What makes them mothers of martyrdom?

What makes them mothers of martyrdom?

Women as suicide bombers

In recent years, a new phenomenon, the female suicide bomber, has been on the rise. The deployment of females in such a fashion posed a dilemma for male masterminds in the Middle East, as not only was it immodest, but also an insult to their masculinity — the most extreme example of sending the women out to work while the men stayed at home. It seems this attitude is changing due to the obstacles faced by male attackers. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas defended the use of the first Hamas-trained female suicide bomber in 2004 by saying that "women are like the reserve army: when there is a necessity, we use them."

More cynically, the media impact of a woman's suicide is more powerful for its novelty, and makes a case for an increasingly grave situation and provokes more sympathy for a cause. In Iraq, an elderly matriarchal figure nicknamed Um al-Mumineen, meaning "Mother of the Faithful" was arrested in February for recruiting and training women as suicide bombers — a new breed of martyrs who, by virtue of their gender, manage to bypass security checks and are able to conceal explosive devices under their robes. Another woman, Ibtisam Adwan, was arrested in 2008 and warned of a rise in attacks.

The stereotype of the suicide attacker is that of a young male, radicalised either by frustration, group recruitment and/or coercion. It is just about fathomable that, for a man, the perceived helplessness, impotence and emasculation of occupation in Palestine or Iraq could lead one to desperate measures; to, once and for all, write himself large in one literal explosion of self-assertion. It is more difficult to understand why women, some of whom are mothers, choose to take this route. While they may not be the breadwinners in the average family, they nonetheless, mothers or not, usually have some caretaker role, rendering their suicides all the more traumatic to their dependants.

Spirit of self-sacrifice
Having said that, I believe that the spirit of self-sacrifice is one that is easy to tap into where women in conservative societies are concerned; in this context, it is other women who play the role of the most convincing sales people of the fate of canonised dedication to others at the cost of one's own happiness. Whether it is to suffer an unsuitable husband or to uphold the honour of the family with dignity, the vision of a stoic woman, gracefully giving herself to infuse life into others is a powerful one, turning misery into a moral victory. One of Um al-Mumineen's recruits, who apparently had problems with her husband and his family, took only two weeks to convince.

Suffering from the ravages of conflict in such societies, women are victims twice over. They suffer the mental and practical consequences of war, while battling subjugation and a lack of prospects. Disenfranchised in so many ways and problems compounded, martyrdom to a higher cause may give meaning to a frustrated existence. Self-immolation, especially in a culture where it is prized, is tempting, and is a way to achieve glory and actualisation when other conventional means more open to men are precluded.

This is not to reduce the motivations of the female suicide bomber (or the male one for that matter) entirely to personal and social factors, or to deny them of volition. There must exist a framework where there is an aggressor, where there is a strong feeling of injustice, and countrymen killed or compromised, for anyone to contemplate such a fate.
While the common denominator seems to be Islam, the glorification of death for a higher purpose has spawned a culture where the religious definition of martyrdom has been secularised and expanded to encompass not only death for religion, but for country and liberty and even sect. It is becoming increasingly clear that terrorists have a fertile breeding ground in communities of women struck by grief and loss.

In Chechnya, for example, females execute the majority of suicide bombing campaigns, the most prominent group being The Black Widows, or Shahidka, believed to have been established by the bereaved who had lost husbands and male relatives in the war with Russia. In the light of a decimated and browbeaten male population, such a sorority creates a defiant female profile to bolster the effort and morale of other women, even eliciting some sympathy from the Russian survivors of the Dubrovka theatre siege.

There are reports of coercion and intimidation tactics employed in the recruitment drive for the Black Widows and, indeed, Um al-Mumineen proves that a manipulator is instrumental in upgrading disaffection to nihilism. While it is deplorable that some may prey on the vulnerable, it is important to understand the depths to which a person and society must plunge for death to be popularised and willing participants found. These women are not evildoers hellbent on bloodshed for its own sake, but young human beings driven to the brink, resigned to a bleak future and angry at a thwarted present.

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