Katherine Williams


Skaine, Rosemary. Female Suicide Bombers McFarland, 2006

Female Suicide Bombers by Rosemarie Skaine offers a comprehensive analysis of the so-called phenomenon of women who seemingly choose to make the ultimate sacrifice to their respective causes.

Skaine does this by presenting us primarily with a series of case studies whereby motivations of female suicide bombers from different countries and ethnic backgrounds are analysed; namely, The Black Tigresses of Sri Lanka, the Black Widows of the Chechen Rebels and groups engaged in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, amongst others.

Through the use of these case studies, we can then analyse the question of why women are increasingly used as suicide bombers and how this is at odds with Western social biases that tend to cast women in passive, non-aggressive roles.

A notion that is explored at length throughout Skaine’s work is that of agency; are women who suicide bomb misrepresented as non-rational actors, incapable of making their own decisions? As Skaine notes, women are real, and do kill and we must scratch below the surface of simple analyses that proffer that the narratives of the lives of female suicide bombers are marked simply by victimisation and oppression.

So what are the motivations of female suicide bombers?

Skaine deliberates two paths of analysis.

One path disagrees with the notion that women are non-rational actors, incapable of making their own decisions (thus being denied political and personal agency). The other maintains that women who martyr themselves are committing a form of altruistic suicide; whereby their acts reveal meanings indistinguishable from ‘traditional’ practices and social expectations dictated by a patriarchal society (for honour, avenging the death of a (male) loved one by giving their lives etc.). (The latter is particularly difficult to analyse; if we assume a lack of choice or emotional instability because of existing oppressions or lived experiences, are we then further denying women agency?).

Academics cited within the book, such as Birgit Langenberger, argue that women who kill make use of the non-violence myth that surrounds women in general (Skaine, 2006, p.p. 35), thereby giving groups who use female suicide bombers a tactical advantage. Lisa Kruger agrees, stating that the international community must recognise women as rational actors as opposed to emotional reactors of violence (Skaine, 2006, p.p. 25).

Skaine gives the example of the Black Tigresses of Sri Lanka, who are a highly disciplined political unit; members of the group must be highly motivated to perform their mission as mental stability is prized over tactical military competence (Skaine, 2006, p.p 20). Skaine argues that the use of these women’s lives as missiles is driven by a purpose and determination unmatched by conventional weaponry (Skaine, 2006, p.p21). And this is precisely what makes the use of women as suicide bombers appear so appalling in Western eyes; women bombers confound our pre-conceived notions on the place of women in society; i.e. as non-rational actors without the same driving political ideologies as their male counterparts.

As there is no defined profile of a female suicide bomber, according to Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (Skaine, 2006, p.p. 26); we are invited to scrutinise the motivations of female suicide bombers within the context of their respective environments. This is what Western IR theories seem to lack; namely, the analysis of non-traditional security threats within the sources of people’s insecurity. It is evident that the women examined in Female Suicide Bombers had, at some point in their lives, become extremely radicalised. Skaine does an excellent job of unpacking the dynamics of martyrdom.

One idea that Skaine examines throughout her work, as aforementioned, is the notion that women do not kill. Those who do are subject to vilification at the hands of global media.  As has been stated in the introduction to this review, Western social biases favour women not killing, so when they do, they are presented as an exceptional other, an abhorration.  This seems particularly relevant when women are involved in suicide bombings or other acts of terrorism as the case of the ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite shows us; now apparently the ‘world’s most wanted for her unconfirmed involvement in a terrorist attack against Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

This in turn raises questions of exceptionality in regards to the representations of women and men who commit violent and deadly acts.

As Lisa Downing explains in her book The Subject of Murder, we continue to believe that there is something different and exceptional about the act of killing, and the murderers themselves present the reviled ‘other’. Downing argues that individuals who commit murder are ordinary people who are reflections and symptoms of a society at the intersections of gender, agency, desire and violence (Downing, 2012). Downing’s analysis upends the idea that those who commit violence acts or murder are isolated figures on the fringes of society.

Downing’s work is a useful tool in the examination of what drives women to kill and how society’s reaction to such crimes (i.e. media sensationalism) blocks critical analysis and compliments, at least theoretically, Skaine’s research in Female Suicide Bombers.

For students of International Relations, or people just interested in the subject, Rosemarie Skaine offers a concise and comprehensive analysis on the occurrence, political background and motivation of female suicide bombers. Female Suicide Bombers examines the question of why women are increasingly used as bombers and as, generally, suicide bombers are part of a wider organisations, also sheds light on the organisation, scope and training methods of such groups. The book also raises interesting theoretical questions regarding gender exceptionality, agency and the role of women on the international stage and has an excellent bibliography full of great sources that can be used for further research.


Katherine Williams graduated from Swansea University in 2011 with a 2:1 in German and Politics, and is currently studying for a MA in International Security and Development. Her interests include the de/construction of gender in International Relations, conflict-driven sexual violence and grassroots feminist activism, being a co-founder of Swansea Feminist Network. You can follow her on Twitter here: @polygluttony.


-Female Suicide Bombers, Rosemarie Skaine, 2006

-The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality and the Modern Killer, Lisa Downing, 2012