Jewish World Review Feb. 5, 2002 / 23 Shevat, 5762

Are 'women warriors' on the way to these shores?

By Patricia Pearson -- CLOSE your eyes for a moment and imagine a woman -- perhaps slight of build, perhaps a young mother -- piloting American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center. Imagine her praising Allah as she hurtles into the building while savoring her achievement of personal glory. Imagine her committing mass murder without regret.

Hard to picture, isn't it? But it can happen, and we need to think about the possibility, because the use of a least-likely suspect is the most-likely tactic for a terrorist group under scrutiny. Israel discovered that last month, when a Palestinian woman easily eluded security checks and detonated a bomb on a busy Jerusalem street.

Contrary to initial press reports, this was not the first time that a Palestinian woman has proved capable of terrorist violence. Far from it. Last summer, on Aug. 3, a young. Palestinian woman was arrested by the Israeli police. as she was preparing to detonate a bomb at a Tel Aviv bus station.

Another woman, Dalal Maghrebi, was more successful in her mission: She was involved in one of the worst terrorist incidents in Israel's history, in which more than 30 passengers were massacred in a bus hijacking in 1978. Still another, Leila Khaled, tried to hijack an El Al flight to London in 1970, but was foiled. Her attempt was one of several hijackings that day by her organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Eventually, the British agreed to release Khaled and other terrorists in exchange for hostages being kept in the Middle East. When Khaled wrote to her mother from her British prison cell, she said "the only thing that grieves and hurts me today is that I am not now carrying arms and am not sharing with my people in the battle."

Khaled clearly viewed herself as a warrior and not, by any means, as a freak of feminine nature.

She was, after all, operating in the '70s, a period that witnessed a flowering of female terrorism. In 1977, coed sympathizers of Germany's Baader-Meinhoff. Gang hijacked a Lufthansa flight. en route to Frankfurt from Majorca. All of the women involved were carrying weapons, and most of them were killed in the resulting shootout on the tarmac.

Ten years later, the terrorist Kim Hyon-hee, a North Korean woman, planted a bomb that blew up KAL Flight 858, killing all on board. Female terrorists have since been found in the ranks of the real IRA, the Tupac Amaru movement in Peru, the Japanese Red Army, the Italian Red Brigade, and the PKK in Turkey.

The most intense female guerilla fighters come from Sri Lanka, where they are known colloquially as the Tamil Tigresses. In the last few years, Tamil women have blown themselves up in the course of murdering dozens. of officials and civilians.

The most famous among them went by the single name of Dhanu. She was a young Hindu woman from Jaffna, Sri Lanka, who hid a girdle of grenades beneath her gown and went to meet Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. When he clasped the diminutive woman's hand, she exploded, instantly killing them both. Dhanu has become a heroine to the women of Sri Lanka's Hindu Tamil minority.

Here in North America, we have easily convinced ourselves that the terrorist threat we are facing comes from young Arab men. Al-Qaeda may be a deeply misogynistic organization, whose members view women as household treasures for a patriarch's eyes only, but we have to be careful about our presumptions.

Women have been supportive of Osama bin Laden -- as that notorious footage of Palestinian women dancing in the streets on Sept. 11 made vivid -- and not all radical Islamic organizations restrict women when it comes to killing and dying for G-d. If you look further afield, to networks and organizations that are loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, you begin to find disturbing recent evidence of female terrorist activity.

Indian security forces twice went on high alert last year, in January and again in August, to guard against possible attacks by female suicide bombers. The suspects sprang from Pakistan-based Islamic organizations Jaish-e-Mohammed. and Laskar-e-Tayyaba, both of which are associated with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, a report in Russia's Pravda newspaper last month suggested that Chechen rebels were beginning to train women for terrorist attacks.

If we want to cling to the notion that women are too compassionate or too oppressed to become hard-core terrorists, then we're more the fools for it. Scholars have observed that the violence of the Tamil Tigresses is not at odds with their femininity. On the contrary, the idea of self-sacrifice is considered noble in their culture.

Many of the female suicide bombers in Sri Lanka are victims of rape. at the hands of Sinhalese or Indian soldiers, a stigma that destroys their prospects for marriage. "Acting as a human bomb," a Tamil woman told Ana Cutter, the former editor of Columbia University's Journal of International Affairs, "is an understood and accepted offering for a woman who will never be a mother."

Did Dhanu assassinate the prime minister of India because her only alternative was to be an outcast? Was she seeking to avenge her ruined honor, to achieve status within her culture, or to express her personal rage? The answer probably encapsulates elements of all of these motives. Likewise, although we know relatively little about the Jerusalem assassin, we can fairly assume that her motives were complex, and her gender (and religion) no impediment to violence.

Yes, it may be hard to imagine a woman flying into the Twin Towers. But our imagination failed us before Sept. 11, and we paid a steep price.

JWR contributor Patricia Pearson is the author of "When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder." Comment by clicking here.

© 2002, Patricia Pearson