Francesca Bessey is a junior studying international relations and French at the University of Southern California. She is a journalist and activist around issues of peace and conflict resolution.
On September 1, 2004, 32 Chechen separatists infiltrated an elementary school in Beslan, Russia, taking 1300 people hostage. By the end of the three-day nightmare, at least 334 people had been killed, among them Chechens, Russian forces, parents, teachers, and nearly 200 children. Hundreds more were injured, some losing eyes or limbs and others maimed permanently. The hostage crisis caused national terror and outrage, but what most shocked many Russians, as well as the people of Chechnya, about the “Beslan Horror” was the particular role played by at least two women in the gruesome event. Women—the meek, the submissive, the nonviolent—had not only ventured out of the domestic sphere into the realm of political violence; they had strapped suicide belts to their waists, took up arms, and actively taken part in the school’s siege. One of the women was even reported as threatening to kill anyone caught hiding a mobile phone—plus three others, for good measure.
These women, members of the female Chechen suicide terror unit known as the “Black Widows” won international attention through the complete defiance of traditional gender roles. In his 1975 thriller Harry’s Game, Gerald Seymour coined the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In the case of female suicide bombers, however, it would seem that one man’s terrorist is a woman’s freedom fighter. These women demonstrate the conviction, fortitude, and capacity for destruction necessary for extreme political violence and once considered exclusively attributable to men. Martyrdom remains a male privilege no longer.
Yet what effect do the actions of these women martyrs ultimately have on the patriarchal social and political systems they leave behind? By examining the case of the Chechen Black Widows, as well as the female suicide bombers of Palestine, this paper will analyze how women suicide terrorists undermine the cause of gender equality worldwide. While their actions allow these female suicide bombers to temporarily liberate themselves from the culture of women’s oppression, they actually serve to reinforce the rhetoric, norms and values of the patriarchal societies for which these women die.
WOMEN AND TERRORISM: THE CASE OF LEILA KHALED
On September 6th, 1970, Leila Khaled boarded El-Al flight 219 in Amsterdam. With two hand grenades strapped to her waist and a pistol taped inside of her underwear, she mutely prepared to take control of the aircraft on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It was not her first, but her second hijacking, she having successfully redirected Trans World Airlines Flight 840 to Damascus the year before and taken two Israeli hostages. This time, Khaled would not be so fortunate. As she and her fellow hijacker, a male, attempted to enter the cockpit, the pilot performed an air maneuver which created a negative G-force onboard the plane. The hijackers lost their footing, the grenades were wrestled away from Khaled, and shots were fired—killing the male hijacker. The plane made an emergency landing in London, where Khaled was taken prisoner. She was released within hours, in exchange for the hostages taken in three other successful PFLP hijackings that day.
Khaled was not a suicide bomber, however as evidenced by the fate of her male comrade in the El Al hijacking, she accepted a task in which death was a very real possibility. She would also serve as a role model for untold numbers of Palestinian nationalist women and girls, some of whom would eventually seek out martyrdom for the Palestinian state. Most significantly, while Khaled herself claims she does not agree with the murder of civilians, her case illustrates the frustrations experienced by female terrorists that could potentially drive them to more violent expressions of their politics.
During her first hijacking, Khaled’s male companion seized the cockpit microphone and declared himself the captain of the aircraft while she stood by. The journalists who later interviewed Khaled asked her not about her cause, but if she had a boyfriend, if she was a virgin, and how long she spent in front of the mirror each day. In Lina Makboul’s documentary Leila Khaled: Hijacker, Khaled is a confident woman: she makes eye contact, smokes, and speaks her mind. She wears short sleeves and allows herself to be filmed in her pajamas. But her actions have not advanced the status of women in Palestinian society, nor improved their representation in the media. Her ideology of protecting the lives of civilians has been undermined by all of the Palestinian nationalist organizations which are prominent today, with the help of the very women Khaled once inspired.
VIOLENCE, RELIGION AND THE TALIBAN: SEXIST IDEOLOGIES BEHIND SUICIDE TERROR
In the case of both Chechnya and Palestine, the Islamic faith has been central to the ideology behind suicide terror. The entire Chechen separatist movement has been built along religious lines, while two of the most prominent Palestinian terror organizations which employ suicide bombers—Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)—maintain the express goal of establishing an Islamic state in Palestine.
It is evident from the name alone of the nationalist secularist organization Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades that non-religious groups in the region borrow from Islamic principal and rhetoric as well. Religion provides an unparalleled framework for terrorist ideology—particularly suicide terrorist ideology—because it offers an easily communicable reward for terrorist action, eternal paradise, and a justification for otherwise unspeakable acts. The paradigm of divine will associated with religious terrorism also serves as an excuse for the oppression and maltreatment of women within terrorist groups and within the societies they strive to construct through their terrorist actions.
Let us turn to the Taliban, the regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S. invasion following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The Taliban enforced strict adherence to Islamic law, and used this law as the basis for oppressive and downright barbaric policies toward women living under its governance. Women were required to be completely covered in public and could be physically punished, including by whipping and amputation, for wearing white shoes, nail polish, or see through-socks. “Their shoes could not click when they walked, lest the sound excite men.” They were forbidden from working outside the home, with the exception of women’s hospitals, attending school or appearing in photographs. The Taliban was fond of public executions; the first “criminal” subject to this punishment was a woman named Zarmeena, who was shot three times in the head in front of 300,000 spectators and her own children after killing the husband who had subject her to nightly beatings.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In the case of female suicide bombers, however, it would seem that one man’s terrorist is a woman’s freedom fighter.
While the Taliban represents the most extreme form of the Islamic state we have seen in the contemporary world, the use of suicide bombings as a means of waging jihad, or the “struggle” for the Islamic faith, represents a similarly extreme interpretation of Islam. It does not seem unlikely that the same minds who would rob innocent civilians of their lives in the name of Allah would deny women their freedom in the name of that same god. Indeed, many of the mujahideen who helped instate the Taliban then migrated to Chechnya, bringing with them arms, finances and the violent fervor of religious radicalization.
Furthermore, we have seen evidence of discrimination against women in both Chechen and Palestinian society, including and especially within their nationalist movements. In April of 2012, for example, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov publically announced his approval for honor killings, the murder of female relatives who have violated the family’s honor. President Kadyrov has also described women as the property of their husbands and declaimed childbearing their main role in society. Kadyrov comes from a long line of Chechen leaders who have encouraged their citizens to “keep alive” traditional misogynist practices such as the kidnapping of brides for marriage and male polygamy.
Such is the religious regime for which 47 Chechen women martyred themselves between 2000 and 2006. An independent Palestine risks falling under the same influences. Even the secularist organizations require some sort of sociocultural boundary between themselves and foreign “others” in order to maintain the level of nationalism necessary for terrorist activity. That boundary is most easily Islam and, through Islam, the strict differentiation of gender roles.
According to Farhad Khosrokhavar, the ever-increasing influence of the West on Palestinian society has led to an even stricter interpretation of Islam, particularly as it relates to family life: “As the positions of men and women and their respective standings in society become more problematic, men tend to make roles within the family more rigid to compensate.” The women suicide bombers of Chechnya and Palestine may free themselves from the anonymity and inaction that have been feminized by their societies; however, they allow their deaths to prop up regimes with the specific intent of restricting and subordinating their sex.
THE EXPLOITATIVE PARADOX OF WOMEN’S SUICIDE TERROR
There thus exists a paradox in the way that women suicide bombers affect other women in their societies versus the women bombers themselves. Such a paradox, however, is essential for suicide terrorist recruiters, who benefit enormously from using women in their campaigns. Since the mid-1990s, for example, it has been almost impossible for an unmarried Palestinian male under the age of 40—the typical profile of a suicide terrorist—to obtain a legitimate permit to cross into Israel.
Women, however, tend to arouse far less suspicion at checkpoints, and can blend in simply by removing the hijab, donning short skirts, and modernizing their haircuts. Suicide explosive belts can be easily hidden under many types of women’s clothing, and cultural norms of modesty typically reduce the chance a woman’s body will be thoroughly searched by a male security official. Finally, women who perpetrate terrorist acts in public attract eight times the media attention given to men. Given the media’s essential role in proliferating the terror a terrorist act aims to inspire, such extra attention is invaluable.
The women suicide bombers of Chechnya and Palestine may free themselves from the anonymity and inaction that have been feminized by their societies; however, they allow their deaths to prop up regimes with the specific intent of restricting and subordinating their sex.
According to studies conducted on gender differences in emotion, women generally report experiencing anger and other hostile emotion s that could be associated with suicide terror less than men do, a result of women’s consistent socialization into submissive and non-aggressive gender roles. Terrorist organizations thus need to offer women—who have proved so valuable to their campaigns—an additional incentive to engage in suicide violence, particularly in societies like Chechnya and Palestine where gender roles are strongly ingrained. Liberation from these very gender roles satisfies this need.
Such incentivizing suggests an exploitative relationship between organization that utilize suicide terror and their female recruits. While these women may have their five minutes of freedom before they blow themselves to pieces or are imprisoned for life, terrorist groups do not necessarily hold up their end of the bargain. In fact, they often represent the sacrifices of women suicide bombers in ways that reinforce the culture of women’s oppression. Oftentimes, the participation of women in terror campaigns is used to goad men into volunteering.
A propaganda slogan in Chechnya, for example, reads: “Women’s courage is a disgrace to that of modern men.” This statement presupposes the idea that to have less courage than a woman is disgraceful, implying that women are inherently uncourageous relative to men. It further implies that women have been called upon only as a last resort, because men have not rose to meet the challenge, a condition paralleled in the words of former Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who advocated against female martyrdom because the organization did not have enough slots to offer men. Even martyrdom is itself inherently gendered: a popular slogan of Hezbollah, a militant Islamic group in Iran, reads “the modesty of women is guaranteed by the blood of martyrs.” The concept of martyrdom in Islamic society emphasizes the protection of women through the sacrifice of men, denying a woman’s self-determination of her personal security—unless, of course, she becomes a suicide bomber herself.
SEXUAL VIOLENCE AMONG CHECHNYA’S BLACK WIDOWS
Since the Soviet ethnic cleansing of the region in the years following WWII, the people of Chechnya have culturally condoned masculinized violence toward their sworn enemy Russia. According to an old saying, “No Chechen girl would consent to marry a man unless he had killed at least one Russian.” The Chechen Black Widows, such as those involved in the Beslan Horror, challenge the idea that extreme political violence is an exclusively male domain; however, this domain and its global perception remain exclusively male-dominated.
This has been alarmingly clear regarding sexual violence. Evidence of a rape culture can be identified in the religious basis of martyrdom. While it is widely known that Islamic suicide bombers are offered 72 virgins in paradise for reward, this titillating claim has a counterpart: in exercise books found at a Chechen rebel training camp, the shahida, or female martyr, was said to transform into one of the houris, the beautiful virgins who “serve” Allah’s warriors—that is, the male bombers—in paradise. In other words, the women martyrs become heavenly sex slaves. In this world, Chechen women face a significant threat of rape from both Russian soldiers and Chechen fighters.
In the latter case, the assault is sometimes videotaped and used to blackmail the victim into volunteering for the separatist movement. Aset Gishnurkayeva travelled to a neighboring village, where she was under the impression she was being sent for marriage. In reality, her mother had sold her to Chechen jihadi, who kidnapped and molested her upon her arrival, and then deployed her as a suicide bomber. In other cases, Chechen women “dishonored” through rape, divorce or sterility seek out martyrdom of their own volition, as a means of restoring their feminine integrity. While these women may restore their personal honor, they reaffirm the sexist social paradigm that they can only make a valid contribution to their society through terrorism, thus contributing to the continued devaluing of their gender.
The Chechen Black Widows, such as those involved in the Beslan Horror, challenge the idea that extreme political violence is an exclusively male domain; however, this domain and its global perception remain exclusively male-dominated.
Even if women coerced into terrorism through sexual violence represent a minority among Chechen women suicide bombers, the entire group are often portrayed as rape victims, by the Russian media as well as by their own communities. President Vladimir Putin’s senior advisor on Chechnya Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky suggested in the newspaper Sobesdnik that the majority of Chechen women were coerced through drugs or blackmail:
I have heard that they rape them and record the rapes on video. After that, such Chechen girls have no chance at all of resuming a normal life in Chechnya. They have only one option: to blow themselves up with a bomb full of nails and ball bearings.
Yastrzhembsky uses the plight of women who are stigmatized for sexual assault for his own political gain—namely to reduce popular support for the Chechen cause. Not only does this demonstrate complete insensitivity to female victims of sexual assault, but it invalidates the legitimate grievances of Chechen women that drive them to political violence by creating the popular impression that all female suicide bombers are forced into the role. Thus the personal liberation attained by women suicide bombers in Chechnya becomes another means of pigeonholing women as victims and subordinates.
OPPORTUNITY LOSS BY THE WOMEN MARTYRS OF PALESTINE
The shahida of Palestine do not face the same stigma as Chechen women. However, female suicide bombers and the devaluation of women in Palestine remain intrinsically linked. In his essay “W’s Masculine Pseudo-Democracy: Brothers-in-Arms, Suicide Bombers, and the Culture of Life,” Andrew Feffer discusses “authoritarian Palestinian childrearing practices that presumably authorize violence.” Participation in this culture of violence through suicide bombing ensures its survival into the next generation of Palestinian men and women. As women and girls are often the targets of violence worldwide, this culture of violence threatens to become a culture of violence specifically against women—through sexual assault, as well as through honor killings and domestic abuse. Israeli officials have been known to make the same allegations about female Palestinian martyrs of coercion through rape as Yastrzhembsky did about the Chechen women. Examples also abound of women turning to suicide bombing after social humiliation renders their bride prices worthless.
At the same time, there are also women in Palestine who have not been outcast and who have actually abandoned opportunities to play significant roles in the Palestinian public sphere in order to martyr themselves. A study by Yoram Schweitzer found that of the 67 Palestinian women who attempted to carry out suicide attacks between January 2002 and May 2006, the majority were young, unmarried and educated at an above-average level. In 2003, PIJ launched two successful female suicide bombings. Both women were students, one of whom was studying law. As women pursuing an education and career, they were already poised to be positive female role models. The law student, Hanadi Jaradat, may even have become an advocate for women’s rights in the region. Instead, however, the two removed themselves from the public sphere, rescinding their challenge to male domination of Palestinian public life. In this way, their actions as martyrs served to roll back the tide of women’s progress in Palestine, not urge it onward.
For the women of Chechnya and Palestine, the expression of violence through suicide bombing has granted them freedom from the traditional expectations and limitations of women in their societies. However, it has also served to reinforce patriarchal rhetoric, norms and values within these same societies, to the detriment of the women and girls these martyrs leave behind. This reinforcement occurs through the manner in which women are encouraged or coerced into suicide terrorism, the representations of their actions by the media and by terrorist organizations, and the regimes themselves for which they fight. The latter factor has particular significance when the goals of the suicide terror campaign include the establishment of a state governed by Islam and its gender-oppressive tenets, as is the case for the Chechen separatist movement as well as multiple Palestinian nationalist groups.
While women’s suicide terrorism poses a problem for gender equality, it also constitutes an extreme threat to the targets of the terrorist activity—in this case Russia and Israel—because of its relative effectiveness compared to suicide acts perpetrated by males. In order to effectively combat this phenomenon, counterterrorist strategists must acknowledge female suicide bombers as a unique threat and develop a specific plan to deter the participation of women in suicide terror campaigns. This plan should address both the “push” and “pull” factors of women’s suicide terrorism. Governments must avoid actions that specifically engage noncombatants—namely women—and motivate, or push, them to acts of suicide terror—such as the rape of Chechen women by Russian security forces. They also must encourage women’s development programs and positive media representations of women in regions where terrorist activity is prevalent, to provide an alternative means of women’s liberation to the appeal, or pull, of female martyrdom.
Until these steps are taken, women in Chechnya and Palestine, as well as female terrorists worldwide, will continue to feel that suicide bombings are the best or only way for them to contribute positively to their society or express their anger at political or gender-based oppression. These women will continue to perpetrate highly effective lethal attacks that both devastate their targets and , unfortunately, the cause of gender equality back home.
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