There is something distinctly male in the aura around violence, mass bloodshed, guerrilla warfare and the long-drawn-out struggle for political ends. Perhaps they comprise an imaginary ‘informal sector’ in traditional male bastions. The emotions and values these phenomena evoke — cruelty, aggression, rage, vengefulness, doggedness, physical endurance, skill with weapons, hardihood, tight discipline, cool thinking, nerveless courage — have usually been considered marks solely of masculinity. Associated with the rough outdoors and constant danger, these are as far from ‘womanliness’ as anything can get.
The terrible success of the female terrorist has turned all this inside out. No domain of violence, hatred, despair or self-destructive rage is exclusive to men. Women, ironically, have an advantage here, simply because traditional associations tend to leave them out of the reckoning till the last minute. Strategists admit that women get easier access to their targets, for security personnel notice them less. Female suicide squads were activated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the 1980s, and the first female suicide bomber in the West killed 12 Israeli soldiers in South Lebanon in March, 1985. The Black Widows of Chechnya became famous after their attack on the Russian military headquarters close to Grozny in 2001.
The woman terrorist tears to shreds the softer sentiments her womanhood invokes. In Santosh Sivan’s unsettling film, The Terrorist, the girl preparing to blow herself up at the feet of a Rajiv Gandhi-like leader seems to feel a shade of hesitation when she discovers she is carrying her dead lover’s child. But in real life, the woman armed to kill by blowing herself up is startlingly different. In Israel, for example, women who are mothers, or even in an advanced stage of pregnancy, have been repeatedly caught or killed in suicide attacks they have led. Pregnancy can be very useful. Women strapped with explosives can get away by looking pregnant. But the most searing inversion of Sivan’s film comes from the land where it all began — Sri Lanka. A pregnant woman came regularly for routine check-ups to a military clinic. She learnt everything within: rules, routes and schedules. In April, 2006, she tried to blow up the Sri Lankan army chief. She died, as did a number of soldiers. Had she got herself pregnant just to carry out this assignment? And could a man have managed this degree of devotion to a cause?