The Bomb Squad: Female Suicide Bombers and Language

On our Friday links, we try to bring you news stories about Muslim women from all over the globe. Unfortunately, sometimes those news stories include tragic events, including women actively involved in the deaths of others by means of bombing public places.

When men do this, it is termed suicide bombing, freedom fighting, terrorism, and/or jihad. Thus, it is the same when women do it, no matter what Al-Qaeda thinks.

Time recently published an article, “The Mind of a Female Suicide Bomber.” It gives an insight into literally one woman’s life and supposed thought process as she undertook a mission. Feminist Philosophers has a great article discussing this article and treatment of female suicide bombers in the media:

“[Marilyn] Friedman also claims that from the outsider perspective and in the media, it is frequently the case that the women are regarded as coerced and mere puppets. … 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…

I do not believe what female suicide bombers do is right; nor do I believe the same action has any merit when men do it. They are killing people, their own sisters, brothers, and children. This is wrong, no matter your reasoning.

But I am also torn, because I understand their reasoning: this is a war, their homes are being attacked, they are losing scores of loved ones, they are desperate, they feel this is the only way to give themselves agency. There is also the theoretical argument of martyrdom, which I don’t agree with: these men and women cannot be martyrs because they are killing innocents. I just can’t see that as okay.

But as one whose agency and/or voice is taken away from her by dominant structures of patriarchy (obviously, I’m referring to different agencies and choices than those faced by women in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine; it’s not my intent to assume that the power structures that I face as a Muslim woman in the West are the same type as those in the Middle East), how can I condemn the agency that these women give themselves? As a Muslim woman who believes in sisterhood and recognizes that patriarchal implementations of Islam don’t allow women access to political power or personal agency, how can I criticize these women’s choices to commit acts that they see as striking against occupation (a very patriarchal idea)? Assuming that these women actually make the conscious choice to commit such actions, they are doing so in an attempt to exercise control over a system (war or occupation) that victimizes them and offers them no choices.

Whenever a story like this comes up, and I include it on the Friday Links, I always hesitate when typing a description blurb. I’m unsure of what language to use: what should I call these women, who are my sisters, but who do horrible things that I cannot condone?

“Suicide bomber” conjures up images of someone with no regard for others–which, on the surface, seems right, but the idea of martyrdom posits the idea that these people who kill themselves are doing so as a sacrifice. The designation of “terrorist” is also unfair: some of these people are not killing themselves only with the express purpose of harming others, but also with the aforementioned and misguided intent of somehow making things better for those they leave behind. The designation of “terrorist” serves to dehumanize these people and ignore the cruel circumstances that cause their choices. The idea of “freedom fighter” is also too simplistic: it glosses over the dangerous and murderous consequences of the actions that these people undertake.

How should we talk about female suicide bombers? What kind of language can we use that neither demonizes nor glorifies them? Language that doesn’t sanction the destruction of their actions, but doesn’t ignore the suffering and desperation that leads one to make such a horrific decision?

  • Forsoothsayer

    it’s very interesting to me that you see occupation as a patriarchal concept. would you mind elaborating on this?it might be suggested that violence is in itself patriarchal (or at least as much so as occupation). in which case committing it might be seem as being dominated by patriarchy as well…

  • Rabia

    However compassionate we may feel for the circumstances that led these women to their decision, their actions deserve our complete and open condemnation. They are killing themselves and usually innocents men, women and children. Muhammad (saw) prohibited both as weapons of war. For no reason or time or place should that ever be tolerated from our brothers and sisters. To be honest, I am angered by this grey area you present. We can feel sympathetic to the plight of these women without making an argument that it is kinda sorta maybe a little ok to kill innocent people because it’s fighting the patriarchy. That’s the last thing the ummah needs.And I don’t have the same issue with semantics that you do. I feel “suicide bomber” is perfectly adequate in describing their actions and only their action. A suicide and a bomb. It doesn’t describe intent, it doesn’t hint at the number of victims there might be, it doesn’t reveal the prejudices of the person who uses the term.

  • Yasin

    “misguided misanthropists”

  • Zeynab

    Rabia, thanks for your comments. But I never stated that it was “kinda sorta maybe a little ok to kill innocent people because it’s fighting the patriarchy.” Nor did I mean to imply that there’s a grey area that makes suicide bombing acceptable. Let me restate this for clarity: killing other people is never okay. No matter how you do it. Thus, SUICIDE BOMBING IS NOT OKAY. In the media, there is increased coverage about female suicide bombers, and they are portrayed as weak, brainwashed pawns or purely evil people. In reality (as the Time article suggests), their choices and lives are much more complex. I wanted to highlight the fact that these women are still human, and more than empty vessels who are coerced or itching to kill people.

  • Zeynab

    Occupation as a patriarchal concept: patriarchy is a system which dominates, controls, and “reigns in” women, yeah? I view occupation as a patriarchal extension because occupying armies control occupied populations (curfews, checkpoints, house searches, etc.); occupation doesn’t allow occupied people to have agency for themselves, to decide how they’re going to govern themselves or deal with social issues. Also, occupying armies often have the effect of bringing back misogynist and hypertraditional behavior into a society because it feels under attack. Look at Iraq: women are increasingly being pushed out of the workforce and public spaces, not by the occupying armies, but by their own countrymen. These men feel Iraqi way of life (as they see it) is under attack, and can use this as an excuse to enforce patriarchal behavior and get away with punishing women who don’t comply (those who work, go to school, or don’t wear headscarves).

  • I need my Sisters, where are You?

    The human soul has many different levels/shades. I’m not sure, but to me, it feels as if you are refering to the social psychology of these women. The stuff made for Sociologist! There should be more field study into these occurances. There are so many unanswered questions, that we have the right to ask. However, you are right to be careful, because you will so easily be labeled as an apologist. By the way I agree with you 100%, “occupation is a very patriarchal concept”, the military is a very patriarchal institution. A boy’s club with a locker room mentality. There was an intersting study made years ago, that governments with a higher ratio of women participating were less likely to go to war or cause conflict. And it reflects your last comment very much. I know this reference is neither here nor there but there are hints of this present in China. Now that there are 17 million more men then women in China, the crime rate is dramatically increasing (demographers concluded that men who do not have spouses, wifes, girlfriends are more likely to commit crimes) and drug uses etc. Not to mention that these 17 million more men will be seeking “brides” outside and also contributing to this territorial expansion by the military blah blah blah…… you get what mean. I get what you mean.

  • Krista

    Salaams,Oh Zeynab, I think I’m going to like blogging with you :) I’m always a little on the neurotic side when it comes to making sure the words I use really reflect the meaning I want to say… The “suicide bomber” label isn’t one I’ve given much thought to, but I totally agree with what you’re saying.A lot of my problem with this term (and others) comes from the fact that labels so easily become monolithic. When we say “suicide bomber,” we erase all the other categories that this person might fit into. My point here isn’t even to ask for any sympathy, or even necessarily to advocate for the rights of these women to be understood beyond the simple labels that we attribute to them. But, simplifying the issue by applying one supposedly all-encompassing phrase does no one any favours.In these situations, I tend to focus on naming the action, rather than labelling the person… I think that even something like “a woman who committed a suicide bombing” at least allows us to conceive of her as a person who existed in ways other than solely a “suicide bomber.” It’s not about approving of what this woman did, but at least we can create space to explore what it means that she did it, rather than just falling back on all the pre-packaged assumptions that come with the category of “suicide bomber.” Even so, the “suicide bombing” idea is still pretty loaded, so maybe we re-word it again to talk about “a woman who exploded a bomb in [x] location, killing herself and [#] others around her.” Or whatever. Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that I think there are times when using a phrase like this to describe someone (as in, this person IS a suicide bomber, terrorist, etc.) does more harm than good, and maybe we’re better off just re-wording so that we avoid putting ourselves into a position of having to use a specific term.It’s not a great solution in that it can often lead to clumsy and roundabout wording (in the same way that, for example, being someone who was not raised Muslim and is now Muslim, but can’t stand the word “convert” and never uses it, complicates my life considerably!) On the other hand, I really think the words we use can be very powerful, and I think sometimes it’s worth avoiding a word or phrase if we worry about the stereotypes or assumptions that it might be reproducing.Eek. Sorry this was so long! I’ll leave you alone now so that I can start cooking up my own blog post…

  • Rawi

    There’s a lot to think about here. But right now I happen to be recalling the story of that Bengali woman who hanged herself, and which serves as the point of departure for Gayatri Spivak’s famous article, “Can the Sublatern Speak?” There, too, the question of agency was critical.The intersections of occupation and patriarchy has been noted by others as well.

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