Sense of Injustice Drives Women Bombers

Experts link recent increase in female suicide bombers to wartime suffering and desire for revenge.

Sense of Injustice Drives Women Bombers

Experts link recent increase in female suicide bombers to wartime suffering and desire for revenge.

A head and pieces of flesh were all that were left of a woman who blew herself up near a security checkpoint in central Baghdad’s Al-Karrada neighbourhood in February.

The woman, strapped with explosives hidden under her clothing, approached a checkpoint. When security forces tried to search her, she turned and ran to a nearby shop.

Although they fired on the woman, it was too late. She detonated her bomb in front of the electronics store, killing herself and three others.

“She seemed to be a young woman,” said Bushra Mohammad, 28, an employee for a company in the same building who witnessed the incident. “She was wearing an abbaya [long cloak].”

Those are the only details known about the woman, whose motives and identity have yet to be revealed.

In Iraq, suicide bombings by women are increasing. This week, two women blew themselves up in Diyala province, bringing to nine the number of such suicide bombings in the first four months of 2008. There were six attacks in 2007, the worst at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, in which 40 people were killed.

Little is known about the lives or motivations of female suicide bombers in Iraq. Neither the women’s affairs ministry nor women’s organisations in Iraq have studied the threat.

Some analysts suggest that one reason for the rise is that women are using violence as a method of protest against perceived injustices and deteriorating living conditions.

Farhana Ali, an analyst at the Washington-based RAND Corporation, who has researched female suicide bombers, said, “Violence is used as a means of protest. Women are actually caught in a very difficult situation. We see them as perpetrators of violence, but they are more so victims of violence.”

Women’s groups maintain that Iraqi women have suffered the most from Iraq’s weak security and the breakdown of community and family structures. Iraqi women, they say, have lost the right to move freely and to work while suffering under the lawlessness that has gripped much of the country in recent years.

A survey released in March by the NGO Women for Women International reported that only 27 per cent of local women polled felt optimistic about the future of Iraq. Seventy-one per cent did not feel protected by the multi-national forces, and nearly nine out of ten feared their family members would become the victims of violence.

“Since the war stated, women have suffered all kinds of violence,” said Azhar al-Sharbaf, a legal expert at the ministry of women’s affairs. “It’s not surprising that a woman who suffers from repression becomes violent.”

Hanna Edward, head of the women’s rights advocacy group Al-Amal (Hope), believes that many female suicide bombers are driven by a desire for vengeance.

“The US military carries out raids and arrests that might separate women from their husbands and sons,” she said. “So the women might resort to thinking about taking revenge.”

Others suggest that women are being increasingly targeted by rebel groups, who are keen to attract new recruits.

Security forces often do not check women as thoroughly as men, giving them better access to security posts and crowded areas.

Some insurgent groups praise women for carrying out attacks on their websites and have begun online recruitment drives aimed at them.

“[Women] are a good target for organisations that want to exploit them for the interest of the groups,” said Edward, suggesting that some were drugged before being recruited as suicide bombers.

Most are believed to be Sunni Arab Iraqi women, recruited by insurgent groups like al-Qaeda.

“Al-Qaeda is suffering from a decline in its influence on Iraqis, and it is using women [suicide attacks] as a new tactic to attract more people to join the militants,” said Mohammad al-Askari, spokesman for the ministry of defence.

Askari suggested that the extremist group preyed on women who had lost relatives as a result of the conflict in Iraq.

“Al-Qaeda recruits women because their emotions can be manipulated, especially a woman who has lost a husband or son,” he said.

“They convince her that she lost her family because of the Americans or the government, and that these are her [personal] and religious enemies. Therefore, she must hit them.”

Askari told IWPR that women’s advocacy organisations and the ministries of defence and women’s affairs would begin studying why females are carrying out suicide attacks.

Ali suggested it was important to tackle the factors which drive women to become suicide bombers.

“In the long term, you have to solve their problems,” said Ali. “You have to end the conflict, and you have to provide women with opportunities.”

Reported by an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad, who declined to be named for security reasons.

Middle East editor Tiare Rath contributed to this report from Washington.
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