Explosive Baggage: Female Palestinian Suicide Bombers and the Rhetoric of Emotion

By Patkin, Terri Toles | Women and Language, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Explosive Baggage: Female Palestinian Suicide Bombers and the Rhetoric of Emotion


Patkin, Terri Toles, Women and Language


Abstract: This paper examines the rhetoric of emotion surrounding the first female Palestinian suicide bombers. The influence of gender in recruitment, training and compensation by the terrorist organization are considered within the context of the tension between gender equality and tradition in Palestinian culture. The carefully-edited discourse of the bombers themselves is juxtaposed with the discounting of those statements by friends, family and the media in an attempt to understand the motivations for engaging in terror. Media coverage, particularly in the West, appears to actively search for alternate explanations behind women's participation in terror in a way that does not seem paralleled in the coverage of male suicide bombers, whose official ideological statements appear to be taken at face value.

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There is a powerful psychological effect associated with being prepared to die for a cause. A suicide bombing is a bomb attack on people or property, delivered by a person who knows the explosion will cause his or her own death. Although the concept predates the label (suicide attacks occurred in the ancient world, kamikaze pilots in World War II chose to die for their country), the term became popularized in 1983 after an explosives-laden pickup track crashed into a Beirut, Lebanon, facility housing U.S. Marines. However, the use of suicide operatives in nationalist terror organizations in recent decades marks a change from the 1960s and 1970s practice of conserving manpower by carrying out attacks while keeping operatives at a safe distance (Lewis, 2003). Suicide bombings--inexpensive, effective, media-friendly and with a built-in intelligent guidance and delivery system--are chillingly effective as psychological warfare (Hoffman, 2003). Suicide bombing redefines basic cultural relationships and merges private, psychological motivations with public, ideologically-charged actions. Killing oneself is no longer an act of self-destruction (intihar), but rather divinely commanded martyrdom (istishad) in defense of the faith (Stem, 2003).

Today, the Arab press generally refer to a suicide bomber as a human bomb. The Bush administration briefly tried to get journalists to use the term homicide bombing, but it did not gain currency (Suicide Bomber, 2003; Suicide Bombing, 2003). Suicide bombers are not suffering from clinical depression or emotional difficulties; they perceive themselves as fulfilling a holy mission that will make them martyrs. The action is not "suicide" but rather "martyrdom" and thus does not violate religious prohibitions against killing oneself (Atran, 2003; Lewis, 2003; Reuter, 2004; Schweitzer, 2000).

The tactic was introduced into Palestinian areas gradually starting in the late 1980s. Hezbollah pioneered the use of suicide bombing, claiming responsibility for attacks on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut (1983), the hijacking of TWA flight 847 (1985) and a series of lethal attacks on Israeli targets. Like many other Islamist organizations, Hezbollah engages in both guerrilla warfare against Israeli military targets and terrorism targeting the civilian population, as well as sponsoring social programs for the Palestinian population (Byman, 2003).

By the mid-1990s, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah had all used suicide bombings as a means to derail the Oslo peace process. Palestinian terrorist groups in Israel during this period also included Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), Umar al-Mukhtar Forces, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and Salah al-Din Battalions (Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 2000). The Islamist agenda shared by many of these organizations has led to the "second intifada," during which suicide bombings have escalated. There have been more volunteers for suicide attacks (including women) and planning for each attack has been less rigorous than in the past (Atran, 2003).

As the Palestinian point of view shifted from negotiation about specific tracts of land to a no-compromise drive toward a final victory, the psychology of terrorism shifted from martyrdom as a means to martyrdom as an end (Brooks, 2002). …

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Explosive Baggage: Female Palestinian Suicide Bombers and the Rhetoric of Emotion
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