In the wake of the tragic subway bombings in Moscow, I’ve been asking myself a question that puzzles me every time I hear about female suicide bombers, or “black widows.” Discussions of these women ultimately center in a strange way on their gender, which seems to significantly amplify the fear with which they are portrayed.
We seem obsessed with knowing why these women would kill themselves and others, and while this is certainly a question that applies to all suicide bombers, our fascination and horror seems far more intense when the bombers are women. In an article published on March 29 in the NYT, Andrew E. Kramer articulates some of the potential reasons, writing,
“While there is no single reason that women decide to give up their lives, experts said they have usually suffered a traumatic event that makes them burn with revenge or question whether they want to live. In the case of the attacks in Russia, this could be the death of a child, husband or other family member at the hands of Russian forces, or a rape. Russian authorities have said the women are sometimes drugged.”
The funny thing is, we don’t ask these same questions, at least not to the same degree, when suicide bombers are male. It seems that there is really nothing scarier than the idea of a woman committing such a heinous act of violence, unless she had some kind of mitigating reason – a traumatic event or the influence of drugs. And while this is, for the most part, probably true, what about the men? Are they simply ideological fiends? Haven’t they had deeply scarring experiences that led them to this extreme path? Should the idea of any suicide bomber, regardless of gender, be disturbing?
Hanna Rosin at Double X and Irin at Jezebel both have great posts on the subject. Rosin points out, fascinatingly, that female suicide bombers seem to be far more effective than their male counterparts. Quoting Lindsay O’Rourke, a researcher who wrote her dissertation on the subject at the University of Chicago, Rosin writes, “A female suicide bomber is more likely to be successful, and kill 9 victims, as opposed to 5.5 for a man.” Which certainly unsettles some of our preconceived notions about whether violence like suicide bombing is a particularly “feminine” act.
So while there do seem to have been an unusual number of female suicide bombers in the conflict between Russia and Chechnya, we should remember that their gender alone should not increase our horror at the crime, or even gain more media coverage. After all, as Irin points out, why don’t we call male suicide bombers “Black Widowers”?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.