February 12, 2002 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 83

Wafa Idris: The Celebration of the First Female Palestinian Suicide Bomber - Part I

February 12, 2002
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 83

Wafa Idris, a 27-year-old Palestinian woman from the Al-Am'ari refugee camp near Ramallah, became the first femalePalestinian suicide bomber on January 27, 2002, killing one Israeli civilian and wounding approximately 140 others.The military wing of Fatah, the "Al-Aqsa Brigades," took responsibility for the attack three days later. The following isthe first installment in a three part series that will detail the Arab media's response to this act:

Idris's Life
At the age of 16, Idris wed her cousin Ahmad and nine years later, "social traditions and family pressure led to divorce, because she couldn't have children."[1] Following the divorce, Idris volunteered for the Palestinian Red Crescent. Relatives and friends reported that in her work, she was exposed to horrible sights of Palestinian wounded and dead, and speculated that this is what led her to become a suicide bomber.

Red Crescent advisor Dr. Hussam Al-Sharqawi objected strongly to any connection between Idris's work and the attack: "I am shocked; I never expected anything like this… We teach our staff to help people regardless of religion, color, citizenship, or any other classification. One of [our staff] killing others pains us greatly, because this contradicts our humane values, which have not and will not prevent us from helping [even] soldiers and settlers when necessary."[2]

Other relatives conjectured that Idris's divorce and the dearth of opportunities available with which to make a new life for herself were factors in her decision. An aunt said, "He [her husband] killed her when he discarded her. She watched his second wedding from her window. She passed out sweets the day she heard that he had become a father. He broke her, but she maintained her pride."[3] "I think," said girlhood friend Raf'ah Abu Hamid, "that her experience with divorce and society's rejection of her as a divorced woman who couldn't have children gave her a feeling of deficiency, for which she tried to compensate with her work and the social relationships she formed after the divorce."[4]

Some Palestinians speculate that Idris's act was motivated by personal problems. Al-Quds University student Maram 'Alawi, 22, said, before hearing that Idris had been sent by Fatah: "The girl who carried out the attack is crazy, or suffering from an emotional shock that made her commit suicide so she would be seen by the entire world as a woman of struggle. If I were in her place, I wouldn't do it. This is an [act] of terrorism… The Islamic movements exploited this girl's psychological or emotional distress and recruited her for the operation…"[5]

Others expressed support of Idris's attack. Bir Zeit University student M.Y. Al-'Alami, 17, said she thought that "the struggle was not limited strictly to men. Many women have carried out operations, like Dalal Al-Maghribi,[6] Layla Khaled,[7] and others. But until now no Palestinian woman has blown herself up. It's unusual, but I support it." She called for more acts such as Idris's in the future, saying that the role of women should not be restricted to political activity, but should be military as well. "Society does not accept this idea because it is relatively new, but after it happens again, it will become routine and no one will talk about it any more."[8]

The Religious Dispute
Because this was the first time a Palestinian woman had carried out a suicide bombing, leaders of the Palestinian Islamic movement were asked by the media for their positions on the religious acceptability of such an act. Isma'il Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said, "Jihad against the enemy is an obligation that applies not only to men but also to women. Islam has never differentiated between men and women on the battlefield."[9]

Sheikh Hassan Yussef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, added: "We do not act according to the opinion of the street or of society. We are men of principle… [and act] according to what our religion dictates. A Muslim woman is permitted to wage Jihad and struggle against the occupation. The Prophet [Muhammad] would draw lots among the women who wanted to go out to wage Jihad with him. The Prophet always emphasized the woman's right to wage Jihad."[10]

Jamila Shanti, who heads the Women's Activities Division of the Palestine Islamic Movement, said, "The issue of martyrdom [operations] has gained much popularity in Palestinian society. There is no difference between the martyrdom of sisters and the martyrdom of brothers, because the enemy does not differentiate between firing on men and firing on women… Islam does not prohibit a woman from sacrificing herself to defend her land and her honor. It is she who was attacked, and she has the right to defend herself in any way. It is not puzzling that Muslim sisters have been carrying out heroic operations within Palestine since 1948. On the contrary: It would be strange if the Palestinian woman had not done so, as Jihad is a personal imperative for her and no one can prevent her from waging it, provided… she avoids fitna [in this case: inappropriate behavior] – which is not on the agenda in martyrdom operations because she is going to her death. Perhaps these activities require the woman to wear a particular garment in order to mislead the enemy, and therefore she may have to relinquish part of her veil when she goes to martyrdom. But there is nothing wrong with this, because the clerics are in consensus that martyrdom operations are the highest level of martyrdom."[11]

But Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin had his reservations. "The Palestinian woman has an important role in society and in supporting the fighters," he explained. "In our Palestinian society, there is a flow of women towards Jihad and martyrdom, exactly like the young men. But the woman has uniqueness. Islam sets some restrictions for her, and if she goes out to wage Jihad and fight, she must be accompanied by a male chaperon."[12]

A few days later, Sheikh Yassin amended his position, saying that a woman going out to wage Jihad must be accompanied by a male chaperon only "if she is to be gone for a day and a night. If her absence is shorter, she does not need a chaperon."[13]

'Itaf 'Alayan claims to have attempted to carry out a suicide attack in Jerusalem, but was arrested; she was eventually released after the signing of the Oslo Accords. 'Alayan disagreed with Sheikh Yassin. "There is a Hadith that says that if the enemy infiltrates the Muslim land the woman must go out [to Jihad, even] without her husband's permission… [Furthermore,] in practical terms, how can a woman carrying out a martyrdom operation be accompanied by a chaperon, whether brother, son, or husband? The operation will fail. Thus, necessity permits things that are forbidden…"[14] "In Islamic history we find that Khawlah bint Al-Azwar waged Jihad for her brother's release without a chaperon…"[15]

Sheikh Ali Abu Al-Hassan, chairman of the Religious Ruling Committee at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, stated that suicide attacks by women were permitted, even though Sheikh Tantawi, who heads Al-Azhar University, had ruled against attacks on civilians. "The martyrdom operation carried out among the Israelis by the young Palestinian woman is an act of Jihad permissible according to the Shari'a, and on this there is no disagreement," stated Sheikh Abu Al-Hassan. "If the enemy has conquered and plundered even a single inch of Muslim land, Jihad becomes a personal duty of man, woman, slave, and master. [In such a case], the woman wages [Jihad] without her husband's permission, the slave without his master's permission, and the debtor without his creditor's permission."

Sheikh Abu Al-Hassan based his reasoning on well-known "acts of female Jihad" during the raids led by the Prophet Muhammad: "The Prophet's aunt came down from the women's citadel, and fought a man from among the infidels who had climbed up the citadel. She killed him, but took care to protect Islamic morality by refraining from stripping and disarming him. She told the poet Hassan bin Thabet: 'You go to him and strip him.' Likewise, Asmaa, the daughter of Yazid, participated in one of the battles against the Byzantines, and killed men."[16]

Sheikh Yassin of Hamas further explained his reservations regarding women carrying out martyrdom attacks – not by religious law, but because, he claimed, it was unnecessary. "At the present stage, we do not need women to bear this burden of Jihad and martyrdom. The Islamic Movement cannot take all the Palestinian males demanding to participate in Jihad and in martyrdom operations, because they are so numerous. Our means are limited, and we cannot absorb all those who desire to confront the Israeli enemy. But the days of decisive conflict with the Israeli occupation will come, and then men, women, the elderly, and children will participate in Jihad, in the crucial battle for the liberation of Palestine, Allah willing. We have entered a new phase of history, in which Palestinian women are willing to fight and to die a martyr's death as the men and youths do. This is from the grace of Allah. But, meanwhile, women have no military organization in the framework of the [Islamic] movement. When such an organization arises, it will be possible to discuss wide-scale recruitment of women."[17]

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 2, 2002.

[2] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), January 31, 2002.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 2, 2002.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 2, 2002.

[5] Kul Al-Arab (Israel), February 1, 2002.

[6] Al-Maghrabi, of Fatah, participated in the attack on the Israeli bus on March 11, 1978.

[7] Khaled, of the PFLP, participated in the hijacking of several commercial airliners during the 1970s.

[8] Kul Al-Arab (Israel), February 1, 2002.

[9] Middle East News Online, January 28, 2002.

[10] Al-Sha'ab (Egypt), February 1, 2002.

[11] Al-Sha'ab (Egypt), February 1, 2002.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 31, 2002.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 2, 2002.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 2, 2002.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 31, 2002.

[16] Afaq Arabiya (Egypt), January 30, 2002, as cited in Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 31, 2002.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 31, 2002.

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