Female Suicide Bombers

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“A shallow look at a very complex subject.”

Female suicide bombers might perhaps not fit into the generally-perceived definition of “action heroine”, but they have much the same quality of transgressive behaviour – women acting in ways outwith the norm. And, of course, heroism depends on your point of view; one thing this documentary does, is show the cult on the West Bank that surrounds their martyrs. The thin line between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” is illustrated perfectly by the scene of small children carrying posters of suicide bombers. On the other hand, most of the program skims irritatingly across the surface, not least because host Lisa Ling is a puffcake journalist, uninterested in asking – or perhaps, too scared to ask – the hard questions. Her interview with the mother of Wafa Idris, the first West Bank female martyr, is a masterpiece of shallowness; she doesn’t even bother to follow-up on the answers, let alone challenge the assertions.

Even more annoying is its desire to cram the motivations for all female suicide bombers into the same hypothesis: abused or brainwashed women, who have broken the laws of society, and in particular, religion, so find suicide the only way out. They dig through the histories, looking for evidence to justify their theory: oh, Wafa was infertile and divorced, that must have been it. But this hardly even counts as an explanation: how many women get divorced without committing suicide? It’s actually fairly patronising, the clear implication being that women are incapable of consciously sacrificing their lives for a political or social cause. I think Joan of Arc, Emily Davison (the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby) and Violette Szabo might care to argue with that conclusion.

The film also concentrates the great majority of its efforts on Palestinian bombers; the Tamil Tigers merit only a brief mention, even though they have been using female martyrs for far longer, to a greater extent (almost 40% of their suicide bombers are women) and with greater impact, including the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi in 1991 – unmentioned by the program, despite it supporting their theory, is the fact that his killer had been raped by Indian soldiers. On the other hand, the Tamil struggle is secular rather than religious, making it hard to apply the same hypothesis of guilt-stricken women opting to go out with a bang. However, I do give the program credit for piqueing my interest in the topic; expect a full article sometime in 2005… [Said article has been delayed indefinitely, as I couldn’t get a good handle on how to approach the topic. I made a lot of notes, then basically gave up. Will maybe dig them out sometime…]

National Geographic Channel documentary, December 2004

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