Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Iraq's Women Suicide Bombers

By Mona Eltahawy

NEW YORK -- Two women suicide bombers blew themselves up within a week in Iraq recently. The first pretended her husband had been kidnapped so that she could get an appointment with a Sunni tribal leader. When he agreed to see her, she detonated a suicide vest, killing him, two other men, and his 5-year-old niece.

The second woman blew herself up on March 17, in the holy city of Karbala, killing more than 40 Shi’ite pilgrims.

Those attacks brought to seven the number of women suicide bombers in Iraq already in 2008 -- compared to six in 2007. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is sending more women to blow themselves up because of tighter security. As enforced concrete walls go up, a woman in a suicide vest -- in a country where male guards are unlikely to search her -- can cause more carnage than a man in an explosives-laden car.

But it would be foolish to think al-Qaeda’s increasing use of women suicide bombers signals any change in misogyny of the group and its adherents. Al-Qaeda’s ideology is borne out of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-orthodox Wahhabi school of thought, which at its core deems women the walking embodiment of sin.

By using women, Al-Qaeda taunts men into recruitment.

“When women are put forward as suicide bombers, insurgent groups often say 'Look, where are you men? Has it come to a point where men aren’t volunteering and where women have to take it upon themselves to liberate the land and redeem the honor of you Arab tribal men and Muslims?’” explained Mohammed Hafez, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Little is known about the women who have blown themselves up for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Like their male counterparts, their targets are security forces, the Shi’ites, and Sunni tribal leaders who have turned against al-Qaeda, allying themselves with U.S. and Iraqi forces. But with the exception of Muriel Degauque, a Belgian convert to Islam who traveled to Iraq and blew herself up there in 2005, most of the women suicide bombers are unidentified, and are probably Iraqi.

According to Hafez’s calculations, most male suicide bombers in Iraq have been from Saudi Arabia. He said that conservative Muslim taboos against touching women, which have made it easier for them to get through security checkpoints, are the same taboos that make it less likely that women suicide bombers had traveled to Iraq. Women bombers are either Iraqi or went to Iraq with a husband or a male relative.

“In our Arab culture women don’t mingle with men or go to cell meetings on their own,” Hafez said. “I suspect these women either lost a father or a brother and are seeking revenge, or they are widows who have more freedom to be able to go and approach those groups. Or they are either married or are close to the actual al-Qaeda insurgents.”

Narmeen Othman, Iraq’s acting minister for women’s affairs has described widows in her country as “time bombs.” She told Reuters News Agency there were as many as 2 million widows in the country of 27 million people. Women were widowed throughout Saddam Hussein’s brutal reign, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf War, and since the 2003 U.S. occupation.

Al-Qaeda’s increasing use of women must be placed in the wider picture of the hell that Iraq has become for women especially. More than the Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, and Christians, it is women -- across all groups -- who have suffered the most from the invasion and the violence that grips Iraq.

Saddam Hussein’s brutality did not spare women. Like male counterparts who dared oppose the regime, women dissidents were executed, imprisoned, tortured, and sexually assaulted by state-appointed rapists. While women under Saddam’s regime enjoyed more rights than their sisters in neighboring countries, they saw the Iraqi dictator dissipate those rights long before the invasion, for political expedience when he allied himself with Sunni Muslim fundamentalists. Saddam’s minority Sunni regime targeted all Shi’ites and Kurds.

But as the U.S.-based Women for Women International warned in a recent report, the situation for women in Iraq is now a “national crisis,” with up to 64 percent of those surveyed saying violence against them had increased, and 75 percent who said girls in their families were prohibited from going to school because of fears for their safety.

The use of women as suicide bombers is as much violence against them as it is against those they take with them. Those who imagine that the women bombers are insurgents trying to liberate their societies must remember that it is groups with ideologies like al-Qaeda who severely constrict women’s lives.

Religious radicals, regardless of sect, are cruelest to women. In Basra, Iraq’s second largest city where Shi’ite groups have been fighting for control, radicals killed at least 100 women in the past year for not wearing headscarves -- mutilating their bodies, and leaving notes warning against "violating Islamic teachings."

Suicide is a grave sin in Islam and yet some of our clerics allowed it for attacks against Israelis. Today, most suicide bombings target Muslims. I oppose suicide bombings in all circumstances because of the toxic mix of nihilism and exploitation that fuels them and hurts the survivors as much as the victims by glorifying death.

As a Muslim woman and a feminist, I especially oppose the use of women as suicide bombers by groups like al-Qaeda. For them, women are nothing more than the virgins waiting by the dozens to service the male bombers in the next life.