Light the flames,” exhorts a poster published by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, to mark International Women’s Day in 1994. A ‘traditional woman’, manacled by her bangles to prison-like bars over the window of her home, metamorphoses into a Tiger — an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. Emblazoned on the poster is a poem: “Pick up the torch of liberation and struggle, for with each heartbeat our nation is taking form… Your body is the fuel that sustains the ﬁre.”
Early this week, Shari Hayat Baloch — a zoologist, a schoolteacher and a Balochistan Liberation Army terrorist — blew herself up outside Karachi University, killing three Chinese language teachers and their driver. Her story has provoked agonised reflection: What could make a middle-class mother of two small children become a suicide bomber?
But that’s a wrong question. Exactly like men, women suicide bombers kill and die for causes, good or evil. Like men, they are motivated by political grievances, revenge, and rage. The special kind of fear inspired by women like Shari Baloch has to do with patriarchy — not the bomb.
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Rise of women suicide bombers
Late one morning in April 1985, teenager Lola Abboud patiently waited for the Israeli soldiers, who were closing in on her position, after an hours-long battle, to cover the retreat of the insurgents she led. Then, Abboud blew herself up. Four years before, the Left-leaning Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) had begun unleashing suicide attacks against Israeli troops who had invaded southern Lebanon. There was one unusual feature: six of the 12 SSNP suicide attacks were conducted by women.
Following suicide attacks on French and United States troops in 1983, those countries had pulled their troops out of Lebanon. The SSNP, and other organisations like the Lebanese Communist Party, hoped the suicide bomb would succeed in forcing Israel out too.
SSNP’s attackers came from diverse religious backgrounds. Abboud belonged to an elite Christian family. Sana’a Mehdiali, a 17-year-old video store employee who detonated her explosives-filled car as she passed an Israeli military convoy in Lebanon’s Jenin, was Muslim. There were Druzes, Catholics, Sunnis and Shias.
LTTE leaders emulated the Lebanese strategy, which they likely encountered at training camps in the region. The first suicide strike, according to LTTE propaganda accounts, was by Vallipuram Vasanthan, who drove a bomb-filled truck into an army outpost in July 1987. The first women used by the Black Tigers suicide unit was Pushpakala Thuraisingham, who is claimed to have sunk a Sri Lanka Navy ship near Kankesanthurai in 1994. The best-known operation was Thenmozhi Rajaratnam’s assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Although some Black Tiger operations had enormous propaganda influence, the work of Arjuna Gunawardena shows they had a marginal role in the war. Black Tigers lost 227 men and 75 women in some 127 attacks, out of more than 18,000 LTTE insurgents lost in conventional fighting.
This is part of a global pattern: in just four cases, Israeli researcher Assaf Moghadam has noted, did suicide bombing campaigns achieve their ends. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, notably, was a strategic disaster for LTTE.
In spite of claims that women suicide attackers could easily deceive male-focussed security systems, Nyssa Fulmer has demonstrated that “male and female suicide bombers demonstrated similar lethality in suicide bombing events between 2005 and 2016.” However, the largest terrorist attacks of our times — the 9/11, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and the bombings in London — all involved only men.
Women suicide attackers, though, remained valuable tools for both terrorist groups and the nation-states opposed to them. The reason isn’t hard to understand: women suicide-bombers, on average, get eight times as much publicity as a male.
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Female fighters and male fears
Islamist groups began using women suicide attackers much before 9/11, drawing on the experience of the secular-nationalist LTTE and SSNP. The first attack, psychologists Anne Speckhard and Khapta Akhmedova have recorded, was carried out by Chechen jihadist Khava Barayeva in the summer of 2000. Women in Palestine followed. In 2002, Wafa Idris blew herself up in Jerusalem, killing one bystander and injuring over 100. Reem Saleh Riyashi — like Shari Baloch, a mother of two — famously posed for a photograph with her infant son before departing on her suicide mission.
Further strikes followed, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Kashmir. The most lethal campaign was in Russia, where women suicide attackers struck public transport, music festivals and concerts. In 2004, Amanat Nagayeva blew up a Russian airliner, killing 43. Her sister, Roza Nagayeva, was among several women suicide bombers involved in seizing a school in Beslan, where over a hundred children were killed.
Gender stereotypes, scholar Claudia Brunner notes, litter tellings of the stories of women suicide attackers. In one book, Abboud is described as a “dark-eyed, petite girl of nineteen with the shock of thick, black hair caressing a soft, oval face.” Egyptian newspapers remarked on Idris’ “dreamy eyes and the mysterious smile on her lips.” There are no similarly lyrical accounts of male suicide attackers.
Israeli sources claimed Riyashi carried out the bombing to cleanse herself of ‘the stain on family honour from an affair’. Idris, similarly, was claimed to have become a suicide bomber because of her inability to bear a child.
Lawyer Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat, who chose to remain single until she carried out her suicide attack, was marketed as the “Bride of Haifa,” in a bid to address conservative concerns about her choices. Ayat al-Akhras, who chose to become a suicide bomber instead of marrying, was labelled “Bride of the Heavens.”
“Women bombers’ motivations are explained as stemming not from political convictions, but from the mental instability of all women who might be driven to commit suicide for purely personal reasons,” scholar VG Julie Rajan has argued in a thoughtful new book on the issue.
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Media coverage and ‘liberation’
Lydia Day has shown that Hasna Aitboulahcen — wrongly reported to have blown herself up in Paris in 2005 — received far greater coverage than the actual suicide bomber, Chakib Akrouh. Large swathes of the reportage focussed on her sexual life and drinking. Two major newspapers even published images of a topless woman in a bubble bath, who turned out to be unconnected to Aitboulahcen. “Female political violence becomes almost a punchline to a salacious joke,” Day pithily notes.
Ever-more lurid stories have proliferated: exploding breast implants; vaginal-implant bombs; even the use of babies as decoys. In some countries, panicked authorities have banned full-face veils — although few have sought to conceal their identities, none pack explosives around their face.
LTTE propaganda often represents Black Tiger women as victims of sexual violence by Indian or Sri Lankan soldiers, placing their political choices in a revenge narrative familiar in conservative societies. Anger against sexual violence did indeed motivate many, as Miranda Allison has recorded, but there is little evidence for the Black Tiger-as-avenging-Goddess story.
From the testimonies of women LTTE insurgents interviewed by Yamuna Sangarasivam, it is also clear that militarisation offered women new freedoms. “There’s a difference between us women cadres and the everyday woman on the street,” one LTTE woman said. “Boys will not approach us in any way, will not dare to harass us in the way that girls still get harassed when they step out of the house.”
The woman Tiger, though, merely substituted the prison of the home for another kind of incarceration within patriarchy. “Tamil mothers make great sacrifices for their sons on a daily basis; feeding them before themselves or the girl children, serving them and so on,” an activist told the scholar Ana Cutter. “Acting as a human bomb is an understood and accepted offering for a woman who will never be a mother.”
For both terrorist groups and the nation-states they fight, the woman suicide bombers’ inversion of patriarchy is key. Females as life-givers are a foundational trope of patriarchal societies; the woman who dies and kills engages in an act of theatrical subversion. Lost in this war of narrative are the stories of the women themselves.
Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)