Dialogue Series, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq by Mona Eltahawy

Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq by Mona Eltahawy

Journalist and opinion-writer Mona Eltahawy was invited by CIRS to give a lunchtime lecture at the SFS-Qatar campus on the subject of “Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq.” Eltahawy is an award-winning syndicated columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. Her opinion pieces have been published frequently in the International Herald Tribune,The Washington Post, the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper and Qatar’s Al-Arab.

Eltahawy began the lecture by noting her shift from being a journalist concerned with balance and objectivism to being compelled to speak out as an opinion-writer rather than as an impartial academic on a variety of issues that affect Muslims. This, she said, was as a result of the change in political climates all over the world after the attacks of September 11, 2001. According to Eltahawy, much of her work is driven by her subject-position as a feminist Muslim, which is an identity that is not always given the forum to voice an opinion. As a female Muslim residing in the United States, Eltahawy felt that her views were not being represented, and this forms the context in which her writing and public speaking are situated. The subject of female suicide bombers, she said, was simultaneously “a deeply fascinating and disturbing subject.”

To dispel the myth that female suicide bombers are a new ideological formation particular to Islamic extremism and to the Middle East, Eltahawy points toward the research conducted in a 1992 book by Eileen McDonald, Shoot the Women First. The title comes from the West German security-force directive to shoot the women first upon entering a Red Army stronghold, as the female fighters tended to pose the most aggressive response. The book documents the varied instances of women’s involvement in acts of extremism and violence in organizations such as the Basque separatist movement, the Kurdish PKK separatists in Turkey, the Tamil Tigers, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, all of which existed long before the instrumentalist use of suicides by certain groups of Islamic extremists. But, “what distinguishes what is happening in Iraq from these examples”, Eltahawy notes, “is that these groups were secular, militant and terrorist groups” whereas the groups in Iraq are centered on religious extremism.

The question Eltahawy poses is: “What is the motivation for women to join a violent group or to become a terrorist?” She argues that “inherent in that question is the idea that a woman is different from a man in choosing to join these groups.” But scholars on the subject have found that the ideological and political motivations that drive radicalization are largely the same for both men and women. 

Eltahawy takes Iraq as her case study and presents a number of statistics regarding female suicide bombers. She reports that, “according to U.S. military statistics, since the invasion in March 2003 until the end of last year, Iraq has seen 57 female suicide bombers – including one who surrendered – and they killed a total of 370 people and injured 650.” What is alarming is the rate at which the attacks have tripled in 2008. The reason there is a sharp increase in female bombers has to do with increased security measures all over Iraq since the U.S. military surge. Today, women can get to places that men cannot. 

Also alarming, Eltahawy notes, is the varying nature of the females carrying out this extremist violence in Iraq. One bomber was a 13 year old girl, another was a woman dressed as a man, and yet another was a married mother of two. These are unusual characteristics for what constitutes a radical and do not fit within the common profile. Usually, such acts are carried out by single, divorced or widowed women who have lost family members during a particular period and so have also lost their primary sources of income. 

Extremist violence, such as suicide bombings, has been articulated as an act of desperation and a weapon of political and ideological struggle and “resistance against occupying forces” and powerful oppressors. Suicide bombings in Iraq were initially seen as political and ideological resistance to occupying forces, but these extremist acts have become increasingly religious and sectarian in nature. Ironically, Eltahawy concludes, in Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt, such religiously and ideologically-backed martyrdom has seen more Muslims killing Muslims than supposed enemies, occupiers, or infidels. What is more, most of the victims of suicide bombings are religious Shi’ia pilgrims and not legitimate military targets. 

Article by Suzi Mirgani, CIRS Publications Coordinator.