2 Palestinians Turned Back from Suicide Missions

A scholar says recent research may explain why two Palestinian women refused to carry out their orders to kill and be killed. Also, U.S. Senate committee approves U.N. women's rights treaty.

Peggy F. Drexler

(WOMENSENEWS)-In May, two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers turned back from their targets. Both were women.

Arin Ahmed, 20, backed out from not one but two planned attacks. Twenty-five-year-old Tauriya Hamamra, instead of choosing a place in Jerusalem to blow herself up, fled to her aunt's house.

Out of the more than 65 recent suicide-bomb attempts by Palestinians, only four have been undertaken by women. Yet Palestinian women suffer at least as much stress as Palestinian men from the relentless Middle East conflict. So why aren't more women walking into Israeli marketplaces and setting off bomb belts strapped to their waists? The reason may have less to do with Arab attitudes about the proper role of women than with the nature of being female.

Women experience stress differently than men do, according to a new University of California Los Angeles study, one of the first to research the effects of stress not just on males but females.

Women do not react to stress with the “fight or flight” response the way men do, the study found. Women confronting stress are more likely to “tend and befriend”: They protect and nurture their young and seek support from others, especially other females.

After a bad day at work, men come home looking for a fight or craving withdrawal, according to the study. Stressed-out women are biologically more likely to tend to those men, companions or to their kids.

Just as the fight-or-flight reaction is biologically based, the researchers theorized that the stress response to tend and befriend arises thanks to oxytocin-also called the “love hormone”-that helps humans bond. Like adrenaline, oxytocin is generated by both men and women when they are faced with stress. However, it is enhanced by estrogen and appears to be inhibited by male hormones. Oxytocin is involved in social interaction, which has proven anti-anxiety effects.

Faced with stress, the study says, women would rather work it out with a friend than fight. Yet while Palestinian women may seldom kill themselves or others, the male bombers' mothers-motivated by fierce religious belief, intense ethnic pride, and a compelling faith in the afterlife-extol their dead sons' deeds.

In a society where females are accorded so little individual value, women will find their own worth through the exploits of their men. In such a barren economic environment, women can take maternal pride not from their sons' college graduations or success as business entrepreneurs but from the rewards-financial and spiritual-that come from their sons' suicides. Palestinian mothers are reacting to stress in a distinctly female way: defending their children and seeking support from their community.

Left to Their Inclinations, Would Palestinian Women Encourage Killing?

Mothers may be initially comforted by the martyrdom status accorded their sons, says Iyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychologist who studies the phenomenon of suicide attacks. “But, six months, later you see nothing but grief,” he says. Left to their natural inclinations, would Palestinian women encourage their brothers and sons to kill?

Across all societies, women are less likely to kill than men are, and when they do, they usually kill someone they know in a crime of passion. The Tanzim guerillas who recruited Arin Ahmed did not indoctrinate her in the cause or the martyr's glories that awaited her. Instead, they simply told her that she would avenge the death of her fiance and join him in paradise-a rationale she recalled thinking stupid even when the Tanzim recruiters suggested it.

What kept Ahmed from killing was her belief that “nobody has the right to stop anyone's life.” She had encountered Israelis while attending a Lutheran high school in Bethlehem. They may have been her people's enemies, but Ahmed could humanize them. Ultimately, she could tend and befriend her intended victims.

Women in the Middle East-and women and girls everywhere-may well respond differently to the large-issue stresses of political displacement, personal privation and even religious and political exhortation. Few resort to political violence and some, like Arin Ahmed and Tauriya Hamamra, have challenged those who would coax them into suicide and mass murder.

As Hamamra said, “I started thinking I would be killing babies, women and sick people and imagined what it would be like if my family were in a restaurant and someone bombed them.”

The possibility of such womanly empathy offers us all some promise of hope.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., is an affiliated scholar at Stanford University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

For more information:

University of California Los Angeles College of Letters and Science
“UCLA Researchers Identify Key Biohavioral Pattern Used
by Women to Manage Stress”:

The Inside Trak
“Behavioral and Biological Response to Stress:
Do Women Differ from Men?”:

For more information:

Also see Women's Enews, May 14, 2002:
“Global Women's Rights Treaty Gets Second Wind”:

Senate Committee Approves U.N. Women's Treaty

(WOMENSENEWS)-A Senate committee on Tuesday recommended ratifying a United Nations treaty that promotes the rights of women.

In a 12-7 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women to the full Senate, two-thirds of which must approve the document for it to be ratified. The president then must sign off on any changes the Senate has made for it to take effect in the United States.

All 10 of the committee's Democrats voted to approve the treaty, as did Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.

The treaty, which promotes equality for women in areas such as family life, education and the workplace, has been ratified by 170 countries since it was introduced in 1979. President Jimmy Carter signed it in 1980 and sent it to the Senate for ratification, but it has been in limbo since then.

The Bush administration had asked the Senate committee to delay the vote, saying that it wanted more time to review the convention and arguing that other treaties pending before the Senate were more important.

But Delaware Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, who chairs the committee, said that there would be little hope of getting the treaty to a full Senate vote if the committee did not act now. Any changes the administration recommended could be considered on the Senate floor, Biden added.