- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

Her face is hauntingly normal. With an olive complexion, bright brown eyes and red lipstick, Ayat Akhras, 18, looks like just another teen-ager.
On March 29, the young Palestinian woman strapped a belt of explosives to her slender body and walked into a Jerusalem supermarket. Her suicide mission claimed the life of a store security guard and a 17-year-old Jewish girl.
What struck the world was not the violence of the attack. Such bombings in the embattled region this year had become a terrifyingly common event.
Instead, Miss Akhras, recruited by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, drew attention for her young age and her role in what some have identified as a growing regional trend the female suicide bomber.
To date this year, three women have chosen to join the legions of young men who martyr themselves in attempts to kill or injure Israeli soldiers or civilians in the name of occupied Palestine. But historians and defense specialists say the role of the female soldier, guerrilla or terrorist is nothing new.
"Women have been involved in this kind of violence since the beginning of time," said Amy Caiazza, study director of the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research.
"Soldiers don't want to shoot their mother or their wife. They're going to hesitate a second before they kill a woman. Women have been able to exploit that stereotype and become very dangerous and very lethal fighters."
It's exactly the gender stereotypes that can allow the so-called "second sex" to be so deadly. Women, who in times of war and political upheaval are portrayed as victims or shown only as peace negotiators, are seldom seen as militants, even by the men against whom they fight.
"Western civilization still looks at the woman as the homemaker, the mother, the good, warm person," said Gary Perlstein, an international terrorism expert and professor at Portland State University in Oregon. "That means if there's not a suspicion on their minds that this woman could be carrying a bomb, they may hesitate. And that hesitation could mean their lives and the lives of others. A woman is a good way of getting a bomb through reasonably tight security."
Physical strength isn't a necessity for women to be capable at guerrilla warfare either. A strong will not necessarily muscle is the tool that's needed to detonate a bomb.
Some of the most notorious terrorist groups of the 1960s had female members Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy's Red Brigades, and the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground in the United States.
While guerrilla women and their counterparts in organized armies aren't the rule, they are certainly far from the exception, experts say.
In recent times, female fighters have been particularly active in Central and South America, said Antonio de la Cova, a professor of Latin American studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana and an expert in the region's mercenary movements.
Women have been key fighters in the guerrilla struggles in Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia and Peru, Mr. De la Cova said.
Almost 30 percent of the Sandinista forces, a group that brought down the 1970s Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, were female, said Cynthia Enloe, a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and author of the book "Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women's Lives."
But women also have a long history of participating in military campaigns in the Middle East.
Before the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran in 1979, women were trained in combat and fought in segregated battalions.
In Turkey, women continue to fly fighter planes, said Lory Manning, a retired U.S. Navy captain who studies women's role in the military for the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington.
Female soldiers make up part of Israel's army. And in the 1920s through the 1940s, before the formation of the state of Israel, Jewish settler women were trained in groups such as the Palmach.
"They would defend against attacks by Palestinian forces," Capt. Manning said. "They would be involved in what you'd call today terrorist operations bombings and guerrilla operations. There's a tradition of military women in some of these societies."
One of the world's most famous female terrorists is Leila Khaled, who worked with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Born in Haifa in 1944, and sent to Lebanon as a refugee four years later, Miss Khaled, at age 25, hijacked a TWA flight from Rome to Athens in 1969. The plane was blown up, but no one was killed.
A picture of her fashion model-like face peering out of a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress, and her slim fingers wrapped around a machine gun gave her worldwide notoriety as a "deadly beauty."
One year later, she struck again, hijacking an El Al flight in Amsterdam. The hijackers were overpowered and the plane safely landed at Heathrow Airport near London. Miss Khaled spent less than a month in prison before being released by British authorities in an exchange for Western hostages held by the Palestinians. Since then she has lived in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
While attacks like those of Miss Akhras and others signify the first time Palestinian women have joined with men in suicide missions, their roles in Palestinian society have become increasingly dominant.
"Palestinian women have been very active in both the first and second intifada," Ms. Enloe said. "Their activity in the Palestinian resistance is not new."
In the past 30 years, women in the region have banded together, pushing a women's rights campaign, increasing female literacy and even promoting peace in the region.
"When soldiers would start beating men [during the first intifada in the 1980s], the women quite literally came rushing out of their homes to throw their bodies between the soldiers and the men they were trying to protect," said Phillipa Strum, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "The woman's body had been considered the ultimate private entity in Palestinian society. To rush out of the private sphere and use their bodies was totally new. It gave women a new notion of the kind of role they could play in the society."
Experts say young women like Miss Akhras chose to become suicide bombers for many of the same reasons young women in countries like Zimbabwe, Northern Ireland and El Salvador have joined resistance movements the desire to fight to the death for a cause in which they believe.
"In all these conflicts, your house isn't safe, the marketplace isn't safe, schools aren't safe, being on a bus isn't safe," Ms. Caiazza said. "Because of the traditional roles women play in families and their self-perceived responsibilities, they get more drawn in to wanting to protect their societies. It's the magnitude, but it's also the personalism of these sort of conflicts."
Some say women's roles come more from necessity than biological instinct.
As wars rage, the number of male fighters dwindles due to casualties. Women are often the ones who must fill the ranks, creating a type of "Amazon army," said Linda Grant De Pauw, author of the book "Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present" and head of the Minerva Center, a nonprofit group that studies women in the military. (In Roman mythology, Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, invention, the arts and warfare.)
"They didn't start out to be a women's army, but it became that way," Mrs. De Pauw said.
Others argue that when women commit such deadly acts, that signifies how desperate a political crisis has become. Even President Bush noted that the Akhras attack was symbolic of the severity of the cleavage between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying," Mr. Bush said.
On April 12, two weeks after Miss Akhras killed herself and two others, another young Palestinian woman detonated a powerful bomb at a Jerusalem bus stop. Andaleeb Takafka, a 20-year-old whose name means "nightingale" in Arabic, killed six persons.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade leaders have told members of the international media that they have at least 200 other young women ready to follow the same path.
Regardless of the history of women in guerrilla warfare, experts agree one thing is certain: As the conflict in the region continues, faces of Palestinian women may become more common among the legions of young men who sacrifice their lives, and take the lives of others, all in the name of a war over sacred land that is claimed by two deeply devout groups.


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