Terrorism and Sexism

Terrorism and Sexism

Terrorism and Sexism

Science, technology, and life.
May 6 2008 1:51 PM

Terrorism and Sexism

A week ago, I crunched some data and concluded that suicide bombing, despite its brutal rationality as a weapon,

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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in recent years outside of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Many of you

that this was one heck of a caveat. The number of attacks inside those countries is appalling and has been increasing.

Now there's a new twist to the trend in Iraq: Many of the people blowing themselves up are women. According to Farhana Ali, a former U.S. adviser who presented data at a Washington conference yesterday, women executed 12 suicide attacks in Iraq during the first four months of this year. That's already more than the number of such attacks executed by women in Iraq over the previous five years.

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In an interview with Agence France Presse, Ali blames this trend on male violence and the invasion, which she says has widowed many women and "marginalized" others. But then the AFP story gets to the really interesting point :

Ali warned that U.S. soldiers face a cultural barrier in detecting women bombers. "A marine officer coming back from Fallujah said to me: 'How are we supposed to detect these women if we are taught before we are deployed to not even look at them?'" she explained.

And here's Ali's solution: "If you want to gain entrance into female jihadi organisations, you need female case officers. You need female police officers. You need women in Iraqi law enforcement."

Suicide bombing has always exploited common disbelief about what people will do: You don't expect somebody to walk into a market and blow himself up. Nor do you expect him to take 20 or 30 civilians with him for no apparent reason. Why shouldn't this tactical exploitation of disbelief extend to sexism? You certainly don't expect somebody to blow her self up, much less kill a bunch of innocents.

This is one of the lessons terrorism will gradually teach us: Stereotyping is an exploitable security weakness. To overcome it, we'll have to overcome our sexism about women in the military and in law enforcement, as well as our sexism about women in crime and terrorism. If the moral faults of such stereotypes aren't enough to make you push them aside, do it for your country.