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(Female) Suicide Bombers

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Last week four more Iraqi suicide bombers struck, leaving the mainstream media dumbfounded. Anchors from Atlanta to New York asked pundits: "What do you make of this?" "What could the motivation be?" "Who put them up to it?"

After five years of a war filled with attacks of this nature, you wouldn't expect the media to be so shocked and awed, but there was one critical factor that had the anchors stumbling: all four suicide bombers were female.

Female suicide bombers are, in fact, not a new phenomenon. According to Debra D. Zedalis, author of Female Suicide Bombers, the first known attack by a woman is traced back to 1985, when 16-year-old Khyadali Sana drove a truck into an Israeli Defense Force Convoy, killing two soldiers. Since then women from Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Palestine, Turkey, and Israel (among others) have participated in suicide bombings. In fact, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka use women between 30 and 40 percent of the time when carrying out such attacks.

Starting in 2003, Iraq has experienced over 50 suicide bombings carried out by women, 20 of them just in the last year. It is no longer justifiable for the media to act aghast when another woman turns up with blood on her hands.

How could a woman do this? As doctoral student Lindesy O'Rourke argued in her New York Times op-ed last weekend, women appear to have the same motivations as their male counterparts -- as O'Rourke puts it, "a deep loyalty to their communities combined with a variety of personal grievances against enemy forces." Women, like men, have the capacity for ideological extremism and retaliatory violence.

A more important question is, what conditions make suicide bombing a viable option for human beings -- be they men or women? And, further, what is our role, as Americans, in perpetuating these conditions?

The majority of suicide attackers, of either gender, are young. CNN reports that the U.S. military has a 14-year-old would be suicide bomber in custody, indeed a woman. Averagely, they are in their early 20s, an age known for exploration and ideation.

These young people get pulled into nationalistic or ethnically-based organizations (no woman, to date, has been involved in an independent suicide attack) that promise them a way to make their lives meaningful. Many, though not all, of them come from economically depressed families, towns and cities ravaged by long and bloody war, and relationships that have left them psychologically vulnerable.

In one of the best investigations of female suicide bombers to date, journalist Jan Goodwin secured an interview with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) failed suicide bomber Menake, currently awaiting sentencing in Sri Lankan prison. Menake's alcoholic, abusive father killed her mother when she was just three years old and brutally raped her at the age of seven. An excerpt from that interview, which appeared in Marie Claire magazine:
Menake wrote to the LTTE secretariat. "I'm willing to become a Black Tiger," she wrote. "It would be an honor. Please let me have your permission to join."

"Do you understand you will become a human bomb?" Menake was asked by the Black Tiger leaders in her interview.

"I told them that I did," she says. "I felt I had no other choice." The LTTE calls its suicide missions thatkodai, Tamil for "gift of self." It made her feel, Menake says, that her life still had a purpose.

For kids from Iraq, Sri Lanka, and so many other countries with broken education systems and few opportunities to create lasting meaning, being a martyr is a prefab identity, a way out of the daily squalor and emotional turmoil, most simply, a way to feel some agency.

Most often, the media paints female suicide bombers as coerced, as if they couldn't possibly choose this route; for example, early speculation that two female suicide bombers who struck last February had Down's Syndrome were proven false. Other media has focused entirely on the misogynistic culture that these women suffer in, rarely looking at the oppression brought on by America's occupation.

As an anonymous blogger at Feminist Philosophers writes:

"To see her as entirely coerced, then, seems to make invisible the quite significant agency that she must have exercised to undertake a terror bombing attack. Perhaps it's simply easier not to acknowledge that women might strongly hold extremist beliefs, and be willing to engage in terrorist action..."

It is easier not to acknowledge women's agency, because then we would have to acknowledge the depth of desperation that both women and men feel in these war ravaged countries, and by extension, our own role in contributing to that desperation. When men are violent, we chalk it up to human nature and soon forget, but when women strike blows, it shakes us awake. Suddenly the extent of destruction, the intensity of desperation, the absence of hope, is unmistakable. We are forced to reckon with the blood-thirsty opposition that we have just made thirstier through our misguided democracy projects.

O'Rourke reports that "95 percent of female suicide attacks occurred within the context of a military campaign against foreign occupying forces." Our media, the public at large, is so uncomfortable with the idea of female suicide bombers because it awakens some sense of responsibility within ourselves. When those we have stereotyped as tender, introspective, sensitive resort to reckless violence and destruction, we are forced to put a face on the violence. Suddenly, dead Iraqis lying in the street are not just casualties, their murderers are not just terrorists, but flesh-and-blood women -- your little sister, your niece, your daughter.

And of course once these desperate men and women have been humanized, the next logical question is one we're afraid to face: what is our responsibility in all of this?