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A Different Kind of Mother

Joyce Marcel

Not since the horrors of Abu Ghraib have I been so disturbed by a story that combines women, sadism and murder.       

Samira Ahmen Jassim, 51, recently captured in Iraq, confessed to having recruited over 80 female suicide bombers. According to her, 28 of these women have already carried out attacks. Her nickname? Um al-Mumenin, or "mother of the believers."       

How could Jassim so successful at convincing women to kill themselves? First, she organized their rapes. Because these women live in a patriarchal society where anything less than virginity and then monogamy turns them into pariahs, they are encouraged to kill themselves to restore their family's "honor."       

Even during the heady days of early Betty Friedan-inspired feminism, I never believed that women were the kinder, gentler, more nurturing sex. I felt you had to make such distinctions on a case-by-case basis. And by the time Margaret Thatcher appeared as prime minister of Britain, I had been proven right so often that I only needed to say her last name to end any argument on the subject.       

But even I never expected to see the ever-escalating reports, starting in the 1980s, of female suicide bombers - in Syria, in Palestine, in Israel, in Chechnya. An excellent one appeared recently in a British women's magazine, Marie Claire. (        

Reporter Jan Goodwin interviews Menake, a 27-year-old member of Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which supposedly has more female suicide bombers than any organization in the world. It begins, "On the day before she set out to blow up the Sri Lankan prime minister, Menake went shopping for a sequined top to hide the vest full of explosives that would turn her into a human bomb. It was the cyanide necklace that gave her away."       

Menake's style of suicide vest was first worn in May of 1991, when a woman draped a welcome garland of flowers over the shoulders of India's prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and then killed him, herself and 18 bystanders. She was reportedly a Sri Lanka girl who was raped when she was young by soldiers from the Indian Peacekeeping Force. And Menake was raped by her father "repeatedly for four days during a drunken binge," Goodwin writes. "Rape is something many female suicide bombers have in common. Considered spoiled goods and unmarriageable in their patriarchal cultures, they view becoming human bombs as a form of purification by fire."       

We know there were female Nazi war criminals. A simple Google search for "female criminals" turns up gruesome stories of parent murder, infanticide, killing for the hell of it, rape and murder to please a boyfriend (the girl in that story even served up her sister), robbery and multiple other ways in which "the gentler sex" defies conventional wisdom.       

And then there are the women of Abu Ghraib, whose disturbing images will probably never be completely erased from our minds - one of them grinning over a pyramid of hooded naked male Iraqi prisoners; another posing with a corpse on a leash. And the general in charge of the prison? The only female commander in Iraq at the time, Janis Karpinski, an Army reserve general.       

In a 2006 paper given at the International Studies Association, Laura Sjoberg of Harvard wrote, "Does the female sex criminal turn feminism upside down? Or just balance it? Or were we there all along? My paper studies the three women who were implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004 with the aim of figuring out what their actions mean both for global political perceptions of women's characteristics and for feminist theories of women's roles in international relations."       

Her conclusions encompass some truths about American servicewomen as well as Muslim suicide bombers. "Society still denies women's agency," Sjoberg said. "In the stories of the female abusers at Abu Ghraib, we were incapable of dealing with these women's choice to commit heinous violence... because gender subordination has changed in form and pervasiveness, but not in substance... Feminism is not about claiming that women's judgment is better than men's. It is not about claiming that the world would be different if women ran it... Feminists do not claim that all women are innocent, or that women's violence should be blamed on men's oppression. Instead, they use gender as a category of analysis to complicate ideas of agency, interdependence, and criminality. Violent women have agency in their violence; they also make their decisions in a world of relational autonomy where no choice is completely independent."        

War, rape, criminality - it's hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins. But one thing is certain. Mother Jassim blows a lot of conventional wisdom about women being tender and nurturing out of the water. We like to talk about "man's inhumanity to man," but it turns out that women's inhumanity can be just as fierce.

 Joyce Marcel is a Vermont journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her website, She can be reached at

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