In a video testimonial recorded before her mission, Reem al-Riyashi explained why she became a suicide bomber: "I hope that the shredded limbs of my body would be shrapnel, tearing Zionists to pieces," she stated. "How often I dreamed, how often I desired to carry out a Shahada-seeking [suicide] operation inside Israel, and by perseverance, and with Allah's grace, my wish was fulfilled as I wanted."
Riyashi, an operative for the Palestinian group Hamas, is one of dozens of female suicide bombers portrayed in a new book, Women Suicide Bombers: Narratives of Violence by Julie Rajan, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers. Published in 2011 by Routledge, the book is the first to challenge the way female suicide bombers are represented in the media in ways that discredit them as political actors.
Rajan, who earned her master's and doctoral degrees in comparative literature at Rutgers, became fascinated with public perceptions of female suicide bombers after the first Palestinian women began to blow themselves up in 2002. Though numerous women had been deployed as suicide bombers in other countries, such as Lebanon and Sri Lanka, since the 1980s, Americans seemed surprised that Palestinian women had chosen to take on these missions.
More important, the media portrayed the women by stressing their physical appearances and by suggesting they had been victimized over the violence affected by their missions. At the same time, terrorist groups represented the same women suicide bombers as heroines for their actions.After conducting research on female suicide bombers in various countries, from Russia to Iraq, and reviewing their statements in various media outlets, Rajan concluded that rather than being coerced into these missions, many of the female suicide bombers were clearly acting of their own will.
"There are many statements by women suicide bombers that show they completely understand what they are doing and that reveal that they went over and above going through red tape to execute suicide bombs," Rajan says.
In certain regions of the world where conservative gender norms prevail, such as Palestine, male-led rebel groups cannot approach a woman at her home and ask her to carry out a mission, Rajan explains. Instead, the women have to seek out the rebel groups and ask to become suicide bombers.
In their video testimonials and letters, the women suicide bombers rarely talk about their families, Rajan says. On the contrary, they talk about how their male leaders have failed and how the women want to sacrifice their lives for their country.
"Their ideas of being a woman are very much impacted by the political context in which they are living," Rajan says. "That they want to be a suicide bomber should not be a surprise given that they live in an environment that is filled with violence. For them to go several steps beyond the everyday violence that already pervades their lives and become a suicide bomber is not as surprising as we think it is."
Rajan explicitly states in her 384-page book that "any kind of murder is wrong." Her book is not a moral commentary on suicide bombing but rather a study of how women suicide bombers are misrepresented in the media.
While several books have been published on the topic of women suicide bombers, most of them are seriously flawed, says Mary Hawkesworth, professor of political science and women's and gender studies at Rutgers. "They trade in stereotypes as opposed to social science research," Hawkesworth says. "They are ideological tracts rather than objective accounts. So Julie fills a great need for a systematic study of this topic."
Just as the media stresses the physical features of the female suicide bombers, Rajan sees a similar tendency in the portrayal of women politicians, such as secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. "This woman is secretary of state and deals with global issues, but the American media is focusing on her style and her hair," Rajan points out. "When women are in public positions that are not typically occupied by women, then society becomes suspicious of what type of women these women are, and the media reflects those anxieties."
One way the media deals with that suspicion is to characterize powerful women as less masculine by representing them in ways that makes them seem less aggressive, such as focusing on their appearance, says Rajan, who won the School of Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2005 and in 2009.
The coauthor of five anthologies, Rajan is now working on a second book on suicide terrorism titled New Trends in Suicide Terrorism: Al Qaeda, Africa, and the West. The new book will discuss how, since 9/11, the majority of victims in suicide bombings have been Muslims and how suicide terrorists are infiltrating groups in the West.