In January 2002, a 27-year-old Palestinian woman, Wafa Idris, became the first Palestinian female suicide bomber, blowing herself up on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. A few months ago, in late June 2005, another Palestinian young woman, Wafa al-Bas, followed, like others have, in Idris’ footsteps; in this case, however, she did not succeed. Attempting a suicide bombing of an Israeli hospital inside Israel where she received her medical treatment, she was caught by Israeli security who safely detonated the explosives tied to her undergarments.
In Russia, female Chechen suicide bombers have included women, including those who helped seize a Beslan middle school in September, 2004 and killed over 330 hostages, many of them children. Iran, meanwhile, is running a “suicide column” program in which it is actively recruiting members of the public, many of them women, to become suicide bombers.
What was once a male-dominated form of terror and suicide is now beginning to include a female component. What is the cause of this new phenomenon? Why are Islamic women becoming suicide bombers with increasing frequency? To discuss these and other question related to the She Bomber, we are joined by a distinguished panel today. Our guests are:
Dr. Anat Berko, Lt.Col. (ret.), an advisor to Israel’s Council for National Security, the governmental team dealing with Counter-Terrorism. She serves as an advisor to senior echelon decision makers in efforts to counter suicide bombers and their dispatchers. She is a Research Fellow with the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Inter-Disciplinary Center, Herzliya. She holds a Ph.D. in Criminology from Bar-Ilan University where she wrote her dissertation on “The Moral Infrastructure of Chief Perpetrators of Suicidal Terrorism”. She is the author of The Path to the Garden of Eden -The Inside World of Suicide Bombers, Male and Female, and Their Dispatchers, which is going to be published in English in the USA soon;
Joan Lachkar, Ph.D. , a psychoanalyst in private practice in Brentwood and Tarzana. She is the author of The Many Faces of Abuse: Treating the Emotional Abuse of High -Functioning Women. She also specializes in the psychology of terror and is the author of “The Psychological Make-Up of a Suicide Bomber in the Journal of Psychohistory (29(4): 349–367);
Nancy Kobrin, an affiliated professor to the University of Haifa, Arabist, psychoanalyst and author of the upcoming book, The Sheikh's New Clothes: Islamic Suicide Terror and What It's Really All About;
Phyllis Chesler, the author of 13 books including the forthcoming The Death of Feminism. What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom (Nov 05) which focuses on Islamic gender apartheid and on Muslim, Arab,and Middle Eastern female psychology, among other topics. She was once held captive in Kabul, Afghanistan and writes about it in this book. She is also the author of Women and Madness which has been updated and is being reissued at the same time;
FP: Anat Berko Joan Lachkar, Nancy Kobrin and Phyllis Chesler, welcome to our panel discussion.
We know, of course, that the phenomenon of the She-Bomber is inter-connected with a pathological misogynist culture in which young women are coerced and forced into suicide bombing through all kinds of violent and horrifying ways. Wafa Idris, for instance, couldn’t bear children and her husband divorced her. Discarded and shunned in a culture that sees a divorced woman who cannot bear children as worthless, she became the obvious target of exploitation for terrorist groups. We also know how many of these poor girls are raped and/or seduced into sex by terrorists and then threatened with being exposed in a culture that only ostracizes, but severely punishes, females who have lost their virginity before marriage. Suicide bombing is presented to them as the only option in which they can save their own -- and their family’s -- "honor."
Hopefully we will touch on all of these tragic realities in our discussion today and you, our esteemed panel of experts, can bring much wisdom and understanding to this tragic phenomenon. But before we narrow in on any one specific theme, let's start with an opening general statement from each of you in terms of what you think this phenomenon represents and what you consider to be its greatest significance.
FP: Dr. Berko?
Dr. Berko: I will begin with an example that demonstrates the situation that Arab women get caught up in when they are pushed into a corner and feel there is no escape and that leads them to become 'suicide murderers' – 'shahidas'.
Nazima (21) – a Palestinian security prisoner in an Israeli jail, as quoted in my book, "The Path to the Garden of Eden", needed to talk and tell her personal story:
"I did not want to die in a terrorist attack. About three months before the attack, I began training...I was a spoilt child and I hadn't planned on dying".
"I didn't tell my family a thing… my father would have killed me if he knew I was going to military training with the ‘shabab’ (guys)", I was told by Nazima, the girl who was coerced to become a 'shahida' against her will, because she had broken the taboo of associating with boys.
"My family is highly respected; certainly what I did, gained them even more honor."….
The dispatcher told me that I would be going on a suicide mission 'istishahad' (self-sacrifice)... "I began counting the days till my death, because they forced me to. I begged the 'adult' who was in charge of the military trainees, to release me from it. He told me 'Halas ya-binti' ("Enough my daughter"). I repeated my claim that I am not religious, that I don’t pray, and he replied, 'when you die, you will be closer to God. God will forgive you and allow you into the Garden of Eden, in spite of not praying.'
When a woman decides or is coerced to commit a suicide attack, she doesn't ask for permission from her family, knowing, of course, that it will not be given. In this way the social and moral code of the family in Arab society is broken. In fact, the family of the suicide terrorist is marginalized and neutralized of any influence on their daughter who is taken from her family's authority with no way of return, as we see in the example presented. One of the 'suicide terrorists' described her dispatchers thus:" They used me and abused me".
The Palestinian suicide terrorists who failed to explode regard the situation as another failure (mess up-'fashla') in lives of continuous failure and paid, as was said: "…Anyway I will never be of use to anyone … it would be better to explode."
FP: This is truly heartbreaking and a reality that our mainstream media, including Oprah, refuse to mention when discussing Palestinian female suicide bombers. It appears it has nothing to do with Israeli “oppression” but with the pathological yearning for mass death and suicide that permeates Islamist culture in general and Palestinian society in particular.
Lachkar: Thank you Anat, Nancy and Phyllis for welcoming me to this discussion. Without sounding too arrogant, I think the answer is relatively simple.
Women are given no respect by men and encourage their sons to have the same disregard toward women and their mothers. Women in fundamentalist Islam societies have no rights, no vote, and very low self-esteem. Fidelity is expected of the woman but not of the man. She learns to tolerate her pain, her shame in painful silence, and when she does not obey she becomes the receptacle for all the ills of society and is blamed because she is regarded as having an inherently evil nature. One way of granting permission, extending beyond religion and culture, to achieve "respect," honor and self-esteem by blowing oneself up.
FP: Dr. Chesler?
Chesler: I agree with both my colleagues although they are each saying slightly different, even contradictory, things.
Dr. Berko discusses Nazima who does not seem to have been abused by her family (but was, rather, spoiled by them). Perhaps her decision to become a suicide bomber is daring and rebellious, "western," individualistic, partaking of considerable hubris: Nazima wants to be as important as only a man can be in Palestinian society. She wants "honor."
Many male suicide killers also tend to be westernized, transcultural, educated, often affluent-enough. While Nazima may, indeed, have seen her father beat her mother or might herself have been beaten by her brother(s) or father, we only learn that she and other female suicide-killers were abused by their male handlers. But, failure brings ever-new feelings of self-hatred. ("I will never be of use to anyone...it would be better to explode." )
On the other hand, Dr. Lachkar is also right. The level of cultural, collective and family hatred of women, including wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and first cousins is surreal. In such a culture, which may vary from Muslim country to country, it is also possible that women who blow themselves up are merely "conforming" to their female destinies in which they are meant to sacrifice themselves for the collective good.
One might say that female soldiers in uniforms everywhere are also involved in both kinds of psychological processes. They want "honor" as individuals, and they want to serve their country and their people. Obviously, I do not equate fighting terrorism WITH terrorism, or fighting to bring liberty to the oppressed with blowing oneself up to kill and maim infidels; but, psychologically there may be commonalities.
FP: There may be commonalities, but let’s keep one thing in mind above all else: in democracies such as Israel, Israeli females choose if they want to be soldiers as a life profession. And in Israeli culture and military ideology, death is to be avoided and not to be sought. In the Palestinian context, females are abused and forced to kill themselves. Death, not life, is the ultimate goal.
Kobrin: Thank you Jamie, Anat, Phyllis and Joan. I agree with all that has been said so far with a few quibbles. As an aside, there were a rash of female suicide bombers in the mid-1980s in Lebanon but it definitely has become a more pronounced phenomenon in the past five years. These women seek honor – but it is male honor (sharaf) that they desire and they will never really achieve it because they are bound by female honor – ‘ird which means pelvis. They are quite concretely trapped by their culture’s view of the female body. The women wish for power and freedom from being chronically coerced and manipulated as devalued sex objects from day one of their birth.
Anat notes that the female suicide bomber tries to break out of this unbearable control by not asking permission from the family. It’s a naive declaration of independence but in the end this jailed female suicide bomber notes “I was used and abused.” Scapegoated. Joan points to her buying into blowing herself up in order to receive respect. I would add, that they throw themselves quite literally at their victims because they do not feel themselves to be ‘authentic’, i.e. truly alive. They scream that only they are the true believers. Phyllis emphasizes an important point, that of self-hatred which Anat quoting Nazima telling us about –“I will never be of use to anyone. . .it would be better to explode.” It is as if we can hear the parental/familial/cultural message Nazima was sent: I am female, I am worthless. I am nothing if I am independent. Scared to death, this female suicide bomber tried to murder in order not to die alone.
Jamie, I don't think you could have chosen a better title for this symposium – The She Bomber. I couldn't help but think of the Chechen National Anthem. This foundational song contains many of the elements we are talking about:
“We were born at night, when the she-wolf whelped.
In the morning, as lions howl, we were given our names.
In eagles’ nests, our Mothers nursed us,
To tame a stallion, our Fathers taught us.
We were devoted to our Mothers, to people and the Native land. . .
. . .
The East will sooner be breached in boiling sun,
Then we appear before the world; losing our honor.
. . .
Never will we appear submissive before anyone,
Death or Freedom – we can choose only one way.” (emphasis added)
The she-wolf is the Chechen national symbol and it will sacrifice itself for the pack. (personal communication, M. Gammer). For a female suicide bomber who doesn't feel very good about herself, religious beliefs, national anthems and other cultural ideologies become a way of organizing the mind by means of these fantasies. The ideologies coupled with external events such as the Russian mistreatment of the Chechens etc. can then be invoked to explain her desperate conviction and the paradoxical effect of destroying herself. (personal communication, M. Logel)
FP: Dr. Berko?
Berko: Thank you, Jamie, Nancy, Phyllis and Joan. The comments you made are parts of a very complex puzzle.
With regard to Joan's comments, the culture, religion and the social alignment are a predisposition to the phenomenon of 'suicide murderers', and according to which many Moslems are educated. Nevertheless, the questions should be asked as to why only a minority of women become 'suicide murderers.' For example, in Israel, since 2002, there have been eight female 'suicide murderers' as opposed to hundreds of male 'suicide murderers' and many others that didn’t choose the road of death. Absolute discipline is demanded in Arab society, both from men and women. Phyllis rightly emphasis that we are dealing with a society in which the collective is significant. This is a society where the individual is erased and completely submerged into the group. Of course, the place of women, is even more inferior and thus, because of all the many prohibitions placed on them, there is the desire for a 'youth revolt', discharge of tension, even wearing western dress en route to carrying out the attack.
As regards women in the army, as one who served in the IDF (Israel Defense Force) for 25 years, there is no comparison, since one isn't dealing with that type of 'honor', even though the army is a totalitarian organization. It is appropriate to deal with the fine points, as Nancy did with the different significances that there are to "honor", in Arab society. Indeed, the army is still conceived of as a masculine organization that women have difficulty making headway in, yet a military career is something one chooses as a way of life rather than something one is pushed into that has no way out and is the road to death of the suicide terrorists, as Jamie pointed out.
Still, there is a contradiction in the status of the woman in Arab society. On one hand the women are without apparent rights, but on the other hand, the mother image is very significant to her children (sons and daughters). The father, in a patriarchal family, is regarded ambivalently by his children, when he takes an additional wife (usually younger) in the face of their mother. This was raised prominently by Nancy. There are women in the Arab society and then there is the 'mother'-'umi'. Nancy emphasized the central position of the mother. By the way, from my research it is true that also among the suicide terrorists and their dispatchers, which whom I met; raising the subject of their mothers in the discussion brings tears to their eyes.
Even when I had the opportunity to ask a female suicide terrorist from the PKK, who was caught in Turkey, what her thoughts were on the way to the suicide attack, she replied: "…of my mother, not my father, just my mother…".
The Suicide Terrorist often wishing to clear her name, the female suicide terrorist will carry out the mission there by upgrading the status of her family earning them honor and preventing her or their humiliation or even murder. Among women who became suicide bombers, there was always some additional factor, as in the example I gave you, that pushed them to carry out suicide attacks. Female suicide bombers reported chatting with young men from all over the Arab world on the internet, which allows young men and women a sort of contact, often romantic, unsupervised by parents, who aren't familiar with computers. A female suicide bomber, who had last minute remorse, referred to the young Arab man she corresponded with in the internet chat room as– 'my lover' although she had never met him … the terrorists know how to exploit that naiveté.
It seems to me that the question of 'honor' was clarified by a female Palestinian prisoner who described the significance of "honor" in Arab society to me by means of a drawing of a pitcher (jara) crossed by a broken line:
"When the pitcher is broken, it will never return to its former state, and if it does return – the fact that it was broken will always be obvious. That is man, that is honor… If a man destroys something by his hand, it is impossible to return it to its former state. If its former state could be returned with God's help… for the rest of his life it will be clear, that once it had been broken. That's the way it is with a girl's honor… one has to guard what is in one's hands, in order never to have regrets. If I have freedom, honor, I have to protect that freedom, if I break that freedom, it is impossible to repair something that is broken."
It is sufficient for there to be rumors of a romantic connection out of the norm to seal the fate of a woman. This is because the honor of a man in Arab society is decided according to the honor of the woman who is close to him – mother, wife, sister, daughter etc. So, sometimes, the "wish" to become a "shahida" arises from the need for honor and social recognition instead of humiliation and even murder by a member of the family.
FP: Dr. Lachkar.
Lachkar: Dr. Chelser, Dr. Kobrin, and the rest of my colleagues, I think we are all right. Aggression has many faces and goes in many directions, toward the self, against the self, against the other, etc. There are many variations such as "freedom fighters," those who will do anything for 'the cause," a form of pathological narcissism and grandiosity to support a sense of nationalistic pride. Then there are those who must prove their worthiness through self-punishment, masochism, self-sacrifice, victimization. There is not one rational that motivates female suicide bombers. Overall, we are in agreement, for someone like Nazima who was spoiled, may use her aggression as rebellion, to fight for "the cause" (maybe a form of projective identification to ward off her father's abuse of mothe). Or it could be that she felt worthless, life didn't mean anything so she blows herself up.
I agree with Dr. Kobrin that seeking male "honor" is like a male activity, a sport. One might speculate that because men are relatively absent in Islamic societies (basically raised by mothers), one way to bond is to "become" father" (goes beyond "identifying" with father). In terms of why only a select view of She Bombers are female, one might liken it to supermodels, human rights advocates or women's liberation groups. It only takes a few to begin a movement.
FP: Dr. Chesler, while you respond to the other members of the panel, kindly also answer these two questions:
(1) It has been mentioned that Islamic terrorists weep at the mention of their mothers. And the tears in this case are not, obviously, tears expressing simple love and affection. They are tears reflecting bottled up denial and repressed rage and violence over what happened to their mothers and the effect it had on their (the terrorists’) lives. Could you give your own angle on this?
(2) Why is it that it takes a panel like this to have these realities discussed? Everywhere one looks the truth of these matters is never mentioned. Everywhere in the media where journalists pretend they are being brave and courageous in discussing this topic, all you hear is how terrible the Israelis are and how the suicide bombers, male and female alike, are responding to the “humiliation” suffered under supposed Israeli “oppression” etc. What gives? Where are the leftist feminists who should be enraged about these realities?
Chesler: First, let me respond to what my esteemed colleagues have said.
Although Dr. Kobrin's Chechen information resonates and informs, I still think that the "she-bomber" as "she-wolf" might be a dangerous and murky association. There is nothing natural or animal-like about killing yourself in order to kill others. Wolves do not do this. On the other hand, the human behavior involved is barbaric, regressed, pathological, almost pagan, but this regression is entirely in human terms. (Yes, and some might say that employing advanced weaponry is even more barbaric; I happen to disagree. One's motives and goals are paramount.) Also, psychiatrically, in the western world, girls and women attempt suicide far more often than they succeed at it. Thus, I would ask Dr. Kobrin whether she thinks this paradigm is being shifted significantly in the most woman-hating cultures?
Dr. Berko's question about why there are so few female suicide killers is a very good one. Perhaps women are too oppressed to envision themselves as worthy of any male-like "honor;" perhaps they are simply too overburdened with domestic, agricultural, and childrearing tasks from dawn to dusk. Or, perhaps the life-force in women, even under very adverse conditions, is able to resist the lure of a death cult.
Dr. Lachkar is right to open the father-daughter discussion. Daughters are even more paternally abused and neglected than sons are in the Middle East. Perhaps a minority of daughters, like sons, have unconsciously decided that stepping into the male/paternal role is the only way they will ever please their fathers, (their cultures) receive any positive paternal (cultural) attention--and they are willing to die to get it. Psychologically, sons resolve their Oedipal quarrels with their fathers by becoming like their fathers and by rejecting their mothers. Daughters might resolve their Electra complexes with their mothers similarly (please see my book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman). Daughters must also "become" their mothers but in order to do so, they must psychologically "kill," their mothers, not themselves. Blowing oneself up does not resolve this psychological-developmental conflict. It ends the possibility of such a resolution.
Now, to Jamie’s questions.
1) Thinking mainly about one's mother, not one's father when one is about to die makes psychological and cultural sense. As one is being born one is with/within one's mother, not with/within one's father; there is only a thin line between birth and death; even if we have had a cold or abusive mother, we tend to cry out for her when we are in pain, lost, or facing death. Perhaps such girls weep, finally, for themselves, because they will not become mothers like their mothers (which is the culturally preferred resolution of childhood mother-daughter dynamics); thus, they may weep because they have failed their mothers; perhaps they are weeping for the children they will never have; most radically, perhaps they are weeping for themselves. There are some Arab, Muslim, Middle East women whom I have interviewed for my new book The Death of Feminism, who do wish to protect their mothers, or even avenge them.
2) Ah, as we all know, the "she-bomber," like the "he-bomber" is romanticized and justified in many left-dominated liberal quarters. They are seen as "Davids" against the "Goliath" of American and Israeli democratic Empire. This vicarious identification with those who are seen as embracing death in order to deal death blows to capitalism, democracy, and, paradoxically, God, characterizes the nihilistic, passive, frustrated, but oh-so-safe American and European ideologues.
The left feminists are blinded by their politically correct multi-culturalism and by their anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism and so have, in my opinion, failed their own feminist founding principles and all those held hostage to Islamic terrorism and misogyny. What is also interesting, is that the female suicide killers have not been demonized in the western media or among western ideologues as "Killer Women," or "Unnatural Women," something that one might anticipate. Feminists who fought for equal pay for equal work were more demonized and mocked. Something is slipping below the radar here. I would love my colleagues to think about this.
Permit me to share an eerie resonance of my own. Dr. Berko quotes the "broken pitcher" above. When the Palestinian, Abu Isa, an Abu Nidal terrorist, who lived in St. Louis Missouri, referred to his 16 year old daughter, Palestina Isa, he referred to her as the "glass once broken can never be fixed." She was broken because she was becoming too Americanized and because she was unwilling to act as her father's cover when he went on terrorist missions. In 1989, he and Palestina's mother jointly slaughtered her brutally. (I wrote about this in The Death of Feminism too).
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