Female Suicide Bombers: What Makes Them Tick?

CEP Research Analyst


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At one time, it was assumed that it was impossible to study the motives of women who sacrifice their lives during acts of terror, simply because those instances were so rare and isolated.  However, as female participation in suicide bombings has gradually become more common, the phenomenon has begun to capture the attention of sociologists and researchers worldwide.

In the past, psychologists posited that only abused, grieving, vengeful or coerced women could turn toward becoming suicide bombers. Because the incidence of female terrorism is highest in the Islamic world, it was presumed that given the tendency there to respect stricter gender roles, terrorists would recruit women for suicide bombings only as a last resort. That assumption may no longer be valid.

Groups are concluding that there appear to be a number of advantages to using females to carry out suicide bombing missions. Women often appear less conspicuous to authorities and therefore are less likely to raise suspicion and be stopped before detonating thier explosives.

Nevertheless, studies of female suicide bombers tend to focus on personal traumas and emotional issues as motivating factors for the women involved. This differs markedly from the sociological study of male suicide bombers, which has concentrated on motivating factors associated with religion and politics, in addition to the power of indoctrination, recruitment and religious extremism.

As it turns out, the motivation factors for female suicide bombers can be more complex and layered. For example, the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University published an article entitled Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality? The article highlights the story of Wafa Idris, a 25-year-old   Palestinian divorcee. Her husband left her because she was unable to have children, and she returned to her parents’ home where she became “an economic burden.” Barren and divorced, the chances of her building a new life were slim. Her only chance for societal redemption was to become a suicide bomber. On January 27, 2002 Wafa detonated a bomb on her person and became the first female suicide bomber to attack within Israel.

Some women,liike their male counterparts, become suicide bombers to further a political or religious cause. However, motivating factors for female terrorists sometimes involved other personal and gender-specific factors, including challenges to patriarchal systems that relegate them to second-class citizenship. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases, the women interviewed did not express regret for their actions. 

Recently, media reports have described a new and disturbing development involving women and terrorism in Nigeria. The Islamist terror group Boko Haram is suspected of using kidnapped school girls  to carry out suicide bombings. This recent phenomenon represents a devastating complication in the fight to stop women from participating or being forced to participate in suicide bombings.

Clearly, in order to prevent future incidents where women take their own lives while murdering innocent men, women and children, past assumptions about motivations will have to be shelved and more resources devoted to understanding  and preventing this phenomenon from growing.