later than in Chechenya. In comparison with others, the Palestinian case is much better documented and investigated.

First Successful Suicide Mission : Waffa Idris

The first successful mission was carried out by 27 year old Waffa Idris on January 27, 2002. The same day Yaser Arafat, in a meeting with Palestinian women, called female suicide bombers “shahidas” (a feminine form of the word martyr). Until that day “martyr” had never been applied to women. Since then, four radical organizations have resorted to suicide (including female) terrorist acts. The most active is Hamas, followed (until the end of the Second Intifada) by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  During the Second Intifada Fatah, closely related to the Palestinian Autonomy, also began practicing this form of violence and assumed the responsibility for most of them. The first female suicide mission on behalf of Fatah took place on Jnuary 27, 2002. Less in number, suicide bombings have been organized by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Palestinian Society and Female Bombers

Culture of Martyrdom

Why does Palestinian society, one of the most secularized Muslim societies, support female terrorist acts? The answer cannot be simple. There are at least three presumptions which make it possible: traditions of Palestinian female activism,[i] existence of radical organizations whose ideology envisions female bombing as a possible political option, and the work of Palestinian leaders in office who created the specific culture of martyrdom especially among young people.[ii]

Fosters Inter-Group Solidarity

No less complex a question is why Palestinian radical organizations resort to using female bombing. Recognizing that “there is not a simple theory about what makes suicide bombers do what they do”[iii], Mia Bloom points out several explanatory concepts: conventional theories, which regard female bombing as “a way to slow …or stem the improvement of relations between Israel and Palestinian Autonomy”; their view that violence has a retaliatory nature (violence gives birth to violence); suicide bombing as a means to foster inter-group solidarity; and the use of suicide bombing as a successful strategy for competition between organizations for leadership positions in the Palestinian community.

[i]GLUCK, Sherna. 1995. Palestinian women: gender politics and nationalism. Journal of Palestine Studies, vol.24, N3, Spring, pp. 5-15, TZOREFF, Mira. 2006. The Palestinian Shahida: National Patriotism, Islamic Feminism, or Social Crisis. In SCHWEITZER, Yoram. (ed). 2006. Female Suicide Bombers& Dying for Equality? Memorandum N84. Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Telaviv University,, pp. 14-24

[i] For more details on Plaestinian women’s activism see  ISRAELI, Raphael. 2004. Palestinian women: the quest for a voice in the public square through „islamikadze martyrdom”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol.16, N1, (Spring), рр. 66-96; SELA, A.(ed) 1999. Women, gender and politics. Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East. East, Jerusalim Publishing House, pp. 795-899

[ii] This process is well described and analyzed by several authors: BURDMAN, Daphne. 2003. Education, Indoctrination, and Incitement: Palestinian Children on Their Way to Martyrdom. Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol.15, No.1 (Spring), pp.96–123; STERN, Jessica.2003. “Terror in the Name of God”, New York: Harper Collins; EL SARRAJ, Eyad. 1997. Palestinian Children and Violence, Palestine–Israel Journal 4/1, pp.12–15; HASSAN, Nasra. 2001. An Arsenal of the Believer: thinking to the “Human Bombs” The New Yorker, 19 November; COPELAND, Libby. 2002. Female Suicide Bombers: The New Factor in Mideast's Deadly Equation. Washington Post Staff Writer, Saturday, April 27; Page C01,;

[iii] BLOOM, Mia. 2005. Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror,  New York, Columbia University Press, p. 20

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