Femme fatale, jihad style
A new book claims that female suicide bombers are more driven by abusive histories than nationalism.
Amana Muna promised 16-year-old Ofir Rahum from Ashkelon a "good time" and with that, enticed him to join her in Ramallah.
Previously, Muna had tried to entice two other Israeli teens to Ramallah, but they refused to pass through the Israeli checkpoints.
With Rahum, who was unfamiliar with the reality in the territories, which were then at the height of the intifada, Muna had far less trouble luring him to visit.
In an ICQ message she sent in January 2001, she wrote him that one of her girlfriends had loaned her an apartment. She requested that he bring a condom and inquired whether he had a girlfriend. After asking whether he would tell his friends about their meeting, Muna became more direct. She said though she was interested in sex, she did not want to become pregnant. Furthermore, she was curious to know what his mother would say if she found out about their relationship.
On January 17, 2001, she picked him up at Jerusalem's Central Bus Station and drove him to Ramallah, where two armed men, members of Fatah's military arm, were waiting for him. When they tried to take him to their car, Rahum refused and they shot him at point blank range. Three days later, Muna, then 24 years old, was arrested.
The ICQ conversation between Muna and Rahum is revealed in the introduction to Dr. Anat Berko's book, "Isha Ptzatza" ("The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers"), which is scheduled for publication next week in Hebrew by Yedioth Books.
A researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Berko met with female security prisoners, including those who had planned to carry out suicide bombings, and she studied the stories of female suicide bombers who had actually detonated themselves.
In Berko's book, Muna is called "Huda," though from the description of the unusual terrorist incident she was involved in, it is not difficult to guess her real identity.
Berko met "Huda" in prison and describes her as the undisputed leader of her fellow female security prisoners. In an earlier book by her, ("The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers," Praeger, 2007), Berko described how Muna taunted prison guards by imitating Rahum's screams, "Mommy, save me!" Muna abused female prisoners who did not obey her orders - she told them what to eat and drink, and she would read their private correspondences. She would punish women who refused to obey her orders by having hot margarine smeared on their body or face.
Preying on the weak
Muna's activism, aggressiveness and strong opinions are unusual among female security prisoners. According to Berko, the vast majority of the female prisoners she has met, including those who were on their way to carry out suicide bombings, were exploited by the terrorist organizations, by close friends or even by their own families, and were pushed into carrying out terrorist attacks.
Berko writes of her meeting with a terrorist from the Gaza Strip who hid explosives in her panties while en route to blow herself up at an Israeli hospital, where she was scheduled to be treated for burns.
It seems the subject of the interview is Wafa Samir Ibrahim al-Biss, who was arrested at the Erez border crossing in June 2005, when she was 21. In addition to the physical distress caused by her burns, al-Biss had been a victim of rape and sexual abuse within her own family.
According to Berko, the woman thought the suicide bombing would be her salvation, and transform her into a heroine in the eyes of her family and Palestinian society.
"When men become terrorists, the ideological motive is dominant," Berko says. "In contrast, women are pushed to carry out a terrorist attack and never choose to do so out of their own free will. There are always personal problems hidden in the background."
For instance, the first female suicide bomber of the second intifada, Wafa Idris, who blew herself up on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road in January 2002, killing an Israeli civilian, was in the midst of a divorce after her husband discovered that she could not have children.
"There are many stories like that," Berko notes, "but in prison, since they are now part of a group, these women are expected to rewrite their personal stories and to reconstruct them as acts of heroism on behalf of the Palestinian homeland. Yet, there is almost always a complex family history involved. For instance, a divorced woman is in a very weak position in Palestinian society, and it is thus easy to recruit her. Many of these women have an absent father - that is, the father is either chronically ill, dead or has other wives. One of the terrorists told me that, given her father's absence, she needed a man to defend her; in return for his protection, she assisted him in his terrorist work."
Women carried out 10 suicide bombings in the second intifada, the most horrific one taking place in Haifa's Maxim restaurant in October 2003, when Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat set off her explosive belt and killed 21 people.
However, in Berko's opinion, participation in terrorist activities does not elevate the status of women in Palestinian society: Quite the contrary, many senior members of the terrorist organizations oppose including women in their ranks, and Palestinian society as a whole does not offer much support for female participation in terrorist acts.
In fact, Berko observes, Hamas' founder and leader, the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, published a religious ruling that supported women taking part in terrorist activities only after the attack carried out by Reem Riashi at the Erez border crossing in 2004 left him with little choice.
Recently, Hamas announced that a square in Gaza City would be named after Riashi, the organization's first female suicide bomber, alongside a square named after Dalal al-Mughrabi, who carried out the Coastal Road Massacre of 38 civilians in 1978.
"Sheikh Muhammad Abu Tir, a leading member of Hamas in the West Bank, told me explicitly that his organization strongly opposed women's participation in terrorist activities," recalls Berko. "He said that he would never allow his daughter to carry out a terrorist attack. One reason is a religious one - the lack of modesty. Female terrorists disguise themselves as Israeli women and sometimes wear revealing clothes; in the eyes of Hamas members, their innocence is thereby compromised."
In Berko's view, women's participation in terrorist attacks has nothing to do with feminist empowerment in Palestinian society.
"Although no one will admit it openly," she observes, "people talking behind closed doors will make all sorts of negative comments about female terrorists and will refer to them as 'damaged goods.' When a woman becomes a terrorist, her status is invariably diminished in the eyes of the average Palestinian. Female terrorists who are caught and sent to an Israeli prison are 'damaged goods' because they were behind bars, and that fact does not enhance their status, in blatant contrast with male terrorists. Female participation in terrorism does not advance female empowerment; it holds it back."
Berko tells the story of a male would-be terrorist whom she met in prison and who had been arrested at age 15 when he was wearing an explosive belt, which, as it turned out, was faulty. "He told me," recalls Berko, "that he thought that if he carried out the suicide attack, he would go to heaven, where virgins would be waiting for him. He said, 'Good things were waiting for me in heaven - they would be much better than what I had in my life here.' However, he was very angry with his sister who had tried to carry out a suicide bombing after she got a divorce. 'A woman must not expose her body,' he argued. 'When a woman blows herself up, not all the parts of her body become tiny bits of flesh.'" Berko comments that, "even after they have died, these women do not have full rights to their own body."
When she asked female security prisoners what they had expected would happen after their death, she discovered that some of them wanted to be liberated from their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Not only had they hoped to see the Prophet Mohammed and Allah face to face in paradise, they also anticipated that they would once more become virgins or young women.
When Fatma Omar al-Najar, a grandmother from Jabalya, blew herself up in November 2006 near soldiers from the IDF's Givati Brigade, "the only reasonable explanation," states Berko, "was that she believed that her suicide would make her younger."
According to Islam, argues Berko, "you can choose your husband in paradise. One of the women I interviewed told me that women do not menstruate in heaven. The men always claim that they will father children in heaven but the women say that in heaven, they will not have to pray for children and will not have to give birth."
Berko claims that in the Muslim world in general, the number of female suicide bombers is increasing and that extensive use is being made of them in Iraq.
In "The Smarter Bomb," Berko writes about a woman who escorted a male suicide bomber from Nablus to a site in central Israel where he was to carry out an attack. According to this woman, her boyfriend, with whom she was in love, persuaded her to help out.
"She talked at length about sex," notes Berko, "and about the connection between sex and terror. She explained to me that some of the motivation behind participating in terrorism or helping a terrorist is the desire to be in the company of men; however, the result is a diminished social status. Such women do not sleep in their own homes and it is very hard for them to return to their families and neighborhoods."