Recent recantations in the news have included an American Special Forces report of 3 women victims of an Afghan “honor killing”. As it turns out, the women were killed by US Forces who then proceeded to dig bullets out of their bodies, stab them, and stage a cover-up. Yet it had been an easy story to swallow. Aren’t we all familiar with the weak image we have in our minds when thinking of Afghan women? Honor killings – a unique cultural/religious attribute – must be a widespread phenomenon indeed.
Another story that’s been circulating since the recent tragic Moscow subway bombings has been of female suicide bombers and their possible motivations. Women have been suicide bombers since the documented creation of the tactic. Women from all cultural backgrounds have perished as suicide bombers. Considering the diversity of the subject, wouldn’t it be difficult to pin down enough common motivations to write a short Salon article about it?
Don’t worry, our friends at Salon have written a very embarrassing article all about female suicide bombers, calling them victims, abused, depressive, mentally ill, etc… everything but politically motivated. The truth is that studies show suicide bombers don’t fit the profile described in Salon at all.
Existing research reveals a marked absence of major psychopathology among “would-be” suicide attackers; that the motivation and dynamics for choosing to engage in a suicide attack differ from those in the clinical phenomenon of suicide; and that there is a rational “strategic logic” to the use of suicide attack campaigns in asymmetric conflict. Silke (2003/91) argues that “as with other terrorists, there is no indication that suicide bombers suffer from psychological disorders or are mentally unbalanced in other ways. In contrast, their personalities are usually quite stable and unremarkable (at least within their own cultural context)” (p. 94). Israeli psychology professor Ariel Merari is one of the few people in the world to have collected systematic, empirical data on a significant sample of suicide bombers. He examined the backgrounds of every modern era (since 1983) suicide bomber in the Middle East. Although he expected to find suicidal dynamics and mental pathology, instead he found that “In the majority, you find none of the risk factors normally associated with suicide, such as mood disorders or schizophrenia, substance abuse or history of attempted suicide (92).”
In contrast, the Salon article articulates:
Berko’s study, which is previewed in today’s Haaretz, paints a disturbing tableau of the inner world of female suicide bombers, the vast majority of whom “were exploited by the terrorist organizations, by close friends or even by their own families, and were pushed into carrying out terrorist attacks.” It appears that women’s motives for such attacks are rooted less in ideology than in histories of physical, mental, and sexual abuse within their own families. Their motives rarely involve free will, but rather blackmail or the hope of redemption for sexual indiscretions through violence and self-sacrifice.
In Berko’s view, female suicide bombings have as much to do with a sort of proactive “honor killing” as they do with classic (and stereotypical) “Islam vs. the West” terrorism.
Back to the honor killings, back to putting women in a box and taking away their agency. Back to portraying them as reactionary members (victims) of society. At the heart of “honor killings” is the heart of all other domestic violence we in the West are often too familiar with. We do not consider domestic violence survivors to be reactionary members of society, do we?
Of course, the truth is that these women possess much more agency than the imperial apologist can bear to consider. Part of our continued violent presence in that area of the world requires us to “dehumanize the enemy”. Turning female suicide bombers into reactionary actors by “humanizing their suffering” (never at the hands of foreign aggressors!) is dishonest. The Salon articles and others like it never delve into the political motivations of the women. We must assume they have none. Therefore, the most tragic and disastrous act of their political resistance becomes de-politicized.