When a patriarchal society breaks with tradition and produces female suicide bombers one ought to pause to reflect. Many could interpret this phenomenon as a sign of patriarchal structures breaking down, with women increasingly being accepted as equals in the roles traditionally reserved for men. Others would point to the degree of desperation attached to living under an oppressive occupation force which leads these women to take their own lives. In her book "Army of Roses", Barbara Victor examines such claims in respect of Palestinian female suicide bombers. Her quest to understand "the social environment that pushes these young women over the edge of personal despair", however, leads her to uncover a deeper truth.
By weaving political analysis and the personal stories of five female suicide bombers together, she takes the reader beyond the surface, highlighting the relevant sociological structures that determine such behaviour. The outcome of such an investigation does not point to equality being achieved but actually reveals deeply embedded inequality in the Palestinian society which denies individual women the freedom to define their own future. And this is to blame for the rise of female suicide bombers.
This view is sustained through numerous interviews. Victor talks with the families and friends of the female suicide bombers who provide insights into their aspirations, character and motives. Her interviews with doctors, academics as well as psychologists serve as a framework which helps forge a bigger picture out of the personal stories. Although, the experts place differing emphasis on factors like socio-economics, nationalism, and fundamentalism in their explanations of female suicide terrorism. Interviews with Yasser Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu, Abdul Aziz Al-Rantisi, Sheik Ahmad Yassin and others provide insights into the thinking of the political actors who capitalize on or condemn such attacks, but who also define the political backdrop against which such attacks are undertaken.
Great care is taken in analysing the first female suicide attack carried out by a Palestinian woman called Wafa Idris on January 27 2002. Her death took the world by surprise including, apparently, the Palestinian leadership who according to evidence presented by Victor, initially tried to cover up their association with the attack. In an interview with a Fatah leader, Victor discovers that Idris' recruitment was made in connection with her brother's planned suicide attack and not hers. Her intended role was to carry a knapsack filled with explosives across a checkpoint, which her brother would later use in his attack. However, Idris crossed the boundaries of her intended role and detonated the device, killing her self and one Israeli man. Only after a positive reaction to the event in the Arab world and noticing that the people where seemingly ready to accept a woman suicide bomber as a 'sahida', a martyr, did the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade claim responsibility for the attack. Idris' attack, with the seal of approval from the political leadership, then served as an example for other women to follow. Her story points to the haphazard genesis of Palestinian female suicide bomber.
However by seeking out personal motives that would lead this young woman to kill herself, Victor unravels the structural factors to discover that her story is not so unique. Similar factors determined the behavior of the subsequent female suicide bombers. Wafa Idris was a woman with no future. Her inability to give her husband children led to the husband and his family being put to shame. Her husband was pressurised to divorce her and to take another wife. She had to move back to her paternal home where she was perceived as nothing but a financial burden. As a 'barren' woman, she had no chance of remarrying. In a society where 'honour' is currency, for a very 'poor' woman with no future, a suicide attack is a quick way to get her family 'rich'. The stories of the subsequent sahidas are similar in the respect that they all shared an inability to control their own lives. For reasons of respectability, honour and societal pressure ,they all undertook the attacks in hope of acquiring honour for their families.
The next layer that Victor adds to her analysis is that in a society which quickly adapts to incorporate female suicide bombers, male figures start to prey on unsuspecting women, and manipulate them to carry out attacks. There is the story Shireen Rabiya a fifteen year old, from a well-to-do family. She was recruited by her uncle who promised her an end to her teenage angst with a promise of entering paradise. Ultimately, she failed in her attempt to blow herself up. Therefore , even in this new role crafted for women, male manipulation continues to remain as the pivotal factor.
The message of this book is that this role enhancement is not an expression of equality. It warns of those who try to mislead us into believing that they are uncovering the structures of inequality. Actually they give rise to it and perpetuated it in the first place. The reader parts with the book with a deeper understanding of the motives that lead women to become suicide bombers. He is aware that such acts will continue to happen as long as prevailing societal structure remains in tact.