Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Female Suicide Bombers

Time has an article about a woman who decided to become a suicide bomber in Iraq after her brother turned into a "failed martyr" by having his bomb belt explode prematurely, without any innocent victims:

No one remembers Hasna Maryi ever opening her family's Koran. She rarely attended her village mosque and told others she regarded the Imam there as a lech. So it was not religious extremism that made this villager from Anbar province blow herself up at an Iraqi police checkpoint last summer, killing three officers and injuring at least 10 civilians.

Religion may not have been her motive, but Hasna was an early, willing casualty of the latest jihadi trend: the use of women on the frontlines of the Holy War. Although fewer than 30 of the nearly 1,000 suicide bombings since the end of the war have been attributed to women, American and Iraqi officials say jihadi groups are deploying female bombers far more frequently to slip past the heavy security cordons that are the backbone of the U.S. military's surge strategy. On Sunday, a female bomber killed 16 people and wounded at least 35 in Baquba. Just a few days before, two men and four women detonated a car bomb in a densely packed marketplace in northwest Baghdad, killing 63 people.

In every instance, female bombers have been able to get to their intended target despite multiple layers of security. In a culture that forbids male policemen or checkpoint guards from frisking women — yet also frowns on women joining the security forces — many have easy passage to high-value targets like police stations and markets. They can go unchecked where no man would dream of passing.

Suicide bombers may end their lives in the same way, but it would be foolish to draw any conclusions about their motivations from a single story. Still, how Hasna came to blow herself up sheds some light on the cycle of hopelessness some Iraqi women find themselves in.

According to this story, Hasna became a killer because her brother was one and she wanted to both complete his martyrdom and to follow him to Paradise. I'd argue that all of that is religiously motivated, even if indirectly. But the conclusion of the story is that she did it not for her religion but for a man, her brother in this case, and the unstated assumption is that her motives are something that male suicide bombers do not have. But I have read about female suicide bombers who stated their motives to be fanatically religious and I have read about male suicide bombers who turned into killers because of a death of someone they loved in the family. Sometimes the search for simple and clear-cut explanations is not that enlightening.

The article about Hasna's killing expedition ends like this:

The other video, shot by one of the men who drove her to the checkpoint, shows Hasna looking impassively out of the window until they approach Kilometer 5. Then she pulls a veil over her face and adjusts the belt around her waist before stepping out. One of the men in the car whispers, "God is great!" She doesn't respond or look back. As the car drives away, the video, shot through the rear window, shows her approaching the checkpoint. She is quickly obscured from view by the dust trail behind the car. Nearly a minute later there's a flash, a muffled boom and a column of black smoke. "God is great!" says the cameraman. "The stupid woman did it."

"The stupid woman did it." Is this something the cameraman might have said about any suicide bomber, with a change of "stupid woman" to "stupid man"? Or is the statement just a general expression of contempt towards women?

It's hard to say. But I think the article tries to explain why women would be willing to kill themselves for a movement which doesn't value them or respect them as human beings.

This story is in some ways quite typical of stories about violent women, stories which are a little like that old saw about news being not when a dog bites a man but when a man bites a dog. We all expect dogs to sometimes bite people, but we don't expect people to bite dogs. So the latter is interesting and newsworthy.

In the same way, a woman suicide bomber is newsworthy, because we don't expect women to be the perpetrators of violence but its victims. That the number of female suicide bombers is very small doesn't make them any less interesting, rather the reverse. We are not that interested in the minds of male suicide bombers, because the very idea is more familiar.

The whole treatment of gender and violence in studies and the media has a similar paradoxical flavor. On the one hand, we are blinded to the very gendered nature of violence to such an extent that Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, a book about popularized evolutionary psychology as an explanation of Everything didn't bother to even mention violence in the chapter about gender differences, and I didn't find a single published criticism of the book that mentioned that odd omission.

On the other hand, when women do commit violent acts the attention those get is enormous, and everybody wants to know what "made her do it." Sometimes the culture in which we live blinds us to the way gender is viewed: as something that only women have. That's why the gendered aspect of violence only becomes visible when women kill.