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Opinion, Haaretz, November 11, 2005


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Sex and suicide bombers
By Claudia Brunner

When a woman enters the room, sex comes in. And when debates focus on sex, the logic of gender shines through.

This is not only true for mass media representations of suicide bombings, but also for much of the ongoing academic discourse on the issue. In political reality, the images of the peace-loving woman and the fighting man started to blur a long time ago, but they are still at work in discourse on violence and seem to constitute a remarkable element of its mainstream.

It is exactly the gender stereotypes that have allowed the so-called second sex to be so deadly. When it comes to reflecting "Western" knowledge production on suicide bombing, gender, used as a category of analysis, can throw a light on an implicit logic of an order that frames the understanding of a so-called "new phenomenon." The latter is likely to be depoliticized when it comes to women who resort to the murderous attacks.

In January 2002, the world was shocked not only by another suicide bombing in Israel, but also by the fact that it had for the first time been a woman who performed it. Since then, several others have followed her example. Zvi Bar'el focused on the issue in his article in Haaretz, "Make children, not war" (March 8, 2002) which was the starting point of my own work on that issue.

Instead of asking myself why a woman decides to become a suicide bomber or whether it is her own decision or not, I wanted to move from the micro level of looking for motivations and personal circumstances to a macro level of discourse analysis within debates on women suicide bombers: How do sex and gender appear in these debates, which discursive positions do make use of it, in what ways, and for what aims? And how can these elements contribute to a larger understanding of what is often conceived as an insoluble antagonism (suicide bombing plus a woman performing it)?

As an analysis of media coverage of the first seven Palestinian women suicide bombers (from 2002 to 2004) has shown, public discourse is very likely to refer to them in terms of corporeality: Virginity, pregnancy and motherhood constitute the main elements of explanation, both in terms of facts that are referred to and in terms of a symbolic order that is arranged around these elements. Adult women are described by their first names and as girls, their personal and sexual life is at the core of most of the explanations, and they are often described as patriarchally suppressed individuals who are neither aware of nor politically determined for their crimes; these elements are unlikely to be applied in writings on men.

In the discursive dimension that shows up after their very short physical public appearance, women suicide bombers' sex is an indispensable turning point of arguments. These women function as boundary markers as they have been used to do in many territorial conflicts, whereas male suicide bombers seem to cause terror only by their deeds, but not by their sex.

Within many debates, it is striking to see that the main arguments give way for a discursive pattern, which feminists have already been dismantling in various territorial confrontations, regardless of the concrete forms of application of physical violence.

In any case, gender and nationalism are closely linked to each other, they both challenge and reorganize power relations between conflict parties, and female sexuality constitutes a central battlefield within knowledge production on the topic. As J. B. Elshtain, an American feminist theorist points out: "Male violence has been channelled through the institution of war and its various rules of conduct. Women, with no comparable institution by virtue of the constructions of peacefulness built around them seem out of control when they engage in violence, unless the act mirrors imagined male valor."

And it does, since even very conservative Palestinian men in leading functions of the organizations who decided to let "shahidas" fill the ranks of former male "shahids" found ways to argue for women's participation, but only at the time when they considered them to be a useful weapon in the long run. On the other hand, Western writers are likely to describe these women in terms of double deviation and will not stop wondering about their private lives.

It is so-called religious, nationalist and a variety of other arguments that make sense of gendered categories for their own purposes of either legitimizing or delegitimizing their crimes. But looking for gender does not only mean asking questions of how patriarchally suppressed these women were, whether they had violated the frontiers of traditional gender regimes, how hopeless their individual perspectives as Palestinian women had been, or how immoral or grieving their often portrayed mothers were.

One has to ask these questions, but in order to understand suicide bombing in its symbolic dimension, this narrow frame will not deliver any new insights. It will rather refer to the function of such a simplifying mindset within the logic of counter terrorism research and policy.

It is the element of suicide bombing that deeply irritates and threatens the logic of the rational subject, the legitimating of the use of physical violence and the invulnerability of sovereign nation states. Within this already complex setting, it is the irritation of traditional gender roles that reinforces both the potential threat for the Israeli people and the discursive effect of such an attack towards the international media, that constitutes a secondary target. Gender as an analytic category goes beyond micro level questionnaires that journalists and scholars are likely to make use of when it comes to explain their attacks.

Writing on suicide bombing as an isolated "phenomenon" is often associated with irrationality, immorality, emotion, anarchy, chaos, weakness, privacy, and other labels that one is quite familiar with when thinking of ideas of femininity in general, regardless of the biological sex of the perpetrators. Suicide bombing, in an imagery of the uncontrollable non-state actor that not only the citizens of Israel, but the very idea of the nation state has to fear, has become not only a real threat in everyday life in many regions of the world, but also a discursive frame in which the difficult task of re-establishing the rationality and legitimating of the use of (pre-emptive and repaying) force against its potential agents are being reorganized.

In that context, occidentalist representations enable Western analysts to conceive (potential) suicide bombers as "the other" and construct walls between "us" and "them," and gender seems to constitute a major implicit logic in that binary construction of orientalist stereotyping.

This clear distinction on a symbolic level is supposed to save the rationality of physically and discursively manifest "wars on terror," and it needs the irrational, the unmoral and the non-self-determined, but patriarchally suppressed other in order to maintain its legitimacy.

It is exactly in this respect that one can doubt the long term efficacy of such a dichotomy, because it not only applies to the specific other that really and intentionally threatens potential victims of suicide bombings, but also to the generalized other, the Palestinian people who by that construction necessarily remains irrational, unmoral, chaotic, weak, barbaric and therefore the enemy. And peace, you do not make with enemies.

The writer teaches political gender studies at Vienna University and is writing her PhD dissertation on gender as a category of knowledge at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

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