CSW: Voices from Afghanistan

The engagement of women as suicide bombers in the Taliban insurgency manifests fresh directions in the approaches and ideologies of those who are behind it. Counterinsurgency measures need to pay attention to the factors that drive women and girls to join the Taliban as suicide bombers, says Massouda Jalal

Massouda Jalal
7 March 2013

Dr Massouda Jalal had planned to attend the UN CSW in New York this week. Her sponsorship was withdrawn at the last minute. This article is the text of her presentations, Female suicide bombers in Afghanistan - one of four papers she had prepared to deliver in New York.

The use of female suicide bombers is a new development in Afghanistan. This being so, there is virtually no analytical literatures on the subject or statistics on which a sound analysis of the phenomenon could be based. This paper does not offer an alternative to this gap.  It merely puts together known information in the hope of stimulating further conversation on the subject and what may be done globally to arrest this malady.

Known incidents of female suicide bombing

Since 2001, there have been over 500 suicide attacks in Afghanistan. However, none of them was perpetrated by a woman until May 15, 2008 when an unknown female bomber blasted herself with explosives in a crowded market in Farah province, killing 15 civilians and wounding 22 others. The next took place in June 2010 in the province of Kunar, killing two US soldiers and injuring 17 civilians including two policemen. One and a half years later, two  female suicide bombers killed one civilian and seven police officers when one of them detonated her explosives near the building of the Afghan National Directorate for Security of the same province. One of the female suicide bombers managed to escape.

In the same year, Afghan Taliban fighters in the province of Uruzgan handed a bag of explosives to an eight-year old girl, which prematurely detonated and killed the child before reaching the intended target. In September 2012, another female suicide bomber smashed an explosive-rigged car she was driving against a minibus carrying aviation workers in Kabul’s airport road. The incident killed nine foreigners and three Afghans and wounded two police officers.

Training of an all-girl Taliban bombing squad

There were warnings that women were beginning to be engaged in Taliban insurgency before the these bombing incidents took place. In 2007, a 12 –year old girl named Ma Gul who survived the bombardment of her Taliban camp, revealed to authorities that an all-girl bombing squad was being trained in a camp near the Afghan-Pakistan border.  She shared stories about how the girls were recruited from Afghan villages and trained by her sister in law who disguised herself as a man.  However, her stories was dismissed as ludicrous by police authorities, cognizant that the Taliban is notorious for its low regard for women and would consider female engagement as disgraceful to its jihad. Six months after this incident, an Afghan woman in her thirties blew herself up at a checkpoint in the heart of Peshawar. In the months that followed, Afghan authorities were to discover Ma Gul’s incredible warning of an all-girl bombing squad to be true. 

Pros and cons of utilizing women as suicide bombers

The use of women as suicide bombers benefits from the element of surprise because the Taliban are not expected to waver in their sexist philosophies about women. Because of this, female suicide bombers have greater leverage to do their job with lesser impediments than their male counterparts. As women/girls are not expected to be suicide bombers, they can freely move around undetected, come closer to their targets, and inflict more deaths, injuries and damage to infrastructures. Moreover, in the Afghan society, women are not expected to be frisked by male authorities, and since there are not enough policewomen for the job, armed female bombers often have the distinct advantage of penetrating heavily cordoned buildings and city centers without being detected.

The use of the burqa is another tactic that the Taliban uses to conceal the intentions of its bombers. It provides a convenient cover to the identity and facial expressions of the bombers and effectively conceals the shape of explosives attached to their bodies. The burqa has long been used by male suicide bombers as camouflage, but authorities have now learned to distinguish the sex of the person behind its cover through body movements and shapes.


Matthew Dearing (Small Wars Journal, 2010) views these developments as a sign of a paradigm shift in Taliban insurgent tactics as well as a mutation of the organization’s founding ideology.  While the tactic succeeds in optimizing the element of surprise of using female bombers, it also opens up the Taliban to a new range of criticism by moderate and fence-sitting Pashtuns. It is also likely to spark   ideological tension within its own circle, triggered by those who see the inclusion of women to be dishonorable and outside the realm of acceptable Taliban jihad.

To the counterinsurgency campaign of the government, the engagement of female jihadists requires a corresponding increase in the number of female police and soldiers.  Up to the present, however, the representation of women in both the police and defense forces remains less than one percent.

Likewise, counterinsurgency measures need to pay attention to the factors that drive women/girls to join the Taliban as suicide bombers.  It is bewildering to know that there are women who kill themselves for an organization that looks down upon and oppresses them like non-humans. Are they coerced and under pressure, or is  Talibanism fast becoming a family affair? The emergence of female suicide bombers is a phenomenon that needs to be understood in relation to the Taliban’s strategic agenda and their on-going return to the mainstream of society.

There are no clear solutions to the issue of Taliban insurgency and Islamic militancy.  However, the engagement of women as suicide bombers clearly manifests fresh directions in the approaches and ideologies of those who are behind it.  Any step taken to better understand the phenomenon of female suicide bombers is a positive step forward.

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