Tag Archives: women’s rights

Why the obsession with our enemy’s “weak women”?

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).”

– From Psychology of Terrorism by Randy Borum, p.33

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.


What Drives Suicide Bombers?

Psychology of Terrorism by Randy Borum

Afghan women were killed in bungled raid, Nato admits

Inquiry puts spotlight on U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan

Second Bomber in Moscow Attacks is Identified

Hijab and Public Participation of Women in Western Society

What about hijab so intrigues the Western observer? Muslim women wearing hijab are the flag-bearers of Islam when outside private or gender-separated space. There’s a click-click sound on your Aunt’s tongue as she walks by a visibly-Muslim woman in public. The very idea of bringing a non-Western religion into a public space is one that shocks and appalls most Westerners. There are some, even, who object strongly to any show of religiosity. Hare Krishnas at the airport are one thing, but here is a religion seeking to integrate itself within society completely. So before we even consider the hijab as a feminist subject, we must first address it as a religious one. To be anything other than respectful and adherent to the dominant culture is considered strange and inappropriate. Take the African American community, for example. Despite being just as indigenous to the continent as their European-descended compatriots, they are still required to mimic their white neighbors in the style of their hair, for instance, or else face scrutiny and disapproval from the dominant class of society. The African hair-care industry is a billion dollar industry (1).

Muslim women choose willingly to separate themselves from the dominant class. A recent parliamentary candidate in France, Ilham Moussaid,  was ridiculed not because of her politics, but because her politics were presented in coordination with her hijab. It was thought to be impossible to be a feminist and wear hijab – the French citizenry are not completely comfortable with the concept. Therefore she is ridiculed at her “hypocrisy”, and the rest of France must gently remind her to reconsider her oil-and-water mixture of politics and religion (2).

Asserting one’s rights in Western society has become atheistic in nature. This is perhaps why the revulsion of religion is on the upswing. If a Muslim woman explains that she wears hijab because “God has commanded me to,” the listener recoils, unwilling to be reminded that God can micromanage such minutia in addition to the whole of reality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights;” states the Constitution. Today’s reality in America is that our inherent and inalienable rights have suffered right along with the acceptance of where they come from – an authority you can’t bargain with.

The second subject is feminism as it relates to hijab. Despite the news stories, shock politics, and open ridicule, I’ve had more than a few women confide to me that they believe hijab is a good idea. There are even women who observe hijab without being Muslim! The relief in going out without exposing your flaws and your vulnerability is a pleasure I’ve enjoyed since my youth. Perhaps I thought I’d grow out of my shyness and discomfort and one day feel perfectly comfortable putting my breasts, thighs, and ass on display. Some feminists argue that the hijab indicates that the hijab is used to make women and society in general feel shame about a woman’s body. On the contrary, I think the opposite is true. Without lanky models on billboards being sold like meat in the market, the incidences of anorexia and bulimia are lower in Middle Eastern or Islamic countries – though this trend is curiously on the rise, perhaps due to the cultural globalization of Western values (3)?

A woman in hijab claims herself as a public actor who has side-stepped the requirement of appearing to conform to Western visual orthodoxy, as discussed above. Women in the West are still reprimanded at work for not wearing makeup or high heels, they are pressured to expose parts of their bodies that men are not pressured to expose. Compare a teetering businesswoman in an A-line skirt, high heels, coiffed hair and flawless makeup to her male counterpart, who stands tall and firm in his suit and tie. Instead of worrying about whether his eye makeup is running, the male counterpart is worrying about his work. Likewise, the Muslim woman in the West who observes hijab is exempting herself from a whole gambit of requirements and worries. Herein lies the real danger of hijab in the West: instead of being a consumer and a sexual object, the woman observing hijab is admitted into public society without being subject to these requirements. By showing women in the West that it is not necessary to dress for public consumption in order to participate in public society, the hijab represents a refuge from Woman-as-Consumer, one of our leading billion dollar industries in the United States and other Western (or Westernized) societies.


(1) http://clutchmagonline.com/beauty/taking-back-the-black-hair-care-industry/

(2) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/10/french-election-headscarf-candidate

(3) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/487413