Women have been involved in terrorist activities for more than 100 years, but from 2007 to 2008 there was an 800 percent increase in female suicide bombers in Iraq alone, terrorism expert Mia Bloom told the World Affairs Council of the Florida Palm Beaches last week.
“Female suicide bombers have become the weapon of choice for al-Qaida in Iraq, because women are less likely to be searched at checkpoints and can wear long black robes that conceal the explosives,” said Bloom, who specializes in women and terrorism. “The cultures in different places really prohibit any kind of invasive searching of the women. It's the kind of thing that, from the terrorists' perspective, is a win-win. If you don't search the women, the women are the ideal candidates to sneak bombs in or to be a bomber. If you search the women too much, you outrage the population … It's really an interesting phenomenon.”
An associate professor of International Studies and Women's Studies at Penn State, Bloom spoke to 175 members and guests of the council Thursday night at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. Bloom, an expert on suicide terrorism, published Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror in 2005. In addition to her work on terrorism, Bloom studies ethnic conflict, the strategic use of rape in war, and child soldiers. Her most recent book, Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, was published by Penguin in 2011.
Bloom began her research on terrorism in 1985, when it wasn't a popular subject. That all changed after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
“It's not that women's participation is new,” Bloom said. “What is new, however, is that the kinds of groups that use women have changed. We're seeing a lot of the religious groups being attracted to women and even male-oriented groups like al-Qaida. For a very long time, the face of Islamic terrorism was a male face. It made sense, because it privileged men in the society and basically said that women did not have a role in the struggle and, in fact, they went to great lengths to sequester women.”
Another reason to use women suicide bombers is that they get more media attention than men, Bloom said.
The first Palestinian female bomber has been glorified on posters, in a series of novellas and even made the cover of Time.
“The message they send to young women is that you can do much more with your death than you can ever do with your life,” Bloom said. “These are some of the cult heroes in their society.”
Some terrorist organizations use rape to coerce women to become suicide bombers, because the women will be killed if they have sex before or outside of marriage, Bloom said.
“They're damaged goods, and this is their only option,” Bloom said.
Etonella Christlieb, who attended the talk, said Bloom was knowledgeable on the subject, although the content was disturbing.
“These women go into the marketplace and blow themselves up and take innocent people with them,” she said. “When people go into the military, they know it's dangerous. But when you go into a marketplace, you don't expect this. Mothers and their babies get blown up. I don't understand how women can do this to other mothers. The hate is so strong. You're not safe anywhere. The positive thing about suicide bombers is that they can only do it once.”