On December 29th, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the main station of Volgogard, a city of one million in southern Russia. The blast killed 16 people and wounded many more. One day later, another attack targeting a trolley bus killed at least 10 people in the same city. The attacks have received considerable attention, given the nexus to Russia’s increasingly alienated Muslim population and concerns about their susceptibility to Islamic radicalization. Less notice has been given to the specificity of a female suicide bomber causing the havoc that followed from terrorist targeting.
Female suicide bombers and female combatants are not new phenomena. In places as diverse as Sri Lanka, India, Northern Ireland, the Basque Region, and Israel-Palestine women have engaged in sustained military and paramilitary action as members of non-state and terrorist groups. A number of high profile bombings in the Chechen conflict have been attributed to politically motivated violence by women. While there has been significant academic and policy study of the motivations, radicalization and activities of male terrorists over many decades much less attention has been paid to violent women. The presumptions that pervade much of counter-terrorism policy-making is that men are the violent actors we ought to be worried about. Women are generally presumed to have the essential attributes of kindness and care, creating a set of presumptions about who is most likely to be violent and the kinds of counter-terrorism measures that ought to be operationalized to prevent catastrophic civilian casualties. When women come into view they typically do so as the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of terrorist actors, or as the archetypal victims of senseless terrorist acts whose effects on the most vulnerable (women themselves) underscore the unacceptability of terrorist targeting.
The terrorism rules are, by and large, assumed to apply to the behavior of men. They stereotype and profile men, seeking to target the group deemed most likely to be terrorists or combatants in any particular cultural setting. The little contemporary research available has been principally directed at female jihadists and tends to rely on narrative or qualitative form. 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.
Only one study has sought to comprehensively address the effectiveness of women as suicide bombers. Accounting for all known terrorist suicide bombers between 1981 and 2008, Lindsay O’Rourke demonstrated that there are a number of “special” features of female suicide bombing, 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.
This data, albeit derived from only one study, should give us reason to reevaluate many of the gendered assumptions that drive counter-terrorism policy. Furthermore, understanding the complexity of women’s terrorist mobilization is an essential component of any counter-terrorism policy that starts from the premise of accepting the equal capacity of men and women to political violence. Volgograd reminds us that there is a significant price to ignoring or fetishizing women’s engagement in terrorist violence and significant benefits to greater understanding and analysis.