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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2005, 20:47 GMT
Women bombers break new ground
By Neil Arun
BBC News

The majority of suicide bombers, like most of the world's soldiers, have been young men.

Image from video shot during Moscow theatre siege
Veiled women wired with bombs were seen in Moscow's theatre siege

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the insurgency in Iraq, where suicide bombings are a near-daily occurrence, have promoted a view of the suicide bomber as a male motivated by a sense of injustice against Islam.

However, some of the most lethal exponents of suicide bombing have been neither male nor Muslim.

Women involved in a series of recent attacks and attempted attacks - including in Jordan and Indian-administered Kashmir - are beginning to undermine this stereotype.

Women bombers were widely used by Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka, most dramatically in the 1991 assassination of the former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Young women, with no dependents, are said to be among those most commonly chosen for suicide missions by the Tigers.

Women bombers have also been used by Kurdish guerrilla groups operating in Turkey.

Like the Tamil Tigers, the Kurdish groups are motivated more by a secular, nationalistic cause than a religious one.

Experts remain divided over whether female suicide bombers will be more widely deployed by al-Qaeda, whose conservative philosophy restricts women to an auxiliary role in the jihad.

Gender and jihad

For modern militant movements with an Islamic inflection, the advantages of using women as suicide bombers can override cultural arguments against their involvement.

A woman is less likely to be intercepted precisely because she does not match the typical profile of a suicide bomber.

Moreover, her actions generate greater media coverage, arguably boosting the militants' propaganda battle.

The traditional perception of women as life-givers rather than killers is responsible for much of the shock their attacks create.

Using women [in suicide attacks] transgresses on what is acceptable in Arab society
Magnus Ranstorp
Terrorism expert

For the militants, therefore, deploying women suicide bombers remains a fraught tactic - instead of new recruits, it risks attracting revulsion.

Where female suicide bombings succeed in bringing in new recruits, the new militants are as likely to be men as women, according to Dr Laleh Khalili, lecturer in Middle-Eastern politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Witnessing women traditionally associated with domestic duties taking part in frontline militancy operations can have a shaming effect on the men, "impelling more of them to take part", she says.

Attacks by women also shatter "the male monopoly over jihad", according to Dr Mustafa Alani, a counter-terrorism expert with the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai.

The martyrs' paradise - often cited as a reward for suicide attackers - need no longer be a male preserve, he says, warning that attacks involving women are likely to increase, as will their stature within al-Qaeda.

Exception or rule?

Other experts disagree, arguing that the use of women bombers alienates the conservative Muslim constituency from which the militants draw their support.

Such a reaction seemed to have been intended in Jordan, where officially-sanctioned television pictures showed an alleged woman bomber captured after her explosives failed to detonate.

Suspected would-be bomber Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi on Jordanian TV
A failed 'suicide bomber's' televised appearance shocked Jordan

Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi said she had been hoping to die in the manner of her husband, an Iraqi national alleged to have blown up the Radisson SAS hotel in Amman in November 2005.

She was not al-Qaeda's first female recruit - in September 2005, eight people were killed in the Iraqi town of Talafar by a woman suicide bomber said to have been sent by al-Qaeda.

But the BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says the network's occasional use of female bombers defies its conservative ideologues, who have argued that women can best serve the jihad as dutiful wives and mothers to fighters.

Female involvement in al-Qaeda bombings is therefore likely to remain an eye-catching exception rather than becoming a rule, he says.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College, agrees: "Using women transgresses on what is acceptable in Arab society."

Secular traditions

But women suicide bombers are better established elsewhere.

Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev has long boasted of his regiment of Black Widows, the wives of men apparently killed by Russian forces.

Bomb attack in Indian-administered Kashmir
Militants in Indian-administered Kashmir have recruited women

Images of women strapped with explosives and wearing black veils, revealing only their eyes, became icons of the rebels' bloody hostage-taking operations in Beslan and a Moscow theatre.

During a four-month period in 2003, six out of seven Chechen suicide attacks were carried out by women.

Their high profile proves the nationalist tradition in the Chechen insurgency has survived despite the inroads made by a more conservative brand of Islam imported into the region by Arab fighters, says the BBC's Roger Hardy.

Female participation in suicide attacks is more influenced by a militant group's historical roots than by its theological affiliations, according to Dr Khalili.

She says the growing involvement of Iraqi women in al-Qaeda suicide attacks comes as no surprise - for decades under Saddam Hussein's secular regime, these women enjoyed more rights than most of their Arab counterparts.

Long accustomed to political life, she says, they are now more ready to engage in political violence.

Loving the victims

Anger at losing loved ones to conflict appears to be a major source of motivation among female suicide bombers.

Picture showing Rajiv Gandhi's assassin, moments before blast
Rajiv Gandhi's assassin carries a garland, moments before the blast

The first suicide bombing by a Palestinian woman in Israel was carried out by a 28-year-old paramedic, Wafa Idris, in January 2003.

Her mother later said that her daughter had probably been motivated "by all the wounded people she saw in ambulances".

Some scientists who have studied suicide bombers say this is not surprising - many of their subjects appear driven more by a love of the victims of perceived injustices than by any hatred of the injustices' perpetrators.

Jordan shows 'would-be bomber'
13 Nov 05 |  Middle East
Kashmir 'woman suicide attacker'
13 Oct 05 |  South Asia
Woman suicide bomber strikes Iraq
28 Sep 05 |  Middle East
Female bomber's mother speaks out
30 Jan 02 |  Middle East
Chechnya's female bombers
07 Jul 03 |  Europe

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