The unexpected terrorists

Mia Bloom, BA’89, is an associate professor of international studies and women’s studies at Penn State. She is also a fellow at that university’s International Centre for the Study of Terrorism and the author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror (2005). Her latest work, Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, examines the increasing role that women play in terrorist movements today. McGill News contributor Vivian Lewin spoke to Bloom about the new book.

Mia Bloom, BA’89, is an expert on terrorism.

When we think of suicide bombers, we don't generally picture women. Does this make it easier for women to function as suicide bombers?

People feel women are peaceful, more inclined to create than destroy life, so it’s hard to see a woman as a threat. When she places an [explosive device] around her waist, people who see her assume she’s pregnant and are inclined to be protective. So she can penetrate more deeply into the target.

What motivates these women?

Not every woman who does these things has been conned by a man. I have to keep saying, 'No, that’s not always the case.' Muriel Degauque, for instance [the first Western woman to become a suicide bomber when she attacked a U.S. military convoy in Iraq in 2005], was the spearhead, it’s not that she was manipulated. The women involved in the violence in Northern Ireland were as hard-core and dedicated as the men. They were very political and not just acting on behalf of personal issues.

Do women play particular roles in terrorist movements?

They play different roles in different places and times. Al Qaeda has changed its attitude towards women, for instance. In the early days, they saw no role at all for women. Now they use the gender stereotype to motivate men, so we see more involvement at all levels. Women can say to men, ‘If we’re willing to fight, where are you?’ Not that we haven’t done the same thing! Recruiting posters from World War I used images of women in uniform to get men to enlist.

Do people wonder why you took this subject on?

Because I explore the motivation of women terrorists, some people think I’m sympathetic. That shocks me! And when I use the word Palestine, [some] think I’m anti-Israel. At Columbia University [where I did my PhD], everybody connected with the Middle East hung out together. We have the same kind of families. We like the same food. As for the notion that these groups have hated each other since the beginning of time, well, from studying history I can tell you, that’s just not the case.

How does your McGill degree relate to your present interests?

I was fortunate when I got to McGill in 1986. I did a double honours degree in Middle East studies and history, with courses in languages, politics, and culture, focusing on both Russia and the Middle East. I had professors who really cared about teaching and that gave me a leg up; by the time I got to Georgetown, I was miles ahead of my classmates. Charles Adams [the director of McGill's Institute of Islamic Studies for almost 20 years] was one of the foremost scholars of Islam. Until this day, when I’m teaching I refer to his notes.