Why Uzbek women opt for bombs

Amid crackdown on Muslims, wives and mothers joined last week's attacks.

Angry and hopeless, Latifa Nabieva threatens to set fire to herself - like an increasing number of frustrated Uzbek women - unless her men are released.

Ms. Nabieva says she has had enough, following the arrest on terrorism charges of two sons and a nephew - all devout Muslims - since 2000. The final straw came in January, when police smashed in her front door, beat her husband bloody, and imprisoned him, too.

Shortly before a wave of suicide attacks shocked Uzbekistan last week, leaving 42 dead - several of the 33 militants who died were female suicide bombers - Mrs. Nabieva fired off a letter to the authorities, vowing to immolate herself in front of top police officials.

A government crackdown against Muslims has led to the arrest of some 7,000 accused militants; torture, using a term of the United Nations, is "systematic." The result is a growing level of anger among Uzbekistan's Muslim wives and mothers that may serve as a funnel for more female suicide bombers.

"I am very angry, and feel hatred toward the police and government ... and I am ready to burn myself," says Nabieva.

"There are thousands of women like me; [some] may be willing to protest in this way."

So far, Nabieva has drawn a line: "Suicide is not allowed in Islam, and it is one of the things that holds me back," says the head-scarved matriarch, adding that taking other lives with hers is not an option. She condemns the recent attacks as "terrorist acts" forbidden by her faith.

Analysts draw parallels to the recent phenomenon of female suicide bombers deployed by Palestinian militants against Israel, and Chechen rebels against Russia - the so-called Chechen "black widows," whose husbands have been killed by Russian forces.

They also point out that Uzbekistan has a history of female suicide - as an extreme way to protest domestic violence or fiscal hardship - that goes back centuries.

Not all angry Uzbek women draw the line where Nabieva does. Across town, another mother with imprisoned relatives declined to give her name for fear of retribution from the regime. She says: "If I'm going to kill myself, I'll take one of those [police officers] with me."

Such sentiment does not surprise Uzbeks, since uncompromising government efforts to stamp out any sign of Islamic militancy date from the late 1990s, and were stepped up after 1999 bomb blasts in the capital killed 16. It remains unclear, however, who may have been able to link such distraught, ready-to-die Uzbek women with an armed militant network.

"We condemn [the attacks], but whoever was behind it, we can only blame the government," says Husniddin Nazarov, the son of a well-known religious cleric who disappeared in 1998. "If they start again this kind of repression, there may be an even bigger reaction. Many religious people have been arrested, and now the government should stop and think [how] they've pushed people to the edge. If dozens are committing suicide now, maybe later there could be thousands. It's a real threat to the government."

Changing gears may not be easy for a former Soviet republic that inherited its communist party boss as president. Mr. Karimov has been feted by Washington since the 2001 Afghanistan campaign as a "strategic partner" that provides a key logistics base to American troops. The US continues to condemn widespread human rights abuses, but so far with limited effect.

"The political elites in Uzbekistan were trained in the Soviet period, and there is still a belief that repression can work to hold onto power, to keep potential rivals afraid and at bay," says Acacia Shields, author of a Human Rights Watch report released here last week called "Creating Enemies of the State."

Choosing that tactic may stem from the regime's success in crushing all political opposition in the early 1990s, by banning and forcing key players and groups into exile, says Ms. Shields. Public reaction has been muted.

"Western observers look at levels of Uzbek repression, and expected some uprising, but what we've seen in the last six years is a very quiet population that is not ready for that," adds Shields.

Accused Islamists have been killed in custody, and their relatives threatened with rape. "Uzbekistan has almost become synonymous with torture," Shields says, but until last week, "we've seen no violence so far. It would represent a dramatic departure."

But some Uzbeks may now have been pushed to that point. The country's prosecutor general Friday night displayed an array of explosives, ready suicide belts, several hundred detonation devices, cash, and fake passports meant for use by the 33 dead militants.

"I think the Chechen [black widow] phenomenon can happen here," says Iskandar Khudayberganov, a pro-democracy activist.

"Now people are so repressed there is no other choice - [they think] it's better to die than live such a life," says Mr. Khudayberganov. "Before, the government believed that repression and spreading fear will help them keep control. But ... you can only be frightened so far."

While there is widespread anger among Uzbek Muslim women about the fate of their relatives - and even a history of suicide, that has in the past translated into cases of self-immolation in police offices - hooking up with militants was not easy.

"Where could an ordinary woman find these explosives?" says Rana Azimova, a human rights activist. "Muslim Uzbek women do not commit such acts. Women with men arrested ask God for patience, and expect a better life in Heaven."

Still, rights activists say that female suicide is prevalent. Some estimate a yearly toll of 60 suicides; in the province of Djizzakh alone, Ms. Azimova says there were 27 cases last year. Such incidents usually occur in private, as a result of domestic violence or financial hardship. In one case, a woman killed herself in protest because her husband refused to let her watch Western soap operas.

Uzbeks say such actions with fire have pre-Islamic Zoroastrian roots, the religious system of the Persians dating back to the 6th century BC.

Connecting the dots may not prove too difficult in a nation where Uzbeks say that many applauded the attacks on police forces despised for corruption and a heavy hand. The regime's reaction - to crack down, or to moderate - will frame the long-term result.

"This is the government's product," says Tolib Yokubov, head of the Uzbek Human Rights Society. "Cursing the president has become common; many people feel sympathy toward the attackers. It doesn't matter who is behind those blasts, but now people know how to confront the government, to protest."

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