Abandon Weeping for Weapons: Palestianian Female Suicide Bombers

Lucy Frazier
August 6, 2002


"Martyrdom is a privilege she said softly. We shall be like stars; like the sun. then in the instant when she rose up it was as if everybody awoke, it became clear to them all that she really meant business, she was going through with it all the way she was holding in her hand the wire that connected all the pins of all the grenades beneath her gown…she pulled the wire anyway…"
By Jacqueline Cervantes

In order to understand what propels a woman to engage in violence during war, it is imperative to first understand the complexities of war, including its prehistoric history, and the roles women have played in warring relative to their cultural norms.

Hardly anyone would disagree that war is a heart-wrenching ordeal and brings dark anguish upon the people of the society being defended. Yet, war also has a flip side for those engaged in direct fighting as well as those witnessing it. War brings on feelings of exhilaration and states have come to view war as a natural and necessary endeavor that must be undertaken in order to maintain the survival of the nation.

Oddly enough, the emotions felt by militant women as they do battle with their foe have been described as seductive, rebellious, exciting, sense of purpose, a sense of freedom. Moreover, there is no shortage of romance for even during warring women’s femininity continues to lie deep within their spirits. Still they must project a strong persona, one who is just as capable as the men are. Repeatedly, combative women respond to their calling and they do it with remarkable charm and valor.

Women’s roles in societies have customarily been distinguished from those of men. Their roles in warring also have been clearly delineated and boundaries unmistakably demarcated.
Society,through its body of rules and its numerous institutions, has conventionally dictated their roles within the boundaries of militancy. Assisting in subordinate roles is always welcomed and encouraged. Actually fighting in the war is not. Yet women have demanded to be integrated in all aspects of war including frontline fighting.

Studies indicate that during times of conflict women experience the same feelings of nationalism and patriotism that men do. They also experience the identical psychological traumas as well as the same emotions that are inherent to wars. It makes sense that women then will not be satisfied with having stay within the boundaries that society has placed them in during times of war.

This paper does not in any way undermine the heroic contributions of non-combatant military women. It does however tell the story of those women who chose to break rank, and forced themselves out of gender stereotypes and chauvinistic restraints to arrive where their hearts led them. They are the pioneers, the nonconformist, and the mavericks that struggled to progressively crack the mold of conventional modes. Their individualistic positions to take up arms and actually kill in times of warring has come to be for many of the Ferocious Few a great achievement.

More specifically, this is the story of Palestinian female suicide bombers who have deemed it critical to actively and personally declare war on Israel and on the chokehold they have on the Palestinians. By blowing themselves up, they contribute in the most honorable way possible to bringing down the enemy.

Since January, 2002, Palestinian women have heightened their involvement in the Israeli conflict by joining the ranks of men who use themselves as human bombs and commit acts of suicide bombings. While women commit these militant acts as an attempt to bring resolution to the struggle that is taking place, and not necessarily to break down gender roles, they have nonetheless found themselves challenging traditional cultural standards that prohibit them from engaging in war affairs.

The phenomenon of women committing violent actions in times of turbulence is not as unusual as many seem to assume. However, the involvement of militancy by women is an issue that is complex and one that dates back to ancient history and across many nations. So varied is the information and the assumptions of those who study and report on this matter, that it is not always possible to explain it in conclusive terms.

Headline news during the past year has shocked the world with revelations that Palestinian female suicide bombers were now responsible for carrying out attacks. The reason for this ultimate act of sacrifice is the intensified clash in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. The involvement by women has had extreme effects on cultural norms and created incongruity between genders. Palestinians have long had a cultural set of rules that markedly describe gender roles. The rules have dictated the separation of the sexes and prescribed that women keep to the private space of the home. Now women engaged in combat place themselves in public frontlines, alongside men with whom they are not blood related. This creates a double trajectory militant women must undertake—convincing society of their distinguished contributions to the cause while at the same time reconstructing normative ideals which will allow them to advance toward their ultimate goal of warring. Those who succeed deserve to have their voices heard.

In attempting to understand this unique group of women, much in-depth analysis must be made. By studying militant women from Western and Asian nations, we can better understand the psychological make-up of Palestinian warriors. In every applied case, women have experienced the same intense desires to serve in military affairs, including active combat and killing.

During the early months of 2002, four Palestinian women have shocked the world by strapping bombs to their bodies and detonating them in crowded places where Jewish people gather. These women have responded to the call for war against Israel as a way of both protecting their families and homes and as a way of retaliation for the injustices they have been made to endure.

Female warriors are the unlikely heroes who fight the enemy using little more than cunning and courage as their driving force. These women have undoubtedly changed the face of the conflict in Israel as they engage in suicide bombings that overshadow traditions because of their dramatic effect. It is commonplace for men to carry out such ultimate sacrifices, but for women, long believed to live within very clearly defined roles imposed by the men, and prevented from doing things reserved exclusively for men such as fighting wars, few, if any Israelis suspected that women would be allow to carry out this act of vengence.

“Israeli military occupation, the basic context for this phenomenon” has incited women into “expressing their resistance and refusal of illegal occupation of their lands and lives, and they have been killed and injured in the hundreds because of it. It is no surprise that women would also try to resist occupation.” (Allen) Now “radicalized young Muslim women—in particular those who have lost relatives in the intifada—have said they want to be more closely involved with the armed struggle.” (Beaumont) It appears that if women are becoming more radical, it is totally due to the intolerable and atrocious conditions imposed on them by the Israelis.

Women in the military have gained strength by joining forces with those involved in the movement but not in direct combat. Elshtain points out that “militant mother and pacifist protestor alike, as the collective ‘other’” join forces in confronting “the male warrior.” (3) This approach undoubtedly proves the power of unity.

Among all female warriors, a sense of nationalism is the thread that is weaved through all of their undertakings. Elshtain refers to women in combat as a “complex construction” who “have structured conflicts and collaborations, have crystallized, and imploded what successive epochs imagine when the subject at hand is collective violence.” (x) In sum, female suicide bombings may not be about Palestinian women setting out to break down gender stereotypes. After all Palestinian men are not the real enemy—Israelis are the actual foe. Instead, they are about assisting in a struggle in which they are equally as affected as men but have first needed to work around societal prohibitions in order to achieve their goals of militarism.

The first woman believed to have carried out a suicide bombing during the current intifada was 28-year-old Wafa Idres. On January 27, 2002, she detonated a bomb she had strapped to her body. The shocking incident was of such magnitude that initially many speculated that she was simply transporting the bomb and that she had not set out to deliberately discharge it herself. Soon stories began to surface about Idres’s personal involvement in the Palestinian struggle and more specifically about the way in which she had personally been affected by Israeli oppression. More people began to accept the theory that she had intentionally carried out the explosion. Martyrdom, the divine reward for giving up one’s life for the benefit of a movement, took on greater significance. This ultimate honor would no longer be reserved exclusively for men but has instead been unfastened to include women.

Writer Peter Beaumont notes that “[i]n a dramatic departure for Palestinian extremist organisations—which have previously banned women from becoming suicide bombers” women are now being deployed to carry out these attacks. With few exceptions, “extreme acts of violence have not generally been part of the lexicon of Palestinian women’s struggle.” (Brooks) Marina Barham, who lives in the West Bank, is quoted by Brooks as saying that “’[a] lot of women have been involved in political factions, but over the years women have taken a different role, and not just a supportive one.’”

According to Inigo Gilmore, “After the death of [the] first suicide bomber, dozens of women are signing up for military operations against Israel.” Gilmore also concurs that until now “women had only played supporting roles in military and terrorist operations.… [T]his is a turning point [which] has given women a burst of enthusiasm.”

Stirred by that enthusiasm, 22-year-old Dareen Abu Aeshah became the second female suicide bomber. In this incidence, Abu Aeshah left behind a videotape making it clear that she had intentionally carried out this objective—to kill Israelis. Her brother, Tawfiq said that she “strongly believed ‘that the role of women in Palestinian society is not only to cry and keep the household, but to participate in such acts.’” (Contenta)

Many groups, including radical Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic jihad went on public record to express support on behalf of women wishing to take on these types of missions. Journalist Sophie Claudet quotes several sources as they each take shots at rationalizing these otherwise forbidden acts by women. According to Claudet, sociologist Liza Taraki explaines that “’non-religious organizations don’t have this kind of restriction and may decide to increasingly resort to women.’” Taraki further acknowledges that “’suicide attacks are done for effect, and the more dramatic the effect, the stronger the message; thus a potential interest on the part of some groups in recruiting women.’” Claudet notes that “Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a radical offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, … announced that it had created a special unit for women suicide bombers, naming it after Wafa Idris.” CNN journalist Jerrold Kessel, in a talk with anchor Paula Zahn, states that this is “a worrying development for the Israelis” as young women “are not just being recruited, but are recruiting themselves to what they see as a cause.” Zahn puts across that this “represents the wide recruiting effort that has gone down in the West Bank to get not only men involved but women involved in these attacks.” (Kessel)

Jean Bethke Elshtain in her book Women and War describes fluidly women’s perspectives on war. She details women’s feelings in terms of passion, romanticism, allure, and many others not commonly associated with war. Elshtain describes how this select group of women has a mission and an enthusiasm for acts of war that is perplexing to all but those from the same lines. So strong is their drive that they have transcended immense obstacles and have performed incredible acts of courage in order to achieve their purpose—to fight in combat against the enemy.

Although Elshtains’ accounts of women at war are centered in Western countries, many analogies can be drawn to women at war in the Middle East. Breaking down gender roles, withstanding societal criticisms, degrading attacks on their femininity, and so on, have been issues that both Palestinian and Western women in the military have had to overcome.

On March 29, 2002, eighteen-year-old Aayat al-Akhra became the third woman to commit suicide by blowing herself up. In response, “the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Korai said ‘Israel is pushing us more and more. If it continues, there will be a million suicide bombers.’” (Usher) "There is a feeling that if there is no other form of resistance other than to sacrifice oneself, then I will sacrifice myself for Palestine," says Fayha' Abdel Hadi, member of the Palestinian National Council. (Laban)

On April 12th, 2002, twenty-year-old Andaleeb Takafka, who preferred to be called Suha, became the 4th woman to commit kamikaze in a great effort to bring liberation to the her people. The militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade released a videotape of Suha where she gives a glimpse into the mindset of women who have chosen to lay down their lives for a chance at deliverance from Israeli forces. In the tape she says that “’when you want to carry out such an attack, whether you are a man or a woman, you don’t think about the explosive belt or about your body being ripped into pieces. We are suffering. We are dying while we are still alive.’” She goes on to say, “’I am prepared to sacrifice my life for the cause. This (bombing mission) is the highest level of jihad (holy war), and I hope God will give me the honor of doing it.’” (Zoroya)

The group’s rationale regarding the “decision to begin using women was a simple change in tactics” according to Al-Aqsa commander Fayer Jaber, who is charged with the training of suicide bombers. “’Women don’t cause any suspicions in the way they look…. The way they dress, it’s easier … to carry out such missions.’” Jaber further maintains that “’there are no religious strictures that bar women from volunteering for suicide missions.’” (Zoroya)

Some Israelis now consider that there is no difference between the attitudes of Palestinian men and women. Believing this to be the case, Israeli government spokesman Daniel Seaman claims that they have “broadened the profile of potential human bombs to include women. … The assessment is that we are going to be seeing more female suicide bombers than male.”

Since January 2002, there have been four successful female suicide bombings. This supposed new trend cannot be fully understood except within the content of broader issues and relative history. Terrorism today is very widespread—and its consequence so much more deadly, that the entire world is focused on what is happening in the Middle East. NATO leaders are rigorously striving to assist governments in terrorist-torn countries to resolve their differences and establish peace in the affected regions. Results so far seem to be of limited effect as was evident during Colonel Powell’s recent peace negotiations in Israel.

A perceived alteration of traditional social values does not necessarily signify a set of new gender dynamics. For women engaged in military endeavors, victory has been a series of confrontations and they have had to constantly reconstruct cultural norms in order to be supported: Their triumphs have not often been "accompanied by a concomitant positive transformation in status.” While men “gain prestige and status from sustained militancy… women gain status if they go beyond what is expected and achieve martyrdom or are wounded, carry out incredibly heroic acts, or abide by high moral standards. (Peteet, 152)

Women involved in movements of militarism do not by any means go totally unrewarded. These women are mission-oriented—they derive satisfaction from accomplishing their duties. Furthermore, “[w]omen in the military are more respected and accepted as equals by their male counterparts than women in the offices.” (Peteet, 156) Feminine traits are also interpreted differently as conventional characteristics of “beautification techniques, passivity, demureness, and shyness” do not apply. Rather, women in the Palestinian struggle “occupy a gender neutral…position” and “morally correct behavior and stoicism in the face of adversity” more accurately describes their femininity. (Peteet, 154)

From among the “Ferocious Few” has sprung a specialzed Ferocious Fewer group whose acts of war cause many to cringe. They are the ones who “have found a home inside the world of terror.” (Elshtain,178) For Palestinian women, the attainment of honor inherent in martyrdom and the promise of an everlasting life in a better world, coupled with a desire for revenge, are the forces that lend power to their actions.

According to Lori Allen, “there is no single theory about what makes suicide bombers do what they do, and no firm opinion about their usefulness or morality”. One Palestinian woman is quoted as expressing the confusion that permeates their everyday lives. She said that “’[i]t’s impossible to judge anything these days. Impossible to make any evaluations.’” (Allen, Middle East Report) If it is confusing to them, one can well imagine how long it will take to make full and correct evaluations of women’s involvement in violent acts.

Women have traditionally been considered the preservers of peace—“Beautiful Soul,” and men as the instigators of war—“Just Warrior. However, Elshtain contends that these categorizations “do not denote what men and women really are in time of war.” (4, italics in original) Instead, they serve to re-enforce societal mandates about men’s and women’s places in times of war. Both men and women are injured by these classifications. Not all men have spirits of warriors and some identify more easily as pacifist resisters while many women cannot bear to just sit and cry and are more productive in active involvement. “Some feminists proclaim a ‘right to fight’: they, too, can be Just Warriors.” Elshtain refers to these women as “the Ferocious Few.” (8)

“Palestinian women perceive themselves as victims of Zionism not as women…” (Peteet, 42) In the early part of the 20th century, Palestinian women in Israel organized movements to resist injustices. Though they had to still conform to normative behavior, women were able to improvise techniques by which they could carry out their missions while still adhering to social structure. Palestinian women’s movements according to Peteet, underwent four time periods: 1920-1929, 1936-1939, 1947-48 and 1948-65. During the first period, women’s role in conflicts was simply one of support. In the 1929-1936 era, women’s involvement increased and for the first time were involved in combat, “particularly in the armed rebellion” and “the precedence of women in combat was established…mark[ing] a new approach in the Palestinian response” against the British military forces and increasing number of Jewish immigrants. (52) These were peasant women whose homes—their private domain—were under siege. Since they were protecting their homes and families, men did not feel threatened with women’s militant involvement and did not view their acts as challenging gender specific roles.

During the stage of 1947-1948, the massive exodus of refugees from Israel into neighboring Arab countries caused organized women’s movements to splinter. For women refugees in Lebanon, reorganization began almost immediately and during the fourth stage in the 1960s under the auspices of the women’s movement Al-Nakbah, “women took up military training in a sustained fashion.” (58)

This most recent stage of women in conflict has enjoyed the inclusion of women from middle to upper societal classes who in the past had limited their involvement to doing charitable and social work. Now Palestinian high society ladies and peasant women alike find themselves living together in refugee camps in a country that is not their homeland. Their shared experiences of pain unite them in a cohesive unit of strength and purpose. The presence of upper and middle class women in the various organizations further strengthens their positions as they are generally well educated and better spoken and can take on high leadership roles in political negations and are able to voice their political consciousness in ways that are persuasive.

Palestinian and Israeli relations represent the ugliest and lowest forms of human interrelationships. Israelis have expatriated millions of Palestinians from Israel. Millions have sought refuge in neighboring Arabic countries. As jihad rages on, they wait and hope while living under grim conditions. Still they continue to persevere under awful circumstances.
Widespread Palestinian demonstrations have been termed the Al Aqsa intifada, named after the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem that was the site of the first Israeli massacre of seven worshippers who were gunned down. The term intifada has been consciously chosen in imitation of the seven-year uprising against Israeli occupation, which began in 1987 and only ended with the signing of the Oslo accords in September 1993. During the first intifada, unarmed youths confronted Israeli soldiers with stones in scenes that were to become symbolic of the Palestinian struggle across the world. The second and current intifada is not only fought in the same manner, but has been taken to another level as Palestinians turn themselves into “human bombs.” (Nimer)

Men have been reluctant to give up their customary privileges. Yet, no man wants to be labeled a sexist. Sexism today is analogous to racism. People professing progressive ideologies do not care to be judged as being bias. No longer can men apply a superficial coating of cultural norms and customs as a valid reason to subjugate women.

Femininity has also come under attack for women who take an active role in politics and militancy. Peteet quotes a husband who laments, “’Our women aren’t women anymore; they have become men….even when they go home they are no longer women’” (152-53) Sadly, men continue to define femininity by women’s traditional roles and appearances and not by their unique spirituality.

There are men who from the time they are small boys are fascinated with the armed forces and go through life preparing for military careers. Many women also experience “the battle call” and are lured by “the seductions of war” and “dream of being warriors” and “prefer to abandon weeping for weapons.” (Elshtain, 10) War stirs the female spirit and the allure of combat is extremely compelling, “even to the extent of forfeiting one’s life….” (Elshtain, 11) Many feel like Nathan Hale, a hero of the American Revolution, who just before he was hung by the British stated, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” (Hale) Queen Elizabeth I of England, a warrior in her own right, said in her famous speech to her soldiers just before they went to war, “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king…” These same sentiments can be said of all women who fearlessly confront their enemies.

“Feminine valor” is infinite and long after wars and battles have ended, women continue to experience feelings of exhilaration over war. (Elshtain, 176) Reflecting on their past war experiences, they “have described their wartime activities as personally liberating despite pervasive fears and almost paralyzing anxieties.” (Elshtain, 177, italics in original)

It is likely that for the younger generations of Palestinian men, who have grown up seeing their mothers and sisters involved in military politics, the internal conflict they experience regarding gender roles is not as acute as that of the older generations. In time we will learn the impact women’s militarism has had on them.

Part of the problem for men is that war removes women from the private space of the home and places them in the public sphere of the combat zone. While allowing women to do this, men too have had to reconstruct traditional values and therefore have set the standards by which women acquire honor in war as outlined by Peteet. (154). It is their way of coming to terms with women’s unconventional yet exceptional achievements.

Projections of a peaceful coexistence in Israel appear to be non-existent. Nothing we hear or read about indidates that this situation will soon be alleviated. Emotions are in such a tangled web of heightened anxiety that it undoubtedly is going to take intervention from impartial nations to bring peace to this region. The urgent need to strengthen peace prospects between these two factions of different social structures is more imperative now than ever before. Forced expansionist ideology and attitudes by the Israelis must be halted if peace* is to have a chance in this region. The consciousness of the Israelis as well as that of the world has to be awakened; yet, the Palestinians have had their voices silenced for so long that prospects for peace are improbable. This thus is the result of decades of conflict between two factions—two groups so devastatingly fractured that it is easy to abandon any hopes for resolution.

Today Israel is in a state of anarchy. World opinion is split between the claims of professed logical arguments from both sides. Yet it has been the Israelis who have received backing from capitalist Western nations. Under McWorld’s driving force of capital interest, Israel has acquired artillery of mass destruction and access to advanced military technology while the Palestinian were left to rely on rocks as their weapons of defense. While jihad appeals to the spirit, McWorld is entirely indifferent to human frailty and “shows only a passing interest in the [human] spirit.” (Barber, 215). “The complaints against McWorld represents impatience not just with its consumption-driven markets and its technocratic imperatives, but with its hollowness as a foundation for a meaningful moral existence” (Barber, 275) and jihad is compelled to “make war on the present to secure a future more like the past.” (Barber, 215)

Are we to then presuppose that peace may never come to these people? Most live in extreme poverty and struggle day-to-day to support their families. They hold on to ancient ways of life in a world where those in power are more into their own self-interests and where capitalistic standards fund the way to attainment of such interests with no regard to valuing that which is of worth to others. The situation is extremely complicated and rationales do not often stand up to critisism. Logic achieved by such gruesome measures should not be validated, yet legitimacy to Israel’s violations of human rights has been extended by democratic nations such as England and the United States. Lending credence to Israel has widen the level of chaos between Western and Arabic countries.

It is a fact that in times of struggle women have always taken a stance alongside their male counterparts. Self-sacrifice is not a new trend to women, both worldwide and throughout the ages. From Joan of Arc who lead the French armies against the English, to the Tamil Tiger rebels of Sri Lanka, where “the most intense female guerrilla fighters come from” (Pearson), women have been huge instruments of support to men and have often paid with their lives during movements shaped by feelings of hopelessness and despair. When women get involved in political warfare, their faith is re-established, they feel empowered and optimism is elevated. Eric Hoffer in The True Believer illustrates that movements help by restoring faith and hope and “it matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion.” (9)

In a book review of Vietnam Women At War: Fighting for Ho Chi Minn and the Revolution by Sandra C. Taylor, writer Spencer C. Tucker credits the writer by stating that “[t]he book fills a niche” that historically has “contain[ed] little on women and the part they played.” These Vietnamese female warriors “were vital in determining the outcome” of the Vietnamese War and “were critical in the Communist victory.” (Tucker)

As limited and restricted as movement for Palestinians is, women in general have had it a bit easier. Israelis have generally viewed them as less threatening and have allowed them marginal freedom to move about in places like Jerusalem. If female suicide bombings continue to escalate, it can well be expected that retaliation by Israelis will be to go on witch-hunts and they will be quick to remove such limited privileges. Israelis will take it even further by striking with deadly force at women more readily then they have in past. Can Palestinians afford this type of backlash? Certainly not and it is precisely for this reason that we may not see an escalation of female suicide bombings.

Not all female warriors walk away from having killed without a heavy heart and a weighty conscience over having taken the life of another human being. However, the “Ferocious Few” go on to their post-war lives with feelings of having done the right thing. Elshtain quotes Marisa Masu, an Italian Resistance fighter, who after World War II was said, "At that time it was clear that each Nazi I killed, each bomb I helped to explode, shortened the length of the war and saved the lives of all women and children…. I never asked myself if the soldier or SS man I killed had a wife or children. I never though
about it." (176)

Masu had a clear conscious about her mission—she believed her contribution to the war shortened its duration and peace could be more quickly restored—and besides she was ridding the world of very evil men. For women like Masu, killing the enemy is not cruelty. It is justice. Elshtain further quotes Soviet fighter Nadya Popova as confidently stating that, “’War requires the ability to kill.” (178)

Throughout history men and cultural standards have not been the only opponents of female warriors. Elshtain goes on to list others such the Non Combatant Many (women who prefer to stay at home and care for their families), the media’s portrayal of their efforts and of their personas, war posters which depict them only as care providers, protesters whose criticisms have struck daggers on their souls, and obstacles base on their physical strength. And currently Palestinians from all sectors have society “have made an urgent appeal to stop suicide bombings” to the forces that be. (Qumsiyeh) Through it all, militant women have steadfastly persevered.


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