Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review: Army of Roses, Inside the Secret World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers

Barbara Victor takes the title of her book, Army of Roses, Inside the Secret World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers, from remarks made by Yasser Arafat before a group of over a thousand Palestinian women at his compound in Ramallah on January 27, 2002. “Women and men are equal,” he proclaimed, “you are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks.” Barbara Victor’s work as a journalist has taken her through the Middle East since the early Eighties. The backdrop of her experiences there forms the seed of this book (sensationally titled Les Femmes Kamikazes in its European printing). Victor also directed an accompanying documentary film—also called Les Femmes Kamikazes—that parallels her book. The bases of her research are interviews conducted with the families of four shahidas, the Arabic word for female suicide bombers. She also interviews a host of Israeli “terrorism experts”, (a problematic tactic, as their expertise exclusively supports Zionist ideology) as well as journalists, members of the Israeli secret police and psychologists on both sides of the Green Line. Prefaced with a foreword by Christopher Dickey, Newsweek’s Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor, the 20 short chapters of her book tell the stories of the shahidas (Arabic for female martyrs), and other women who have taken an active role in the uprising.

A novelist and non-fiction author, Barbara Victor has made women her topic in the past, with subjects as diverse as Madonna and Hanan Asrawi. It is hard not see that the extremes represented by those previous subjects haunting this work as well--perhaps not the benefit of her argument. For example, Victor’s preoccupation with the physical appearance of her subjects has an odd relationship with the Western feminist principles that her book purports to espouse. Wafa Idris, the first female Palestinian suicide bomber in history is described as having “perfect makeup” and “beautifully manicured nails” to match the “smart, western-style coat” she wore on her final trip to the mall. Victor reports that, according to the sales clerk who survived the blast, Idris was trying to free her knapsack from the doorway of a store while watching herself reapply makeup in a compact when it suddenly exploded. Darine Aisha, the second shahida in history is described as having had “a captivating smile” while Ayat Al-Akhras—the third—wore makeup and “smart, western clothes.” Victor uses the language of western fashion and style to suggest something of the interior lives of the women she profiles, a rhetorically dubious and politically retrograde tactic. There may be something worth exploring in the ways these women choose to present themselves but Victor isn’t interested in the larger implications of these choices. For example, she writes about “Zina” (a pseudonym) who wore a halter-top and tight pants to aid a male suicide bomber in completing his mission and initially eluded capture by miming an exaggerated cell phone conversation to convince patrolling Israeli soldiers she was an American tourist. This suggests that rather than an unconscious longing for western freedoms represented by makeup and clothing that Muslim Palestinian women are acutely aware of the way that western styles render them invisible.

But Victor refuses to acknowledge the political agency of their choices, portraying the shahidas instead as young women with “personal problems” who were exploited by male relatives into sacrificing themselves. She cites the now-familiar boogeyman of "fundamentalist Islam" as the prime motivator in this phenomenon. However, this "victim" narrative often runs counter to the testimony that she collects from the surviving families and friends of the martyred women. For example, Wafa Idris’ mother Mabrook contends that her daughter was motivated “more by nationalistic fervor than religion.” And Victor reports that Idris was known for having an “independent mind and a profound feeling of resentment toward the occupation.” In another example, Darine Aisha, a “brilliant” student of English literature at Al-Najah University, became a shahida after being sexually humiliated by Israeli border guards. The guards taunted her, tore off her headscarf and forced her to kiss and embrace her male cousin in front of a crowd of Palestinians waiting to cross into Israel. Aisha tried to defend herself but ultimately acquiesced so that the guards would allow a nearby woman with a dying infant in need of medical attention to pass. A deeply religious woman she was also, according to her friends “a feminist in the true sense of the word”, once having won an essay contest by writing “I am a Muslim woman who believes her body belongs to her alone, which means how I look should not play a role in who I am or what response I evoke from people who meet me. Wearing the hijab gives me freedom, because my physical appearance is not an issue.” This statement shouldn’t be interpreted as a universal defense of the veil but rather proof that the woman who wore it knew what she was doing with her life…and her death.

Victor positions the testimony of the Palestinians who knew the shahidas against the assertions of Israeli “experts” who consistently blame “fanatical” religious practices and argue that the status of women in Palestinian society are truly responsible for their actions-- as opposed to the host of issues raised by living under Israeli occupation. For example, Mira Tzoreff, an Israeli academic says “(Palestinians) are living in a not very democratic surrounding…This is a reactive national culture, a collective atmosphere. We are talking about post-modern versus nationalistic, and that makes all the difference. People cannot stand alone or think for themselves…they must have a national explanation, and that is to see Israel and the United States as the ultimate enemy….” Setting aside for a moment the bitter irony of an Israeli representative referring to Palestine as "reactive national culture", this capacity for projection, abetted by an utter lack of self-reflection, captures perfectly the problems inherent in relying on Israeli experts to deconstruct the modern phenomenon of suicide terror, which is a response to their countries' occupation of Palestine: it is comparable to asking the fox to describe for you the taste of chicken. Further, statements like this one reveal the Orientalist character that mars Army of Roses as a work of serious scholarship, although it provides a revealing (if unintended) view of the misapprehensions underlying this conflict. The Israeli academic describes the Intifada as the longing for a “national explanation,” while the Palestinians themselves describe it as the longing for a nation.

Again and again throughout her book her Palestinian informants point to the Israeli occupation as the main motivator in the phenomenon of suicide bombing (by either sex) but Victor, untroubled by their testimony, continually returns to her original thesis: that Palestinian society uses "fundamentalist Islam" to shame troubled girls into killing themselves. In her introduction, Victor recalls touring the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut in 1982 after the Lebanese Christian Militia and Israeli army massacred thousands of Palestinian occupants. She encountered a woman there who was the sole survivor of her family. The woman answered her questions “in surprisingly good English” telling her “You American women talk constantly of equality. Well, you can take a lesson from us Palestinian women. We die in equal numbers to the men.”

Perhaps if she had listened to her Barbara Victor would have written another sort of book.


  1. Good write up. She, like many in the West, would rather blame everything in the Middle East on Islamic extremists. This ignores a couple of facts. First that the history of resistance to Israeli occupation has historically been secular. Second, that Hamas as an early organisation, was helped by Israel as a religious counterweight to the secular Fatah/PLO.

    She also doesnt seem to want to place too much context with the wider Middle East. I read this book a long time ago, but I think she failed to note that the first female suicide in the Middle East happened to have been a secular Christian lady. I guess it would be hard to blame that one on Iran or Islam.

  2. @Abu Sinan
    Thanks. I also read this when it came out and have been sitting on some of these thoughts since then. I have written about Victor before because I think she embodies the feminist orientalist perspective. You are absolutely right to point out that the first female suicide terrorist in the ME was a Christian. Joyce Davis writes about her in her book on martyrs (which I do NOT recommend either)but still manages to blame Arab culture/Islam for her actions.

    It fascinates me that these self-described western feminists embrace a world view in which Middle Eastern women have no politics of their own.

  3. Her book is a pile of trash

    This review of the book was conducted in Gaza, Palestine: