What Makes A Woman Blow Herself Up?


The bombing of the Moscow metro on Monday, which killed 39, has been attributed to two women, restarting the conversation about Chechen “black widows” and female suicide bombers in general. But are they really so different from their male counterparts?

Details about the perpetrators are highly sketchy so far, and there is even some doubt about the speed with which Chechen “black widows” have been blamed. But for now, the attack is being seen through the frame of the wave of terrorism that began in 2000 and claimed hundreds of lives. The New York Times takes a look back:

Earlier this decade, Moscow’s fear of female suicide bombers was so strong it became a lurid obsession. Women, sometimes casually clad in jeans and blending in to the swirl of Moscow, committed at least 16 bombings, including two on board planes.

Perhaps “lurid obsession” is the operative phrase here. Overall, there is evidence that these women’s deployment is less about their own particularly “female” motivations and more about how the rest of the world reacts to them. Suicide bombing is all about promulgating the optics of fear, and there are few more terrifying or shocking images than a woman being violent against defenseless civilians. That means that their use is a particularly efficient tool of war. As Yoram Schweitzer notes in his introduction to Female Suicide Bombers: Dying For Equality?,

While investigative reporting on a male suicide bomber is often extensive, coverage of a female suicide bomber seems to result in more widespread media exposure. This may serve as another expression of the prevailing belief that women, unlike men, must have unique and excessively abnormal reasons for committing what is deemed as a distinctly non-feminine act.

When it comes to the Black Widows that terrorize Russia, these “unique and excessively abnormal reasons” are implied in their very nicknames: they have lost family members in the ongoing war. And yet as easy as it is to believe that a woman is radicalized by a familial loss while a man is radicalized by ideology, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Another essay in the same anthology by Anne Speckhard and Khapta Akhmedova drew on interviews with hostages, family members of the bombers, and security officials to come to a rather different conclusion:

As far as we can tell the motivational mechanism for seeking out a terror group generated at first by deep personal traumatization did not differ by gender in any way. Both genders in our sample had suffered violent losses of family members and were overtaken by concerns for restoring social justice, something that a religious ideology often panders to and takes advantage of.”

In other words, male Chechen terrorists also experienced personal trauma that led to violent retribution. But their acts were neutral terrorism, if such a phrase can be used. There were no “Black Widowers.”

Historically, there has been a far greater proportion of Chechen women suicide bombers than there have been in the Palestinian or Iraqi or Tamil cases. Schweitzer has estimated the overall proportion of female suicide bombers worldwide to be 15 percent; Chechen women were involved in roughly half of the terrorist attacks of the last decade on behalf of that cause.

And despite tendencies to paint female suicide bombers with the same broad stroke, there are differences, too, in their statuses in their respective societies, according to Speckhard and Akhmedova:

Chechen women are much more emancipated than their Arab sisters. While family structure is still traditional, it is common for Chechen women to attend university and to hold full-time jobs outside their homes. Journalist Barbara Victor writes that perhaps Palestinian female bombers choose suicide terrorism as a means of escaping the tight constraints of traditional roles to become in the short run and in history equal to men.
Overall, however, Chechen women who join terror groups in Chechnya actually move backwards in some ways. They take on traditional Arab dress which has never been indigenous to Chechnya, including the hijab, and devote themselves to more traditional roles within the groups, except for when they undertake violent missions.

It’s a remarkably complex picture, one that inverts the usual reasoning of what makes women blow themselves up. If the bombers on the Moscow metro yesterday were indeed Chechen women, we should remember in trying to make sense of the carnage that terrorism’s many faces don’t always jibe with our assumptions about gender and nationality.

Update: Russian police have released more information linking the two bombers to Chechen separatists, as well as two grainy photos (above) believed to be of the bombers. Reports suggest that the women were part of a group of up to 30 would-be female bombers trained in Turkey.

Women Who Blow Themselves Up [The Daily Beast]
Russia’s Fear Of Female Bombers Is Revived [NYT]
Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality? [ISN, pdf]
Russia Braces For Terrorism’s Return As 38 Die In Subway Bombings [WP]
How Do The Russian Police Know Who Bombed The Moscow Subway? [Slate]

Related: Who Is A Female Suicide Bomber? [XX/Slate]

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