Female suicide bomber

Female suicide bombers are women who carry out a suicide attack, wherein the bomber kills herself while simultaneously killing targeted people. Suicide bombers are normally viewed as male political radicals, but since the 1960s female suicide attacks have been on the rise. Through 1985-2006, 15% of all suicide attacks were conducted by female suicide bombers.[1] There are many organizations, such as Boko Haram (which is the first group to use females in a majority of their suicide bombings and surpassed the Tamil Tigers in using more female suicide-bombers than any other terrorist group in history),[2] ISIS, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, that recently started using women as tools in their attacks, since they are normally viewed as less of a threat than their male counterparts. This includes women having the element of surprise, a hesitancy to search females, increased publicity for female suicide bombing attacks, and the female stereotype as non-violent.[3]


Women have an extensive and complex history in political violence. While the typical terrorist of the 1960s tended to be an educated male from an upper-middle-class background, many left-wing terrorist groups in the 1960s and 1970s had prominent women active within these groups. Ulrike Meinhof, a German left-wing terrorist and journalist, co-founded the Red Army Faction and participated in a range of bombings and bank robberies. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)'s Leila Khaled is considered to be the first women to hijack an airplane, drawing international attention.[4] Fusako Shigenobu founded and led the Japanese Red Army, a communist militant group that conducted hijackings and massacres. A number of Italian women were active in Italian terrorist organizations between 1970-1984.[5] Females played fundamental roles in Puerto Rican nationalist movements such as the Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation (FLAN) and Los Macheteros, two groups designated as terrorist organizations. Women served visible roles in American groups, such as the Symbionese Liberation Army. Women also served as mobilizing agents for Weather Underground, recruiting people into the organization.[6] Women have been more active in left-wing groups as these groups' ideologies tend to be more conducive to women's participation in combatant and other non-traditional roles.[7]

Female bombers have emerged as an area of particular study, with the circumstances of female involvement garnering a great deal of research. The number of female suicide bombers has been steadily increasing. Existing models of terrorism emphasize that these acts begin with a group promoting, supporting, or praising acts such as martyrdom. Their decisions to engage in suicide bombings contradicts theories that dictate that women prefer peaceful conflict resolution mechanisms as compared to men.

Organizations have differing stances on female suicide bombers. For example, in 2002, the spiritual leader of Hamas “categorically renounced the use of women as suicide bombers.” In fact, in early 2002, he reported that “Hamas was far from enthusiastic about the inclusion of women in warfare, for reasons of modesty.” This stance shifted in 2004, when the first female suicide bomber was used. Officials exclaimed that the act was a “significant evolution in our fight. The male fighters face many obstacles...Women are like the reserve army―when there is a necessity, we use them.”[8] The LTTE attracted thousands of women and their militarization shaped women's identity from the “traditional ideal of the auspicious, fecund wife to the androgynous Armed Virgin.”[9] Rajini Thiranagama exclaimed, "One cannot but be inspired when one sees the women of the LTTE in the night with their AKs slung over the shoulder ... One cannot but admire the dedication and toughness of their training … One could see the nationalist fervor and the romantic vision of women in arms defending the nation."[9]

Characteristics of female suicide bombers

There is much variation among female suicide bombers. A number of studies have attempted to compare suicide attackers across different suicide groups. It was found that groups that used women the least were Islamist fundamentalist groups.[10] When dealing with age, female suicide bombers followed the same age trend as males, they usually fall within the early to mid 20s.[11] They also tend to have more secular ties than presumed. Some are married while others are widows. Socioeconomic status also varies among female attackers.

Women's involvement is mediated differently than men's; they are more likely to be involved through personal contacts or family members, while men's process of involvement is more likely to stem from movement affiliation and disenchantment with nonviolent forms of political activism.[5] Differences in men and women's need for revenge (and subsequent use of suicide attacks) has been studied, with inconsistent findings reported. Some argue men are more vengeful than women, while others find no such claims.[12]


  • Sana’a Mehaidli, a 17-year-old member of the Syrian Socialist Party (SSNP/PPS), a pro-Syrian Lebanese organization, is believed to have been the first female suicide bomber. On April 9, 1985, she blew up herself and a truck of explosives next to an Israeli convoy in Lebanon during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.[13] She worked at a video store where she recorded her will, saying "I am very comfortable with carrying out this operation. I choose to do this because I am fulfilling my duty towards my land and my people...Now I am loving my country, sacrificing my life and respecting the people of the south."[14]
  • Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, also known as Dhanu, is thought to have been a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers), and involved in the Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the ex-Prime minister of India, and sixteen other bystanders in 1991.[15] She allegedly had been raped by Indian Peace Keeping Force soldiers and her four brothers were killed.[10] Sri Lanka's political group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) includes the Black Tigers, and the Black Tigers are known for suicide bombing attacks, and also for the fact that mostly women execute them.[16]
  • Wafa Idris Arafat was the first female suicide bomber in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; in 2002 she detonated a 22-pound bomb in the center of Jerusalem outside a shoe store on Jaffa Road that killed her, Pinhas Tokatli (81), and injured more than 100 others.[17] The attack took place on 27 January 2002 but the identity of the bomber wasn't confirmed until 30 January 2002.[18][17] Wafa carried the bomb in a backpack, rather than strapped to her body. Since, prior to this attack, women had only helped plant bombs, the use of a backpack and the lack of the usual note or video led to confusion regarding her suicide motives and speculation that she did not intend to detonate the bomb, but that the explosion was accidental. However, after investigation of the explosion, Israel declared Wafa a suicide bomber around 9 February 2002.[19] Prior to this Wafa called for an "Army of Roses." Wafa became an icon and served under Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Wafa was born in a refugee camp, and her father died in when she was a child. During the First Intifada, she served on the refugee camp’s women’s committee, helping prisoners’ families and distributing food. When she delivered a stillborn and was told she would never be able to carry a baby to full-term, her husband divorced her.[20]
  • Muriel Degauque was a Belgian convert to Islam who performed a suicide car bomb attack on November 9, 2005 against a U.S. military convoy in Iraq. She originally worked at a bakery and after marrying a Muslim man, she moved to Iraq and became radicalized.
  • In Dagestan, Russia in 2010 a 17-year-old widow of a Caucasus militant wearing a suicide bomb vest approached a Ministry of the Interior office in the village of Gubden . She was apparently stopped at a security post outside the office where she detonated her explosives, killing one police officer and injuring four others. The attack was claimed by the Caucasus Emirate militant Jihadist group, Dokku Umarov.[21]
  • Blasts from two female suicide bombers at a crowded fish market in Nigeria's northeastern city of Maiduguri killed at least 20 people on June 22, 2015.[22]
  • On December 23, 2016, the first female suicide bomber in Bangladesh detonated her explosive during a police raid.[23]
  • In 2018, Puji Kuswati became Indonesia's first female suicide bomber when she and her daughters, Fadila Sari, and Pamela Rizkita, (twelve and nine years old respectively, and thus not counted as choosing to be bombers) bombed the GKI Diponegoro church·.[24][25]

Causes and reasons

There are a number of reasons as to why female suicide bombers are used by groups. Terrorists use bombers as they are cheaper than purchasing arms. They are considered a low risk weapon and require low technology.[26] They do not require much training, do not leave much of a trace behind, have the element of surprise, have easier access to targeted populations as well as soft targets, and tend to frighten the general population.[26] As female combatants are seen as less likely to engage in lethal actions and can thus avoid suspicion, they are regarded as ideal combatants.[27] Dress and gender stereotypes are often utilized by women to bypass security defenses. For example, women who appear pregnant appropriate related expectations and stereotypes to their benefit, discouraging invasive body searchers.[28] Women may also "westernize" their appearance in an attempt at covering their actions and avoiding detection. Women are also deployed as suicide bombers as they tend to "elicit greater public sympathy and publicity for an organization."[27] By some research, female bombers receive eight times more press coverage than their male counterparts.[29]

Insurgent groups also face pressure when it comes to recruiting members, causing the group to expand their bases to sustain the group's position. It has been argued that the introduction of women and girls into combat “generally came about in response to logistical demands: the mounting number of casualties, the intensified crackdowns by government, and the ability to escape detection more easily than men.”[30] An example of this was in January 2002 when the spiritual leader of Hamas renounced the use of female bombers. Later on in the same year, Hamas wasn't enthusiastic about adding women into their ranks. Then in January 2004, Hamas used their first female suicide bomber. Hamas defense to this was evolution of their fight. Citing easier access to reach targets, Hamas stated that women are the reserve army. When there is a need they will use them.[11] On average, it is calculated that terrorist groups that use suicide bombing as a tactic wait around 13.5 years before employing women.[1] However, women are reported to have higher kill rates than men, on average killing four times as many people as men do.[28]

Terrorist and insurgent groups may also appropriate media coverage to benefit from the portrayal of female suicide bombers. Women's media portrayal may help various organizations recruit and motivate men, and coverage of women in the media allows groups to differentiate themselves from one another. It also may help deliver group-based messages. For example, media coverage may highlight that the group, by using women, had been driven to extreme measures. Media attention on female suicide bombers tends to examine emotional explanations for women's involvement, as opposed to ideological justifications.

Another reason for the use of female suicide bombers may be based in culture. In the Middle East, use of female bombers by groups can be used as an image to emasculate males in the region. Using the idea that the situation is dire that the women have to fight.[29]

Individual motivations

There are different causes and reasons as to why female suicide bombers perform these deadly actions. For one, many cite personal feelings of sacrifice in conducting such missions. The missions become more successful to the public when they are framed as forms of sacrifice. Society would be "hard pressed to accept, a female who offers her life in this context is seen as engaging in the most profound form of selflessness."[30] Other research suggests that women resort to terrorism to “redeem their fallen reputations, such as being barren, divorced, defiled, unchaste, and so on.”[31] Struggling for the pursuit of freedom through the LTTE can be seen as a way in which women can redeem themselves. Tamil rape victims tend to be prohibited from marriage and childbearing. Conceptualizing female bombers as mothers allows suicide bombings to serve as offerings for women who cannot become mothers.[32]

In literature on female suicide bombers, exploitation of women is a distinctive factor that separates them from male suicide bombers. Research has examined cases of women's exploitation by their own families, often for monetary compensation.[33]

Women can also be motivated by political/and or historical contexts to take action against their enemy. For example, in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, it has been noted that Palestinian female suicide bombers are often motivated by anti-Zionism and the Israeli occupation of their homeland to take action. According to Palestinian legal scholar Noura Erakat, the "Israeli military occupation [is] a significant, if not the most significant, factor contributing to the subjugation of Palestinian women's rights."[34] They are often motivated by the politics of their environment to take action in this situation. Western feminist critic Amal Amireh notes examples of how the women exercise their political agency in the conflict, including the fact that the bomber often declares in public her political group and nationalism, as well as the fact that they commit the act in public as a spectacle to be observed.[35] There is also a case to be made toward religion/political indoctrination. Some recruiters, like the LTTE, would concentrate on recruiting orphans due to their young age and they are much easier to indoctrinate and condition.[11]

Individual motivations to become suicide bombers vary. Motives include “to avenge a personal loss, to redeem the family name, to escape a life of sheltered monotony and achieve fame, or to equalize the patriarchal societies in which they live.”[28] The death of a relative triggers the decision to commit a suicide attack. Some women join to seek revenge. For example, studies have shown that some women join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam seeking revenge against crimes the government has committed against the group, from disappearances to torture. Government oppression has only emboldened the LTTE, and women have increasingly become more publicly involved.

In Chechnya, female bombers originally became involved for more personal reasons, avenging the deaths of Chechen male relatives killed by Russian forces. They are referred to as "Black Widows" because many were the wives, mothers, sisters, or female relatives of men killed in battle. The activities of the Black Widows are regarded to support the theory that suicide bombings may alter societal gender norms. With militant involvement usually seen as being performed by men, engaging in violent actions counters notions of women's traditional roles, such as raising children. Clara Beyler, a counter-terrorism analyst writes that "There is a difference between men and women suicide attackers: women consider combat as a way to escape the predestined life that is expected of them. When women become human bombs, their intent is to make a statement not only in the name of a country, a religion, a leader, but also in the name of their gender."[36] Some argue that violence serves to empower women. In this sense, some argue that understanding women's motivations should be understood through cultural contexts.


Organizations of female suicide bombers

Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is a known terrorist organization that trained many female suicide bombers since their uprising as political weapons. In January 2002, the group claimed responsibility for the first female suicide bombing attack inside of Israel, in efforts to push Israel settlers out of west bank and to form an entirely Palestinian state. The group is known to be most active in the Gaza Strip, but also attacks inside of Israel and the West Bank.


The Shahidka, commonly called the "Black widows" are a group of Islamist Chechen separatist suicide bombers. Khava Barayeva blew herself up at a Russian Army outpost in June 7, 2000. In 2001,[37] Aiza Gazuyeva killed Russian general Gaidar Gadzhiyev in a suicide bombing, the first female suicide bomber of the Chechen insurgency.[38] The group carried out the Moscow theater hostage crisis and some were involved in the Beslan school siege. A bombing that killed 10 people at Rizhskaya metro station in Moscow was thought to be carried out by a woman who was identified as a Beslan school captor. The 2004 Russian aircraft bombings are believed to be carried out by female bombers. Two of the perpetrators of the 2010 Moscow Metro bombings were women; Dzhanet Abdullayeva, who was married to a militant, and Maryam Sharipova.[15] The October 2013 Volgograd bus bombing was carried out by a woman.

Palestinian bombers

On the same day Darine Abu Aisha committed a suicide bombing, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the religious leader of Islamist militant group Hamas, issued a fatwa, or religious rule, that gave permission to women to participate in suicide attacks as well as listing the rewards in "Paradise" that these female martyrs would receive upon their deaths. He also promised Hamas will send many female suicide bombers in order to strike Israelis.

Reactions to this in the Islamic world were mixed. While many hailed the female suicide bomber and urged full involvement of all in Jihad, some criticized the cruelty of tearing mothers from their children and sending them to explode themselves.

Notable female Palestinian suicide bombers include

  • Wafa Idris - first suicide bomber (bombing date: January 27, 2002)
  • Darine Abu Aisha- second suicide bomber (bombing date: February 27, 2002)[39]
  • Ayat al-Akhras - third suicide bomber (bombing date: March 29, 2002)
  • Andalib Suleiman - fourth suicide bomber (bombing date: April 12, 2002)
  • Hanadi Jaradat - sixth suicide bomber (bombing date: October 4, 2003)
  • Reem Al-Reyashi- eighth suicide bomber (bombing date: January 15, 2004). Al-Reyashi, a 22-year-old mother of two, detonated an explosive pack at the Erez crossing point on the frontier of the Gaza Strip.[40]


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