Female Suicide Bombers: Somethings Old and Somethings New

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

The international news media and human rights advocates alike have consistently publicized Boko Haram’s kidnapping, sexual violence, and torture of women in Northern Nigeria. Since 2009, reports have detailed the kidnapping of over 500 women and girls. The most infamous incident was the kidnapping of 276 school-aged girls from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno State on April 14, 2014. The dominant media and popular focus on this incident of kidnapping and the harms Boko Haram perpetrate against women and girls has amassed international attention and the ubiquitous hashtag advocacy campaign to “bring back our girls.”

However, the focus on this specific and individual instance of kidnapping, although an extreme violation of human rights, has failed to shed light on a dynamic understanding of Boko Haram’s larger institutional structure around gender and how the subsequent tactics used to perpetrate harm against women and girls advance its political objectives in Nigeria more broadly. For example, Boko Haram’s use of women as suicide bombers is not a new phenomenon specific to Nigeria – female suicide bombers have been used in Chechnya, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other contexts where highly constrained security environments around male movement make female attackers less subject to search and suspicion. Understanding the complex dynamics of using women in this way is important in the Nigerian context and beyond. Understanding the totality of harms experienced by women is critical to seeing the larger relationship of gendered harms to the violence as a whole in the country.

Many of these issues have been brought into sharp focus by a recently published New York Times article that addresses the utilitarian use of women and girls by nonstate actors. However, what the New York Times article does is remain within the narrow (usually horror struck) narrative and does not introduce or take a broader read on gender and the conditions conducive to the production of gendered violence by groups such as Boko Haram. (The article shares this fault-line with much of the writing on women’s propensity to commit extreme violence.) 

Even on the global level, few studies have sought to empirically measure the strategies deployed by nonstate groups, especially those operating in highly patriarchal settings, to calculate the effectiveness of women as terrorist operatives and to assess the factors that bring about women’s mobilization. One study that is highly relevant to contemporary conversations is a review by Lindsay O’Rourke of all known terrorist suicide bombers between 1981 and 2008. She demonstrated that there are a number of “special” features of female suicide bombings, including the strategic advantages that females offer, cogent rationales to deploy females over male suicide bombers in certain societal contexts, and the effectiveness of women bombers. Her analysis determined that women are more lethal compared to their male counterparts, as demonstrated by their relative lethality in attacks across multiple jurisdictions and deployments. Women claimed a higher average number of victims in individual attacks (8.4 for women compared to 5.3 for men), a number that remained higher for women even when controlling for increased defensive measures by the state over time. Women also failed less often than men in carrying out suicide attacks. Even when operating in team assaults, women’s involvement produced more casualties per individual than team attacks with men only.

I have outlined in previous work that understanding the pervading social and cultural assumptions about women’s likely propensity for violence, and specifically extreme violence directed at civilians, is vital to understanding the success of women as violent operators for nonstate organizations. Women are less likely to arouse suspicion, are better equipped to conceal explosives, and are generally not subject to as strict security measures. For example, the capacity to conceal is augmented in societies where the dress code norms for women entail wearing loose full-body coverings.

The paucity of research on women as violent actors is tied to complex social conventions about their role in the military apparatus of the state, or any roles that women may play within nonstate structures in society. Additionally, as Simona Sharoni has pointed out, “the prevalent view of women as victims … tends to overlook, explicitly or implicitly, women’s power and agency.” This blind spot tends to produce policy and practice that view women as “homogeneously powerless and as implicit victims,” thus ignoring the parallel reality of women as the perpetrators of catastrophes. It also tends to overlook the patriarchal infrastructure that frames most women’s lives in such settings, as well as the ongoing multiple sources of violence that challenge women’s lives including sustained violations by state forces and private family actors (and not just non-state actors).

This tactic, training abducted women to carry out suicide bombings, when used by Boko Haram does occur in a unique and specific context. Some scholars have attributed the use of women as “pawns” in the conflict in Nigeria to both sides of the conflict, wherein the Nigerian governmental forces detain wives and children of Boko Haram members, including Abubakar Shekau’s own wife. A Youtube response video, published by Boko Haram, included Shekau’s warning to the Nigerian government, stating: “just wait to see what will happen to your own women…” Additionally, scholars have, although not conclusively, noted that this use of women and violence against women for military ends may be on the rise more broadly – occurring against the

[b]ackdrop of mounting sexual violence against women for political ends throughout the African continent; according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

What is true is that attention to sexual violence and abduction continues to neglect the role that women and girls play in this conflict (and others) both practically and symbolically. There is a need for a greater depth of understanding around how Boko Haram uses abduction of women for institutional purposes like informing group unity, bargaining with the Nigerian government, creating a broader context of fear among local populations, capitalizing on international attention by “parading” girls they claim belong to the abducted group from Chibok as “enforcers” in front of newly abducted women and girls, as well as showcasing the implementation of Sharia law.

Moreover, the Boko Haram example underscores how stereotyped perceptions may create suboptimal enforcement of antiterrorism laws. Increasingly, a “gender-neutral” slant, viewing women as equally capable of violence, from an efficiency and enforcement perspective, might justify giving greater reach to counterterrorism provisions. In parallel, understanding that the coercive and blunt application of anti-terrorrism laws have gendered effects, and can further alienate and disempower communities who are being subject to the radicalization of violent extremist movements, should lend pause to the idea that a blunt military response always solves the problem. The gendered dimensions of suicide bombing might rather force some uncomfortable conversations about the efficacy of contemporary  legal and policy solutions to terrorism. This might encourage engagement with why so much political time and energy is spend “defeating,” “ending,” and “managing” terrorism rather than on reflecting on the causes (including the gender dynamics) that enable and produce terrorism in the first place. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School, Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).