Exploding the myth of the female suicide bomber

Stereotype of duped or coerced female terrorists allow many to evade the security net.

The trend has been spreading like a contagious disease in many parts of the world.

Just last week, Nigerian police gunned down three female suicide bombers before they were able to detonate their bombs. Three weeks ago, two women with Boko Haram blew themselves up inside a refugee camp and outside a Catholic church. In Paris last September, three women were arrested after police found a car full of gas cylinders. The cell, organized by a known ISIS militant in France, was the first to be identified as all female.

All of this has security officials alarmed at what they call a "drastic U-turn" in terrorist organizations' practice of deploying females in the battlefield. As a result, western intelligence units are urgently revising their profiles of female suicide bombers and what drives them to violence.

"If at first it appeared that women were confined to family and domestic chores by the terrorist organization, it must be noted that this view is now completely outdated," said French prosecutor Fran├žois Molins after members of the female cell in Paris were arrested.

This archaic and severely limited profile is what prompted University of Alberta political scientist Andy Knight and his former graduate student, Tanya Narozhna (now a professor at the University of Winnipeg), to dispel the stereotype of the female suicide bomber-especially the notion that she must be a romantic "dupe" or an emotionally abused servant of a male terrorist.

"We were fed up with female suicide bombers being painted as Black Widows in the media and scholarship," said Knight, referring to the vengeful widows of men killed by Russian forces in Chechnya.

"When we looked at the actual data, we realized that very few of them resembled Black Widows. Many weren't married, and to be a Black Widow, you have to be married."

Not only are many female suicide bombers often single, said Knight-they can also be politically aware, independent and highly rational, clearly acting of their own free will.

"We started to notice that there were a lot of cases where women were not being coerced," he said.

Their work compiling and analyzing data over the last 12 years has resulted in a new book, Female Suicide Bombings: A Critical Gender Approach, based on media accounts and interviews with families of the women involved. Knight and Narozhna take great pains to restore agency to those long assumed mere instruments of manipulation.

"The problem with countering terrorism is that intelligence agencies and governments that buy into garbage were getting garbage results," said Knight. "They were defining female terrorists in a very narrow way that was so predictable that female suicide bombers fell through the cracks and weren't identified."

The tactical advantage of the female suicide bomber has always been the element of surprise. The very description first struck many as an oxymoron: how could a female possibly commit such a violent act? And if she did, surely someone forced her.

Such an assumption ensured that a woman packing explosives on her stomach to look pregnant was the ultimate Trojan horse. "They're not usually patted down," said Knight. "You don't touch a woman's body in that part of the world, especially a pregnant woman."

And it's certainly not the case that female suicide bombers have only recently started acting of their own volition, said Knight. Evidence points to independent political awareness from the very beginning. Even Sana'a Mehaidli, the 16-year-old Palestinian girl regarded as the first such bomber, knew exactly what she was doing when she drove a truck full of explosives into an Israeli military outpost in 1985.

Mehaidli left behind a video testimonial that clearly revealed her motives: "I have witnessed the calamity of my people under occupation. With total calmness I shall carry out an attack of my choice hoping to kill the largest number of the Israeli army."

And then there is Zeynep Kinaci-the first Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) female suicide bomber who detonated an explosive belt concealed as an advanced pregnancy in 1996, killing Turkish soldiers assembled to sing the national anthem. She was university educated, taking up the PKK cause while pursuing her degree.

Yet somehow intelligence agencies have been slow to catch on to the reality of female agency, said Knight-a dangerous shortsightedness he and Narozhna have tried to correct.

"We're trying to get western intelligence agencies like CSIS, the CIA and MI6 to rethink this problem. Unless they catch on to that, they'll be behind the eight ball every time they try to counter female suicide terrorism."

Andy Knight and Tanya Narozhna will be speaking about this topic and launching their book during the U of A's International Week 2017. The lecture will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1.