Maria Alvanou

National Defense College Working Paper no. 3
May 2007

 Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers: The Interplaying Effects of Islam, Nationalism and Honor Culture


Strategic Research and Policy Center
National Defense College, IDF
Copyrights by the National Defense College, IDF


In the context of wars and conflicts, women have tended to be classified within the single category "women and children", as the "vulnerable" victims who suffer under violence with no means of defence. But women are not necessarily always vulnerable and on the contrary they have been actively engaging in many armed conflicts around the world, playing their own part in warring throughout history. In conditions of national struggles and revolutions women enter the arena of public activity, even in societies that restrict their participation in the general public and political sphere (Applewhite and Levy, 1990; Moghadam, 1993). Thus, it is not strange that they have played their role also in terrorism and have seized attention, because of their prominent contribution in numerous terrorist operations.

The female mark in suicide terrorism is no less impressive. One of the distinct features of the "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" (LTTE) has been the use of women who have delivered 30% to 40% percent of the group’s suicide attacks and whose ability to appear pregnant was exploited to hide explosives (Coomaraswamy, 2002: 61-64; Filkins, 2000; Dolnik, 2003: 24). One of the most infamous attacks, the suicide operation in 1991 that killed Rajiv Gandhi in India was staged by a woman (Gunaratna, 2000, 2000b, 2000c), as well as another big hit at a rally for Shri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga that cost the life to 23 people and the right eye to the president. The “Partiya Kerkeren Kurdistan” (PKK) used its women to carry out eleven out of fifteen successful suicide attacks against Turkey (Schweitzer, 2000: 82-83).

Women have also played a central role in the Chechen campaign against the Russians. The “Black Widows” of Chechnya have been responsible for about half of the suicide bombings in Groznyand Moscow and people spoke of a “Palestinization” of the Chechen struggle (Cronin, 2003:15). The parallelism is not an accidental one or just a figure of speech. The Palestinian-Israeli conflictv represents an ideal opportunity to study the phenomenon of contemporary female suicide terrorism.

Palestinians – in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – have launched a campaign of suicide attacks as part of their operational tactics since 1993 and especially after the start of the second “Intifada” in September Since January 2002, Palestinian women have heightened their involvement in the conflict by joining the ranks of men who use themselves as human bombs and commit acts of suicide bombings. Arafat’s plead: "You are the hope of Palestine. You will liberate your husbands, fathers, and sons from oppression. You will sacrifice the way you, women, have always sacrificed for your family" (Victor, 2003: 20) has been the call for the writing of a special, deadly and bloody chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the one of Palestinian women’s "martyrdom operations".

This paper is an attempt to explain the involvement of Palestinian women in suicide terrorism through the outlook and tools of criminology. What is unique about this scholarly discipline – and indeed its defining characteristicis the central question about the causes of crime. If terrorism is perceived as a crime, then any factor that affects or concerns the perpetrator has to be
analysed in order to break down the pattern of deviance and deter it adequately (Alvanou, 2006: 17-25).

Gender is one of these crucial factors, thus the female participation in suicide terrorism qualifies for special research, since the cultural, social and religious standards in the areas where it happens, put women in a very different position than this of men. They are "special" deviants, not because the operational method of their self-immolation differs from that of men, but because their womanhood plays a key role in the way the whole social environment influences them. It is the specific province of criminology, studying the manifestations of crime and social control – in relation to law, but also the conditions, processes and implications at the societal level – to contribute in identifying and analysing female suicide attacks. It can offer explanations valuable to the difficult task of counter-terrorism which will be more able to try and combat or modify the special characteristics of this special form of female criminal behaviour.

The problem of suicide "martyrs" is particularly difficult to understand. The perpetrators are willing not merely to risk their lives, but to commit themselves to die for their cause. It is this apparent readiness to sacrifice oneself that makes the threat of suicide terrorism so large and so incomprehensible, as most of us cannot imagine ourselves committing any such act. Suicide bombings seem to epitomize the violence of irrationality. They are a form of an extraordinary self-immolation, an act that operates against the most basic of all human instincts – the one of self preservation. And when women are involved, the issue becomes even more perplexed, taking in account that usually these women – like in the Palestinian case – have been brought up in a cultural environment that dictates their roles as mothers and submissive creatures. We’re more used to hearing about mad, bad, ruthless, male terrorists, though their actions as suicide bombers defy our understanding; on the other hand women exploding themselves totally destroy their traditional gender-roles as nurturing and caring.

The big question is, what leads Palestinian women to support and join violent organizations and commit such atrocious acts. Paraphrasing Simon De Beauvoir, Palestinian women suicide bombers are not born; they are made. Their suicide terrorism is a social fact in the Durkheimian sense, and it ought to "be explained not as an individual psychological aberration but as the product of specific social conditions" (Hage, 2003: 69). Rather than trying to figure out what kind of woman becomes a suicide bomber, it may be more useful to consider the "pull factors" that attract her in this horror spreading activity.

The present paper tries to answer the above question by exploring three key social dimensions and processes in the Palestinian
environment that affect women: Religion, Nationalism and Women’s Honour Culture.


The making of a female suicide bomber is a multileveled and complicated process taking place in the special Palestinian social settings. Many factors are contributing and they have to be seen in combination and not in solidarity. Most possibly, we have an explosive mix and the recipe demands all the elements to deliver its terrifying results. Yet, the catalyst – not the most important ingredient maybe, but the one that makes the combination work and gives the spark – probably is religion; present everywhere, influencing everything, a mentality, a way to see and interpret facts, a whole way of life.

More than one criminologist has pointed out that the disciplines of theology, religion and philosophy have had important things to say about terrorism (Stitt, 2003; Kraemer, 2004). It is also a fact that about a quarter of all terrorist groups and about half of the most dangerous ones on earth are primarily motivated by religious concerns. They believe that God not only approves of their actions, but that God even demands their actions. Their cause is sacred and consists of a combined sense of hope for the future and vengeance for the past. Most religious traditions are filled with plenty of violent images at their core and destruction or self-destruction is a central part of the logic behind religion-based terrorism (Jurgensmeyer, 2001).

Yet, not all Muslim women (or men for that matter) – fortunately – but quite a few readily embrace the violent inclination and are willing to actually explode themselves up. Islam, though central because of the indoctrination power of religion and central focus in Palestinian society, cannot be considered alone the sole and exclusive key behind the "martyrdom" culture. "To be tempted to go to Paradise means that life on earth is hell" (Victor, 2003: 178-179). The dramatic situation and violence of the conflict are unmistakably influencing the phenomenon. "The kind of human suffering rampant in the Middle East is a breeding ground for hatred and anger" (Davis, 2003: 22) and this could not be truer than in the little piece of land disputed by Israelis and Palestinians. While academics can theorize for years, the fact remains that the "Occupied Territories" are a place of torment for the Palestinians (and the Israeli soldiers who fight there), where misery, violence, despair and loss of hope rule. Suicide violence is in a large percent a by-product of the lack of viable political and social alternatives to the "Palestinian problem", faced by the Palestinians, who claim (rightly or wrongly is beside the point anymore) the liberation of their land. In that sense nationalism accompanies religion, and makes its own contribution.

But again, the picture stays incomplete. Nearly all Palestinians feel oppressed, violated; they want their homeland freed and they believe in a religion that calls for "Jihad" and "holy war" against the "infidel" Jew, the responsible occupying force that stole their land, their "Holy Land" and made suicide operations the latest social trend, embraced and venerated. Despite that, not all Palestinians go to carry out a suicide mission. More importantly and relevant to the subject, not all Palestinian women become human bombs spreading death. Most of them stay at home.

It appears that the dynamics of female suicide bombers are driven primarily by issues related to honour and revenge rather than ideology and this is an important part of the deadly equation. In this case the idea that women’s crime is deeply affected by women’s place in society starts to explain women’s contribution to suicide violence. Personal systems of meaning gain effectiveness by the link to the community in which they are embedded; meaning and individual are intertwined.

Suicide terrorism has a special appeal to those women marginalized in a personal or societal way. People identify themselves and their actions in a social order by means of the system of meaning-bearing structures. The "Shahida" is actually a problematic woman, not a hero, and neither Islamic fundamentalism nor national heroism can explain her "martyrdom" without this parameter of problematic social past. The female "human bomb" is "thrown" by the cannon of the Palestinian society, forced to kill the enemy in dignity and gaining perdition to her social "sins", instead of getting killed – anyway – in shame.

Of course, one can observe rightly that the patriarchal structures and traditions are legitimized and fostered by the dominance of religious institutions and jurisdictions (Herrman, 1997). An important dimension of patriarchal ideology is again religion and in order to understand the position of women in Palestinian society and the whole notion of honour, shame and sexuality, one should consider the Islamic context, as it constitutes a fundamental socio-cultural and organizational background of the Palestinian society and gender role.

There are no easy victories over the phenomenon of terrorism and we cannot expect to eradicate it, anymore than we can expect to end murder and any other kind of crime. About combating female suicide terrorists the only solution proposed widely until now has been hiring more security guards, who are able to search women. This is the least to say an inadequate and simplistic measure. Yet, there are things to be done. While "we must not be diverted from dealing directly and swiftly with terrorists when they can be identified and found" (Bialkin, 1986), the more the policy establishment avoids facing the deep roots of violence, the deeper these roots will reach. A more balanced method should be used, one taking account the root causes, with an investigation of the complex social, economic, cultural and religious conditions. We are not dealing with an isolated, minuscule group of politically agitated mad people; they are social beings like everybody else and perhaps more so. The strategy should have to include policies to alter the political, cultural and even socio-economic contexts that perpetuate suicide attacks.

Counterterrorism policies have also to deal with the very important religious parameter. They need to focus more on undermining the "Jihadi socialization process" that inculcates values of "martyrdom" and the structures that support and sustain relevant cultural systems in places like the Palestinian territories. The Muslim religion itself has no organized leadership or central
authority and this also makes it easier for cults to spring up within Islam as alternative sources of social cohesion. The religious rationale of the radicals and extremists should be debunked. Changes in behaviour will occur when the community no longer views suicide bombings as accepted, normal and even heroic and divinely inspired behaviour. There should be plead to and encouragement of moderate Islam. "Only respected, moderate Muslims can speak to the young men and women who make up the backbone of the radical movements in order to stop their flight into the ranks of the Jihadees as an outlet to their rage. These youths need to be convinced of the truth of another Islam. They need to be convinced of Islam’s preference for peace" (Davis, 2003: 196).

Last but not least, the call for the emancipation of women is eminent. Patriarchal mindsets should be challenged and effectively confronted. The vulnerability of women in the Palestinian reality calls for a deep freedom, democratization and gender equality process. Palestinian women should be made aware of the liberties they deserve, their human value and stand up to male dominance. Programs sponsored to ensure and promote education and work could help them find an active place in their social surroundings. When they stop being victims themselves and they become free people, able to choose and enjoy their lives, then they will stop being the easy prey and ammunition for terrorists’ organizations.

Closing, let us think on the following: Palestinian women may be accepted to explode themselves, but it seems as if death is the only dimension they can claim and enjoy equality in. The same organizations that send them to die in suicide operations, do not accept as participant members in the groups making and taking any decisions and this implies a cynical use of women. "The differences between men and women in a society steeped in
fundamentalism and a culture of double standards do not disappear even within that extraordinary concept of martyrdom" (Victor, 2003: xi introduction). The proof? Despite women’s great utilitarian importance in suicide operations, the families of the dead female martyrs receive a monthly allowance of 200 dollars (Flamini, 2004), which is half of what the male martyrs do…

Dr. Maria Alvanou
is a research associate in the Strategic Research and Policy Center, National Defense College, IDF, Israel. She is a member of the ITSTIME Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies of the Catholic University in Milan and the RIEAS Research Institute for European and American Studies dealing with terrorism issues. She is a defence lawyer, an expert court evaluator for terrorism cases and a lecturer at the Police Officers’ Post Educational Academy-Department of Thessaloniki dealing with issues of National Security and Terrorism.
She acquired her doctorate from the International Ph.D. Program in Criminology of Transcrime at the Joint Research Center on Transnational Crime, University of Trento and Catholic University of Sacro Cuore – Milan, Italy, where she was also an external collaborator. Her doctoral research focused on Palestinian female suicide bombers and for this reason she conducted fieldwork in Israel. She has also obtained an L.L.M. from the Department of History, Philosophy and Sociology of Law – Aristoteles University of Thessaloniki, Greece.