Why Chechnya's Black Widows are driven to kill
By Olivia Ward
Foreign Affairs Reporter
Rosa sat under a flowering apricot tree in Chechnya’s early spring sunshine, her Kalashnikov rifle on her lap.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to go and fight,” she said, as the rumble of Russian bombs sent tremors through the lush hillside. “But when my friends told me my nursing skills were needed, I went. Then I found out that everybody had to take up the gun.”
A year later Rosa was a seasoned fighter, battling Russian troops for Chechen independence. For her, the hardest thing to get over was the uniform.
“At first, when the commander told me to put on fatigues I couldn’t do it,” she said, a blush spreading across her freckled face. “Then I obeyed him, but put a skirt over the trousers.”
A member of one of the Muslim territory’s toughest militias in the mid-1990s, Rosa could be a poster image of the traditional woman who fights for her country — steely-nerved but modest.
In the years since I met Rosa, so many Chechnyan women have joined a darker and deadlier struggle as members of the country’s infamous Black Widows, a battalion of suicide bombers dedicated to spreading carnage and terror in Russia’s heartland.
Responsible for the deaths of 39 people in two Moscow subway bombings this week, they have also blown up a Russian airliner and taken part in two bloody hostage-takings, leaving hundreds of innocent victims in their wake. Reports say that since 2000, Black Widows have been responsible for at least half the suicide attacks in Russia.
Their menacing but unobtrusive presence has made them the most feared militants in the country, convincing many Russians there is no safe place. And they have raised worldwide questions about the minds and motivations of women who are prepared to kill ruthlessly for political ends.
“Chechen women are the most dangerous for national security because they have carried out the most risky operations,” says a study by psychologists Anne Speckhard and Khapta Adhmedova, an American and Chechen respectively. “If the trend continues (they) will continue to be a grave threat.”
Although large-scale terrorism, and the targeting of innocent civilians, are relatively new to women, political murder committed by females has gone down through the ages.
The beautiful Jewish heroine Judith may have been the first “black widow,” using her wiles to seduce and behead the drunken Assyrian general Holofernes and save her city of Bethulia.
Before her, Yael, a nomadic woman, hammered a spike through the head of the sleeping Canaanite commander Sisera after he had fled a battle with the Israelites.
Celtic Queen Boudicca famously fought the Romans after the death of her husband, fitting her chariots with knives to slash enemy troops. And Charlotte Corday stabbed Jean-Paul Marat in his bath, fatally wounding one of the instigators of the Terror during the French Revolution.
Russian firebrand Fanny Kaplan fired nearly fatal shots at Vladimir Lenin when he betrayed her revolutionary ideals, and the Irish aristocrat Violet Gibson made an unexplained assassination attempt on Mussolini.
In the 1960s, militant feminist Valerie Solanas, who founded the Society for Cutting Up Men, shot and seriously wounded artist Andy Warhol. And German anarchist Ulrike Meinhof was involved in bombings, robberies and gunfights before killing herself in a jail cell.
Nevertheless, women have been in the vast minority of history’s killers, whether motivated by politics, passion, greed or revenge.
Homicide data compiled over 700 years in a range of societies shows that male-on-male homicide is most common, and 30 to 40 times more frequent than female-on-female killing.
“There is no known society where the level of lethal violence among women even approaches that of men,” says a study by Canadian psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. Male murderousness, some researchers believe, is driven by high testosterone levels that promote aggressive behaviour. Others blame violent environments and childhoods.
Rarity boosts the buzz around female killers — there’s a certain frisson of horror and revulsion when women are named as perpetrators.
“I don’t see it as a growing phenomenon,” says David Cook of Rice University in Houston, who specializes in contemporary radicalism. “But it gets a lot of media attention.”
Still, the number of people who can be killed by a single bomber are significant. And there’s a rush to explain why women have joined the ranks of political mass murderers in countries where suicide bombing is the terrorist tactic du jour.
Since the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers pioneered female suicide squads in the 1980s, Palestinian, Lebanese and Kurdish women, as well as Chechens, have turned themselves into human bombs.
“With political violence, you often see that women have been influenced to some extent by males,” says Katherine Ramsland, an American forensic psychologist and author of Human Predators. “But once they get into it they sometimes act with more passion and anger. They make their own choices.”
What pushes women over the edge from conviction to mass killing?
Studies of Palestinian women bombers pointed to two main causes: “Most of them were pushed to the fringes of society for violating a Muslim conservative rule of conduct obligatory for a Palestinian woman,” said a report from the Israeli-based Center for Special Studies. And it added, vengeance for death of relatives was also a strong motive.
In Speckhard and Akhmedova’s 2006 study of the Black Widows — based on 45 interviews with family members, friends or former hostages of 34 suicide bombers — the answers are clear, but complex.
“Nearly all had lost close family members in air raids, bombings, landmines, so-called ‘cleansing’ operations carried out by Russian forces, and in battle,” the study explains. The trauma, which began with the first war at the end of 1994, led to feelings of grief, anger, depression, survivor’s guilt and, eventually, desire for revenge.
But the galvanizing factor was the arrival of radical Islamic groups known as Wahhabis.
Although most Chechens belonged to the moderate Sufi sect, extremists funded by Arab countries set up shop in the months after the first war ended in 1996, and young impoverished men were enticed into their fold with guns, cars and aid for their families.
They pushed the ideals of jihad and martyrdom, and by 2001, the first female recruits crashed their explosives-laden car into a Russian military headquarters in the Chechen town of Alkhan-Yurt, outside Grozny.
More were to follow, donning the black costumes that won them the title Black Widows, and they struck fear into Russians from Moscow to the Caucasus. No longer fighting for Chechnya’s independence, they were now working for a wider regional jihad led by a new generation of ideologues.
All the women in Speckhard and Akhmedova’s Black Widow study “became more religious following their traumatic experiences, and spoke increasingly about jihad, paradise and similar religious themes.”
But that study’s findings do not apply to Sri Lanka, where the struggle for a Tamil homeland has been secular. And they don’t tally with theories that women have blown themselves up in despair after being dishonoured by rape or suspicion of immoral behaviour.
But Chechnya is now the only territory in the world where female suicide bombing is a growth industry. It’s a strange turn of events for a tribal society in which women have traditionally been peacemakers, and a female could end a violent blood feud by symbolically dropping her headscarf on the ground.
Although better educated and more independent that those in many Muslim countries, Chechen women are still subordinate to men. To date, no females have plotted terrorist attacks or led brigades of bombers. And there are suspicions that their desire for revenge and religious redemption is being used as a dramatic tactic in a strategic war of nerves.
“Women were suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, but it didn’t change their relationship to society,” says Cook. “There are still structural barriers for them to contend with. Women in traditional societies may join groups and carry out attacks, but in the end they are in the same place.”http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/789522--why-chechnya-s-black-widows-are-driven-to-killAnd... are some responses to the article...http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/789522#comments