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The Black Widows of Chechnya » Women's Courage

The Black Widows of Chechnya

February 24th, 2012 by fiona Leave a reply »

For most Islamic terrorist groups, using female suicide bombers is a relatively new phenomenon.  However, Chechnyans, Ingushetians, Dagestanis, and other Caucasians have long been recruiting women.

For a bit of a background, the Russian empire initially took over the Caucasian region during the 19th century.  At the time of the Russian Revolution, most of the Caucasus attempted to regain independence, and many ethnicities grouped together in solidarity.  However, the Soviet Union eventually recaptured the entire region.  During the USSR, the Caucasus was subject to a number of russofication campaigns, in addition to forced resettlements, land takeovers, and other far more serious human rights abuses.  Once the Soviet Union grew weaker in the late 1980s, nationalism rose and small rebellions started throughout the mountains.  Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia became independent after the fall of the USSR, and other former Caucasian republics also clamored for independence (most notably, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Dagestan).  Fighting has continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with two official wars: the First Chechnyan War (1994-1996) and the Second Chechnyan War (1999-2000, with sporadic ongoing fighting).

The Caucasus has a strong nationalistic tradition, and is know for being one of the most ethnically, linguistically, religiously, and geographically diverse regions in the world.  Unofficially, they are also know for a more “macho” and paternalistic culture, and are often compared to southern Europeans by Russians.

“Black Widows” is the new nomenclature for the Caucasian female suicide bombers.  The name comes from the fact that many of them have seen their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers die in the ongoing conflict with Russia.  It is popularly assumed that they choose to commit such a heinous act as a sort of “revenge killing”.  However, before jumping to conclusions as to their motivations, one must examine the demographics.

Out of the 26 female suicide bombers (or shahidka) from 2000-2005 only 5 (19.2%) were widows.  But, nearly all had lost close family members at the hands of the Russian forces, and as expected, they suffered from depression and other psychological conditions following these traumatic experiences.  So far, it is possible that these women were mainly motivated by a desire to seek revenge.  But still, the leap from anger at a death to a suicide attack is pretty wide.  I think there have to be other reasons.

Historically, Islamic Caucasians are more liberal than their counterparts in the Middle East.  For example, wine is enjoyed at many celebrations, and women were actually forbidden to wear hijabs during Soviet times.  In recent years, the region is become more “Islamicized” as a reaction to Russian aggression.  Although, even the Kemlin-backed President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov has started to implement some aspects of sharia law, and even supports honor killings, polygamy, and shooting women who are dressed immodestly with rubber bullets (among far more horrifying ideas).  But, as previously mentioned, Caucasian Muslims have been rebelling against Russian rule for at least 150 years, and so I hypothesize that the issue is more one of ethnic pride than religious fervor.

Back to women, those from the region have traditionally been allowed to work outside the home and pursue higher education.  Sharia law was not enforced during the last century.  This has been posited as a possible reason why women too were on a more equal footing with men, and also expected to carry out attacks.

Other assert that most shahidkas were coerced, through violence, threats, and drugs into carrying out their attacks.  Most of these claims have been debunked however.  They stem from the testimony of failed bomber Zarema Muzhikhoyeva, a Chechnyan Ingush widow who in 2003 changed her mind and alerted authorities so as to not detonate her bomb.  She told authorities that she decided to become a Black Widow after her husband was killed by Russian forces, however it was later revealed that he actually died in a business dispute.  Afterwards, she testified that she was abused by his family and that they stole her daughter away from her.  She turned to suicide bombing as a last resort to regain some sort of respect, and provide financially for her daughter.  She also claimed that she was drugged throughout her training and upon her arrival in Moscow before she was sent on her mission.  Zarema’s statements have changed throughout her trial, so it is hard to know what to believe.  She and her lawyer ended up presenting a case of a woman suffering in a backwards culture who had no other option but a suicide attack.

Personally, I think there are multiple reasons why women make up nearly half of Caucasian suicide bombers.  It is true that women are freer to interact with men, which makes training easier to coordinate.  While recent attacks are changing this stereotype, women are not expected to be suicide bombers, so they can often slip in unnoticed.  It is also easier for women to hide bombs under layers of closing.  As for motivation, the fear of rape and economic devastation at the hands of the Russians coupled with experiencing the deaths of multiple family members and friends is a powerful galvanizing force.  I do not think though that these women are drugged or kidnapped by terrorist organizations. They have ample recruitment opportunities, so I do not think it is necessary for them to resort to force (but it may be true that bombers are given sedatives to relax before carrying out their mission).  I have concluded that the differential treatment or discrimination against women is not a reason why there are so many black widows.  Instead, they are simply seeking vengeance and some form of twisted justice after the many atrocities of the ongoing conflicts have killed many of their male counterparts.

Nota Bene:  Anna Politkovskaya, the celebrated journalist and human rights activist who was gunned down outside her apartment in Moscow, told CNN in 2003 “There is a line of (young women) hoping to be chosen as candidates for being suicide bombers … They say they want to force Russians to feel the same pain they have felt.”




  1. tiana says:

    Very interesting post. The cycle of violence and revenge in the Caucasus is
    truly horrific. This is something that has not been given much press
    in this country so I am glad you are focusing attention on it. It
    would seem that there are unique circumstances occurring in the
    Caucasus. I have rarely heard of suicide bomber in other parts of the
    world, except maybe amongst the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. But that
    country is mostly Buddhist and Hindu. There have been instances of
    Palestinian women being used as suicide bombers, but these have been
    so rare they were news-worthy at the time.

  2. nruthya says:

    This is incredibly interesting! I did a little more reading about the Black Widows and another unique perspective showed up besides revenge – being ostracized. The article says this: “It is very difficult for anyone to understand the low position Chechen women hold in their society: their lives are not valued. Rape is a big issue: if a woman is raped and it is filmed, she can be blackmailed into doing anything because it is regarded as a dishonour to her entire family. I believe that this has happened to at least some of the women who became suicide bombers. They are as much victims as the people they set out to kill”. http://www.newstatesman.com/200409060023

  3. christine says:

    I honestly did not know that female suicide bombers existed until I read your post. Wow! Thank you for teaching me something new today. You have mentioned that these women do this because of wanting to seek vengeance, because they had lost their loved ones at the hands of the armed forces. However, when I read your post, you had said that nearly all had “suffered from depression and other psychological conditions following these traumatic experiences,” and I wonder if this could have played a role. I actually just came from reading Tiana’s post this week about postpartum depression and the things that it causes women to do, example, murder their young ones, etc. And I’m just wondering if the depression could have anything to do with their decision to become suicide bombers. It would make a lot of sense given that depression has a strong positive correlation with suicide. Did you consider this as a reason. Maybe their mental state could be playing a role in this?

  4. L says:

    I wonder if the rates of female suicide bombers are going to increase. I imagine the change from liberal communist social norms to conservative sharia norms are extraordinarily difficult to cope with. The fact that the government is condoning violent practices must have a hefty toll on women’s mental health on top of the physical distress. The case study that you mention exemplifies the many way that women are taken advantage of and can be coerced. It almost makes me surprised that the rate of female suicide bombers is not already higher.

  5. tracyh says:

    I was very surprised at the reasons presented for female suicide bombers. As I finished this article, I was reminded about the idea that violence breeds further violence. I did not realize that terrorist organizations did not necessarily force women into becoming suicide bombers; that many women came to that decision of their own accord. Do you know of any interventions or community groups available for women who have lost family members in the conflict?

  6. abena says:

    This is a really interesting piece. I never really thought about women being used as suicide bombers before, but I can see your points about why women can make up half of the Caucasian suicide bomber population. The “black widows” note is also really interesting. It is too bad that the women have seen so many people die that they can be more easily recruited to become a suicide bomber

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