The recent capture of a female Palestinian suicide bomber by the Israeli military in the West Bank was a chilling reminder that women have become active foot soldiers in the terror campaign being waged in the Middle East. Since January, four Palestinian women have carried out suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. Most recently, six people were killed and 60 wounded by a 20-year-old female suicide bomber in Jerusalem. Although Palestinian women have suffered and been part of the struggle for an independent state, not until this year did women begin to blow themselves up for the cause. Something beyond a sense of hopelessness, desire for martyrdom or lack of a better weapon is motivating Palestinian women to strap themselves with bombs.
In attacking the Israelis, these female suicide bombers are fighting for more than just national liberation; they are fighting for gender liberation as well. For it's true that if women keep joining the ranks of men with explosives, their contribution to the nationalist cause won't be easily for-gotten. But ultimately their quest for equality will be futile, for feminism and nationalism don't go hand in hand in the Arab world.
As more secular Islamic groups have gained prominence in the Palestinian struggle, women, long constrained by fundamentalism, have seized the opportunity to play a greater role.
These women believe that if they are to gain equality in a new Palestinian state, they must play an equal role to men in obtaining it. What better way than to become suicide bombers, long seen as heroes who make the ultimate sacrifice— and a role traditionally reserved for men?
At first glance, suicide bombing would seem an effective new vehicle of the women's movement. Wafa Idris, the first woman to carry out a successful suicide operation, has been hailed both as a nationalist and as a feminist hero by Arabic-language newspapers in Egypt, Jordan and London. She has been referred to as a role model who struck a blow to Israel, and for women's equality. The funeral held in her honor looked like a feminist rally, with hundreds of women paying her homage. Female students all over the West Bank and Gaza City say they want to be next in line for a bombing mission.
Yet since the beginning of the struggle for independence, Palestinian women have been told that women's rights would take a backseat to Palestinian rights.
During the intifada of 1987, for example, women of all ages, classes and political persuasions took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in violent demonstrations and stone-throwing sessions. They acquired skills necessary to lobby, legislate and run organizations. In preparation for a Palestinian state, women began forming their own committees, empowering their peers and cultivating leaders.
But women who tied national liberation to social liberation during the first intifada did not see their progress last. Women-run organizations lost members and had to limit their budgets after coming under control of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Only five of the 88 members of the Palestinian Legislative Councilare women. Patriarchal issues, including bride-price and spousal abuse, have been sidelined.
The peace summit that produced the Oslo accords kept women at arm's length. They were not included in the negotiations and they were overlooked for prominent positions in the political structures created by the Palestinian Authority.
In the current intifada, women have been inconspicuous, retreating to the domestic sphere and into stereotypical roles such as nurses.
Women's increased contribution to the intifada won't pay off because it never has before. So, women shouldn't die trying.
Suicide bombing should not be the strategy of the women's movement anymore than it should be a strategy to obtain a state. The feminist approach can be one of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience, not operations that violate human rights.
Equality should be fought for with leadership, not explosives. In this way, if the goals of nationalism are realized long before those of feminism, women at least maintain a sense of rational integrity and dignity, not desperation, in the fight.
More important, women will have lived— not died— to reap the benefits of equality.
Stephanie Shemin is a research associate in the terrorism program at the Council on Foreign Relations.