The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The terrible sight of a female terrorist

London, Oct. 27: Who did not feel a deep unease at the sight of the female Chechen terrorists in the Moscow theatre before it was stormed, with their eyes peering through the masks of their black burqas, with their Kalashnikovs, and their explosives strapped to their bodies' Masks of any kind, terrorism of any kind, kidnapping of any kind: these are all deeply disturbing things. But there’s an extra level of disquiet when the terrorists are female.

For, feminine engagement in activities that are so classically male bespeaks a far greater zeal. Women are not physically or hormonally equipped for war, for risking their lives in a cause, as men are: so how much more dedicated to their cause must female warriors be, especially if they are Muslims'

Male Muslims believe that a paradise of virgins will be their certain reward if they die for Islam. No such sexual bliss awaits women martyrs; their ardour is uncontaminated by selfishness of any kind.

So, though terrorism usually terrifies, as it is supposed to, there is something absolutely terrifying about the terrorist whose motives are so absolutely pure, so uncompromised by either temporal or eternal desire. For them, their cause is all.

Yet, intimidating though their Islamic attire makes them, the Chechen women are by no means unique. First, doctrinal purism is quite a common female characteristic, especially in terrorist movements. The most unregenerate republicans in Irish history have often been women; and the prime moral authority for the Real IRA has come through the female line of its leadership.

The inspiration for German terrorism came largely from Ulrike Meinhof. The most merciless leaders of Eta are female, and the most resourceful Tamil Tiger suicide bombers have been women — including the one who so murderously penetrated Rajiv Gandhi’s personal protection unit. At least one Palestinian suicide bomber was a woman. The Viet Cong used women in military roles, and the leading sniper defending Sarajevo against the Serbs in the 1990s was said to be a woman.

Of course, women terrorists, like their male counterparts, seldom think of themselves as terrorists, but as a morally righteous expression of some alternative system to whatever it is they’re opposing. And equally important, the female appetite for involvement in face-to-face murderous terrorism is generally as limited as the female appetite for life in the trenches with the poor bloody infantry. After all, a woman’s instinct is to give life, not to take it.

Even when women do manage to shed their taboos about killing strangers, however, they usually do so in company of men. Yet, even when the ambition to be a killer exists, it is not usually matched by the ability. Certainly, no army that has tried incorporating women fully as frontline fighters has persisted with the experiment.

Coincidentally, the first European country to attempt it was Russia, 85 years last summer, in August 1917. (Even more coincidentally, the Moscow theatre the Chechen terrorists took over was showing Nord Ost, a patriotic musical set in the First World War.) The new Russian post-tsarist democratic government hoped to harness women’s patriotism and religious zeal in an all-female fighting unit, “The Battalion of Death”.

The women soldiers — some, touchingly, wearing high heels — were blessed by the Russian Orthodox patriarch before their departure for the front. They did not see much action; but any poor Russian girl in a soldier’s uniform captured by the Germans could expect to be gang-raped and then murdered: and it did happen. This, of course, is unspeakably wicked; but then war invariably is, as the taking of Tumbledown with bayonets in the Falklands and the slaughter on the road to Basra in our own time have shown us.

For, even at the most basic level, the primary infantry procedure of “fighting through” — advancing at speed while killing at close quarters — requires the arousal of those dark and terrible primary instincts that males must otherwise repress throughout their lives. These instincts liberate man from all the learnt civilities of society; they enable him to do barbarous things that he would never otherwise be capable of — and that, alas, includes rape.

This is one reason why mankind has created a taboo that distances women from organised killing. It is why we feel so much discomfiture at seeing masked female terrorists, Islamic or otherwise; for the breaking of that taboo leads us to another, more central taboo. The triumph of feminism has done almost nothing to lift the cultural prohibition almost everywhere against using murderous violence against women.

However, the existence of female terrorists creates a world in which the ruthless killing of females becomes not merely inevitable, but at times even laudable. Yet, at the very idea of men triumphantly gunning down women, no matter how justified, the earth shakes beneath our feet. It is, simply, a deed too unbearable to contemplate — and one that finally happened to those terrorist girls in their burqas in Moscow.

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