Palestinian Female Suicide Bomber Tries to Detonate Her Bomb
Palestinian Female Suicide Bomber Tries to Detonate Her Bomb
Date: June 20, 2005
Source: "Palestinian Female Suicide Bomber Tries to Detonate Her Bomb." Getty Images, June 20, 2005.
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The specter of suicide bombings is one that has come to be synonymous with the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising), which began in 2000, though the origin of such attacks long predates the Palestinian uprising. Moreover, while the use of female suicide bombers in the intifada has attracted worldwide public attention, women have accounted for only a small number of suicide attacks. Palestinian use of women as suicide bombers is comparatively small when compared to other nationalities that have carried out such attacks.
The notion of a suicide or suicidal mission is long enshrined in military culture. In the eighteenth-century British army, for instance, often the only way a low-ranking officer or private could rise quickly in rank was to volunteer for and survive a near suicidal mission. He would do so in the knowledge that the chances of him seeing that day were unlikely, but if that was the case he was sacrificing himself for some sort of greater cause. In the Second World War, around four thousand Japanese pilots volunteered for Kamikaze missions. Loaded into small planes packed with high explosives, they would attempt to destroy allied naval vessels by flying into them and detonating.
One of the most notorious and deadly suicide attacks in history occurred on September 11, 2001, when nineteen hijackers from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt hijacked four passenger jets and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000 people.
However, suicide bombings in their modern and most common form—namely when a protagonist straps explosives to their body, or drives a vehicle packed with explosives and detonates them in a crowded area—owe their origins to the Lebanese civil war. Hizbollah, then an Iranian-backed Shi'a insurgent group based largely in the south of the country, found such attacks an effective tactic in their brutal guerilla war against Israeli occupation, and their attack on United States Marine barracks in 1983, which killed 241 servicemen, effectively ended the U.S. peacekeeping operation in Lebanon. Suicide bombings would become features of the Sri Lankan civil war (1983–), Chechnya's break for secession from Russia (1994–), the second Palestinian intifada (2000–), and during the U.S. occupation of Iraq (2003–). Suicide bomb attacks have also taken place in Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Indonesia.
The use of women in these attacks varies from country to country. Hizbollah had no record of deploying them during its armed struggle, whereas women accounted for around a third of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) suicide bombers in Sri Lanka. In 1991, Thenmuli Rajaratnam assassinated the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi, instantly becoming the most notorious female suicide bomber in history. Chechen women, known as "Black Widows," have carried out suicide attacks in Chechnya and elsewhere. In Turkey, female members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have carried out several suicide attacks against Turkish armed forces.
Yet suicide bombings only really attracted global attention during the second Palestinian intifada, from October 2000. Horrific attacks carried out primarily by Hamas and the al—Aqsa Martyrs Brigade killed large numbers of Israeli civilians and servicemen. Initially women were conspicuously absent in these attacks. Only at the end of January 2002 did Wafa Idris, a twenty-eight-year-old paramedic, become the first female Palestinian suicide bomber in an attack that killed one and wounded one hundred. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, eight women have carried out suicide bomb attacks since then, and at least six more attacks by women suicide bombers have been stopped.
PALESTINIAN FEMALE SUICIDE BOMBER TRIES TO DETONATE HER BOMB
See primary source image.
The use of suicide bombings as a tactic of insurgency has invariably attracted controversy and repulsion, but the very idea—particularly of female suicide bombers—has been further confused by misunderstandings of Islam in the West and also of the role of women in Arab society.
It is a frequent misconception of the Western media that Islamic law calls for martyrdom and holy war. While it is true that some extremist clerics have exploited the Koran's teaching on jihad (holy war) and occasionally shahada (martyrdom) to suit their own political ends and to even invoke suicide bomb attacks, most Islamic scholars define martyrdom as an historical issue, seeing it in terms of the death of Muslims in the religion's early years. Moreover, they do not see a close link between jihad and martyrdom. Instead, the majority of Islamic scholars teach that jihad can only be appreciated if the concept of enjoining right and discovering wrong (al-amr bi'l-maruf) is properly appreciated. They see such concepts as intrinsically linked. As such, it is wholly wrong to infer that suicide attacks are inherently Islamic or that jihad is as essential as teaching to the religion as, say, communion is to Catholics. The majority of Muslims abhor suicide bomb attacks, describing them as "unislamic."
When religion has been cited as a motivation for carrying out a suicide attack, the reason bombers have decided to carry out a suicide bomb attack can often be attributed to miscreant clerics striking a chord with suitably disaffected worshippers. In other cases, extreme nationalism or the desperation of a conflict have also been attributed as a cause. Sometimes it is a mixture of the three. The family of Wada Idris, the first female Palestinian suicide bomber, said that she was deeply affected by witnessing the iniquities of the Palestinian situation while serving as a paramedic in Israel's occupied territories and probably felt that volunteering to be a suicide bomber was the only path left open to her.
It has been suggested that the use of women as suicide bombers during the second Palestinian intifada was attributable to the rising status of women in Arab culture. This is often considered an outlandish notion that takes no account of the wide freedoms—in comparison to other Arab countries—long enjoyed by Palestinian women. Women in the occupied territories had long held important roles in Palestinian schools, hospitals, and even the media; almost uniquely in the Middle East, women are free to vote in Palestinian elections; and even casting an eye to terrorism, during Palestinian terrorism's 1970s heyday, its most famous and glamorous protagonist was a woman, Leila Khaled. Why then would women need to wait until 2002 to feel empowered enough to commit suicide bombing atrocities?
Instead, the role of women in Palestinian suicide bomb attacks can be viewed as a way of exploiting the small gaps that still exist in Israeli security arrangements. Put simply, men are easier to search than women, and a female suicide bomber is therefore harder to detect. An Israeli solider demanding a Muslim woman to lift her clothing to see if she was carrying an explosive belt would cause outrage in a way that doing the same to a man would patently not. Israeli Defense Force (IDF) procedures stipulate that a suspected woman be checked by a female soldier in a screened-off area. Given the usual stringency applied to Israeli security procedures, this was one of the few chinks in the armor still to exploit.
Conversely, fundamentalist groups who carry out suicide missions are usually unwilling to use women as bombers—hence the small numbers of female suicide bombers—as they alienate the conservative constituency from which they draw their support.
Suicide bomb attacks have nevertheless been used routinely by insurgents since the start of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003. Again, women have been involved in several of these attacks, but as in Palestine they have accounted only for a small minority of them.
Burke, Jason. Al Qaeda. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
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National Geographic. "Female Suicide Bombers: Dying to Kill." 〈http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/12/1213_041213_tv_suicide_bombers.html〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).