Why Are We Still Surprised By Women Suicide Bombers?

Part of The New York Times' second-day coverage of the Moscow subway bombings was a story dissecting a renewed fear of female suicide bombers. Known as Black Widows, the Chechen separatists have been deploying women as suicide bombers since 2000. Though that's when female suicide bombers began in earnest in Russia,  a Palestinian girl led a suicide attack as long ago as 1985, which the Times calls the first such attack.

So if it's been going on for so long, why is it news? Perhaps it goes against the image Americans have of suicide bombers, who in our experiences are mostly young and male. But even those of us in the U.S. should by now understand the stereotype of bombers doesn't always hold, since we have the example of a Belgian woman who staged a suicide attack in Iraq in 2005 and more recently, Jihad
Jane
. It's not to cheerlead women and say, "We can bomb, too!" but to note the inherent sexist tone in many of these stories in the way the women are assumed to have special motivations compared to male bombers, who aren't any less troubled for wanting to blow themselves up than women are. 

Look at this paragraph from the Times story:

While there is no single reason that women decide to give up their lives, experts said they have usually suffered a traumatic event that makes them burn with revenge or question whether they want to live. In the case of the attacks in Russia, this could be the death of a child, husband or other family member at the hands of Russian forces, or a rape. Russian authorities have said the women are sometimes drugged.

You know what? I bet there's no single reason men become suicide bombers either. When writers discuss the motivations of male suicide bombers, the explanations, rightly, tend to be macro -- ideology, objection to the ongoing American wars or a result of the relative poverty and instability of the countries they hale from. The explained motivations of the women always tend to be some personal trauma or the result of sway held over them by men in their lives. The implication is that violence is unnatural to women, so something must be broken within them to explain it. The really dangerous implication is the converse: that violence comes naturally to men and is merely one of the ways they react to the material conditions in which they find themselves.

-- Monica Potts

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