The Bomb Girl Who Got Away

I’ve read so many stories of failed female suicide bombers or women who actually detonated. In most cases, these women are just a statistic. Where is the human face to violence? I thought numerous times. I was tired of official reports which included numbers of casualties and sketchy details of the female bomber. I wanted to see her face, possibly her whole body (before it shattered to pieces) and if possible, know something about her life. Was she married? Single? A widow? A mother? Did someone force her to strap on the bomb? Did she choose? If so, how? There will always be a barrage of questions about suicide terrorists. All analysts can hope to do is examine the conflict from which women emerge as violent actors. (Yes there’s some great literature on this subject, including Bombshell by Mia Bloom and Women Gender Terrorism with a chapter I contributed.)

In my years of traveling the Muslim world, in an effort to understand why some people kill, I did meet a Muslim female suicide terrorist. In my story, I have changed her name. I have even vaguely described how and when I met her. Please note: If I thought she was a threat to anyone, I would have reported her to the authorities. As of now, she’s happily married in Mauritius.

Here’s the story of the bomber that once was

She had the most beautiful eyes. They matched her headscarf and abaya, an ankle-length Islamic dress, the color of pearl gray. A young woman I will call Sadia wore no make up, though I imagined her eyelids painted a sublime blue and her hair falling over her shoulders. In a Valentino dress, she could have seduced men. She had a charming smile and a sweet voice. Beside her, I chose to loosely cover my hair in a blue teal pashmina shawl and sported a knee-length silk shirt and loose pants. I should have worn white cotton. Sadia reached for my hand. We walked like sisters under the chalky sunlight.

In July, the city is mildly tropical by day and cool by night. Flies buzzed haphazardly. The atmosphere was arid. Only a few damp clouds billowed. I prayed for rain. Sadia led the way on the wide road. Shopkeepers lazily turned their heads. The Army on patrol gawked as we silently turned into a corner street.

I volunteered for a suicide operation,” Sadia said, her head lowered. “The men turned me away. They said they didn’t need women. But they are wrong.”

Wait, aren’t you a Muslim? Doesn’t Islam forbid this? I wanted to say something and speak out. I knew Islam better than this young woman raised in a Muslim conservative culture. I tried to understand what causes an attractive, intelligent young woman to choose death over life. Sadia didn’t look like a hardened criminal or terrorist. At first glance, she didn’t appear emotionally unstable or mentally insane.

But I knew violent women didn’t fit any profile. A female bomber could be young or old, single or married, widowed, and few have children. What all these women had in common is their commitment to a cause. For Sadia, the freedom of her land was reason enough to strap on the bomb.

As noon approached, the breeze disappeared. I followed Sadia to a shady spot. We stood across each other, leaning against a brick wall. She continued.

“The men are foolish. They didn’t have to refuse me.”

You have so much to live for. You can continue studying. Stay single or get married. Have children if you wish. You do not know what you are saying. All these thoughts rushed through my mind. Luckily, Sadia chose a more peaceful path.

“I quit the organization.”

Sadia referred to the Lashkar-e-Taiba or LeT, an extremist group based in Pakistan. In November 2008, the LeT perpetrated one of the deadliest terror attacks across India’s financial hub, Mumbai. The reign of terror killed more than 150 Indians. Founded by Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million reward for his capture from America, the LeT is arguably Pakistan’s prized weapon against a mighty Indian Army. Pakistan continues to publicly deny ideological, logistics, financial support for LeT, a point still debated.

Sadia continued. “I had no choice. I joined a women’s organization. Women do two things. They stay at home or protest. But we need something more.” She leaned towards me.

I have to find a way to convince other girls like me that jihad is the only way,” she whispered. I became a witness to an innocent-looking girl turning to violence for a false sense of security.

On the dusty road, it was impossible to know if Sadia could be callous, careless, or crazy. We were strangers, and that was enough. I watched the guards pace up and down the street, twirling thick wooden sticks, their primary weapon.

“When I was 18 years old, I was a member of Lashkar. But the men said there were enough men. They didn’t need a woman to attack India. I did not expect this.”

“The men were foolish,” she said, adjusting her headscarf.

Strap on the bomb? She made it sound like putting on on a lace dress. Her unbridled spirit was enviable and dangerous.

Sadia looked up at the sky. The sun’s butterscotch light danced on the rooftops of houses we passed. In a small garden nearby, flowers looked like luxurious wrapping paper.

In the early days of Islam, Muslim women helped their men to victory. They tended to wounded soldiers. They carried messages and money. They called on men to fight to protect Muhammad. They were the mothers of the believers. Women were skilled in warfare. They were given swords to use in fighting by the early Muslim men. But what these women did not do was abuse their status as the most noble of women. By Islamic law, Sadia could not qualify as a martyr for choosing suicide terrorism.

The jet-black gate was within view. The sun bathed our headscarves. The cloudless sky promised more heat.  The mountains in the distance curved down like galaxies. And the green rolling hills looked like music. The scenery reminded me of iconic photographs from Tennessee, where I lived as a child.

I stole glances at Sadia. There is something troubling about her. I wanted to set the record straight. Teach her right from wrong.

I pitied the bomb girl. Perhaps she was bewitched. Maybe someone preyed on her emotions. A series of questions ran through my mind. Did she lose someone dear to her? Was she motivated by revenge? Did she have a male or female handler? Did someone promise her something more than a ticket to Heaven? These are common questions terrorism analysts ask. My experience with these women is that some are coerced. Others volunteer. Each woman chooses terrorism for different reasons.

No two bomb girls are alike.

Sadia’s drive to kill may have been personal too. A respected friend, Dr. Jessica Stern of Harvard University, wrote that personal grievances “give rise to holy war.”  Her list, which includes alienation, humiliation and history, applies to protestors and political activists fighting an armed struggle.

But Sadia confused fighting for freedom with suicide operations, an illegitimate goal.  As an American Muslim woman, I had a responsibility to correct her.

Suicide is forbidden. Besides you’re too young to die,” I said. “You are doing something meaningful. You are a political activist.”

I wanted to report her, but I believed if she wanted to detonate, she would have done it by now. Something stopped her, and whatever it was, it allowed me to look right at her and say with sincerity.

“This is not who you are. If you stay focused, one day, this land will be yours.”

Above, a thicket of clouds would shield the afternoon sun and rain the size of pellets would fill the streets. Sadia and I pushed through a large wooden gate that was unlocked. A row of houses the color of misty taupe looked unassuming. From the window, a group of women in colorful garb and mismatched headscarves were inviting.

“Please don’t say anything,” Sadia said. “They know nothing about me.”

What would I say to them? The bomb girl is waiting for an order? Often, I’ve wondered why Sadia chose to speak candidly to me. Maybe it’s true. Talking to a complete stranger can be easier, less intimidating, but not always trusting.

Inside, Sadia introduced me to the Chairperson of the all-women’s organization. An older woman wrapped in a teal shawl limped on one leg as a result of being beaten in jail. Before she left me, Sadia said her last words. “You must come tomorrow. I am leading the procession.”


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