Skip to main content

Why do women turn into suicide bombers?

By Jane Harman
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
A video of Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, is shown on September 25, 2013. Boko Haram is an <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/27/world/africa/nigeria-year-of-attacks'>Islamist militant group waging a campaign of violence</a> in northern Nigeria. The group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government. Click through to see recent bloody incidents in this strife-torn West African nation: A video of Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, is shown on September 25, 2013. Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group waging a campaign of violence in northern Nigeria. The group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government. Click through to see recent bloody incidents in this strife-torn West African nation:
HIDE CAPTION
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jane Harman: A series of attacks in Nigeria by female suicide bombers is alarming
  • Harman: Increasingly, radicalism has a female face
  • She asks: What drives women to take part in terrorism and extremist movements?
  • Harman: Security issues are more and more intertwined with women's issues

Editor's note: Jane Harman is president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former U.S. representative from California, she was the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee from 2002 to 2006. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Recently, a young Nigerian girl—just 15 years old—approached a group of police officers and blew herself up. The attack failed; she claimed no lives but her own.

Boko Haram may have launched bloodier attacks, but I struggle to imagine a more heinous terror plot. That girl was just one of four Nigerian women to weaponize themselves this July in the populous northern city of Kano. The second attempt, targeting a shopping mall, likewise killed just the bomber. The third slaughtered three women lined up to buy oil for their cook-stoves. The fourth cut short the lives of six young people at Kano Polytechnic.

These attacks cast in sharp relief a trend that needs greater attention: the real and growing participation of women in extremist movements.

Jane Harman
Jane Harman

We take for granted that young girls don't strap on suicide vests, and yet they sometimes do. Women and girls have scant rights under the medieval control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. Our instincts say they would never join in its abusive rule over other women, and yet they have. We're used to thinking that men have a monopoly on violent extremism -- except they don't. We need a better understanding of what drives women to take part in, and even give their lives for, violent movements that insist on their inferiority. We can't counter radical narratives if we don't understand the motives of the radicalized.

The Atlantic's Kathy Gilsinan recently highlighted the surprising efforts of the al-Khansaa Brigade of ISIS. Wandering the streets of Raqqa, they wave firearms and enforce the jihadist code of conduct -- and they do it all while fully veiled, because the brigade is entirely female. That grim vision of women's participation challenges our less-than-nuanced understanding of radical movements.

Why do women contribute to groups like Boko Haram and ISIS that demand their submission? Sometimes, no doubt, they are coerced into compliance; sometimes, women participate in these extreme ideologies with enthusiasm. I wonder if some don't strap on a bomb as a merciful escape from miserable circumstances. But the important point is that we don't really know why women join terror groups that would deny them equality and opportunity.

Death toll rising in Nigeria
Nigerian police battle new attacks

We also don't understand the full extent of women's involvement. We don't know if Boko Haram's female bombers were a fluke or the first of many. We don't know if the al-Khansaa Brigade is a one-off experiment or a model for future ISIS governance. We have seen, though, that jihadists use women to exploit incomplete understandings of terrorism. Women pass unsuspected where men don't; that makes them valuable fighters. We can't thwart every attack while watching just half the pieces on the board.

Though women's involvement in terror seems to be on the rise, the tactic is old. Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers" lingered on the image of female militants applying French cosmetics—equal parts war paint and camouflage—while preparing to bomb French milk bars in support of Algeria's independence struggle.

Sri Lanka's Tamil insurgency made extensive use of female suicide bombers; between 1987 and 2008, women were better represented among their Black Tiger suicide commandos than they now are in either house of the United States Congress.

Today, social media is rife with female supporters of ISIS -- some of them Western citizens who have traveled to Syria to wed and support jihadists. It's time to wake up to the growing role of women. Terror groups clearly believe that jihad is a women's issue. The recruitment of women and girls is an important element of the modern threat landscape.

In the pursuit of women's equality at home and abroad, we still struggle to complete what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to as "the great unfinished business of the 21st century." If the United States is to offer a narrative of opportunity to the world—and strategically it must—then that narrative must include women and girls.

Terror groups will run out of female fighters when girls are protected from domineering violence, sex trafficking and child marriage, and given every opportunity to pursue a better path. Some critics of Clinton's tenure at the State Department have belittled her focus on women and girls -- as if the fate of half the world's population weren't an important subject for U.S. foreign policy.

That indifference can't last. Increasingly, radicalism has a female face. Security issues are women's issues; women's issues, sure enough, are security issues.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT