Female suicide bombers are exploiting societal expectations in order to do greater damage to targets than their male counterparts could manage, academic research has revealed. As they are less likely to be suspected as terrorists, women are better able to conceal explosives and bypass security, making an attack more likely to be successful.
Writing for Turkish news site Hurriyet Daily News, Burcu Pınar Alakoç, an assistant professor of international relations at Webster University in St. Louis has explained that women have four distinct advantages when carrying out suicide attacks, thanks to their gender.
Firstly, no one expects women to be terrorists. She cites the case of 27-year-old apprentice lawyer Hanadi Jaradat, who blew herself up in the middle of Maxim Restaurant in the Israeli city of Haifa in 2003. “Almost nobody suspected that she could be a suicide bomber deployed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization,” she says. “Before her suicide mission, Jaradat took off her head covering and changed into a shirt and jeans, looking just like any other Israeli woman having lunch at the restaurant.”
This expectation is particularly clear in patriarchal, conservative societies in which men are expected to be in the public sphere, and women at home. “In many instances, given these religious and cultural barriers, women go through multiple layers of security unchecked, which makes it easier for female suicide bombers to reach their intended targets undetected,” she says.
Secondly, women are better able to hide explosives and bombs within their clothing, either by wearing loose clothing or pretending to be pregnant. The latter case especially “throws off” security forces, who do not expect a woman, let alone a supposedly pregnant women to be capable of suicide missions.
In other instances, women request female security guards to pass them through security checks – and then detonate their explosives while waiting for them to arrive.
“This shows how gender-based stereotypes can impede counter-terrorism efforts since terrorist organizations take advantage of such stereotypes and security forces have been slow to adapt to the ‘veiled threat’,” Alakoç notes.
Thirdly, advancements in plastic surgery mean that women – in theory at least – could conceal explosives within breast implants. Not only could this create opportunities to manufacture “extremely destructive” implants, it would also make them “virtually impossible” to detect.
And finally, female perpetrated terrorist attacks attract more media attention than those carried out by male counterparts. “Media attention is primarily important for terrorists’ causes because it extends the psychological impact of these attacks beyond the immediate targets,” says Alakoç.
“For all these reasons, female suicide bombers have a strategic, gender-based advantage in carrying out suicide attacks,” she concludes. “Researchers and practitioners alike should place greater focus on understanding the motivations of female suicide bombers and the specific strategies used by terrorist organizations to allure female recruits to their ranks.
“The better we comprehend the underlying motivations of female suicide bombers and the organizational strategies tailored to attract women, the more practical solutions we can produce to target the female face of terrorism.”