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?

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