Former First Lady Laura Bush along with several other notable figures (or ‘civilised people’ to use Laura Bush’s words) added a new dimension to the increasingly ambiguous masculine war, giving it a new purpose and the feminine seal of approval. Addressing the nation, Laura Bush proclaimed: “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music, teach their daughters without fear or punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” While on the other side of the pond, Cherie Blair was also reaffirming Laura Bush’s claims, heralding women’s rights. And it was as simple as that. Terror was no longer encapsulated in the bloody actions and vague threats of al-Qaeda but it now extended to this perceived terror which thousands of women in Afghanistan were faced with daily. With the two most influential powers in the world also uniting on how the war had dramatically, yet positively contributed to women’s liberation, it gave both powers extra leeway to invade whomsoever they pleased under the subtext of women’s rights.
However, the showcasing of oppressed, fragile Muslim women was not a product of the War on Terror, as even prior to the war, feminists focused heavily on the plight of Afghani women in their pastel blue burkas.
As millions across the globe took to the streets to protest against what was perceived as a Western imperialist invasion in foreign lands, the efforts made by the female Bush and Blair to remarket the war as a struggle for women’s rights could also be deemed as a form of Western imperialism as Inderpal Grewal, a professor at Yale University, states: “Moral superiority has become part of emergent global feminism, constructing American women as saviours and rescuers of the ‘oppressed women’”.
It was clear what was happening: the only type of feminism which was accepted was Western feminism and through the acts and speeches of these women, the Western world had maintained its superiority by demonstrating that those women in the ‘other’ were in fact incapable of defending themselves and that their type of living was plain and simply wrong. There have been a string of arguments to suggest otherwise but we are now living in a time where you cannot escape the realities of Orientalism and the hauntings of imperialism. I am not arguing that countries such as Afghanistan do not need to address their women’s rights abuses but the very fact that the war was guised (and it was) as a liberator for women reaffirmed that Western feminism was the only way forward.
Of course, there have been gaps in the argument, with the case of Aafia Siddiqui gaining much attention as she was branded as the ‘Lady’ of al-Qaeda; an organisation which previously epitomized hyper-masculinity whilst shaping perceptions of Arab men globally. The duplicitous nature of the War on Terror was evident in her case but since the war, a number of Aafia Siddiquis were born. Despite the fact that the War on Terror perhaps indirectly concluded that Muslim women were in fact victims, ironically these same Muslim women were also used as tools often to incriminate and break their husbands. It could even be argued that Western powers took advantage of the human-rights abuses in foreign lands such as Morocco, where officials were often quoted as saying their ‘Arab friends’ could make people talk in unthinkable ways.
The case of Nourredine Nafia, who was charged in relation to the Casablanca bombings of May 2003 despite being detained when the bombings took place, demonstrates this as his wife was also detained and abused in order to incriminate her husband. Norredine’s wife was sleep deprived, threatened with rape and placed in an underground cell where she was subjected to the screams of other female detainees and was placed under a U.V. lamp where she felt like her ‘brain was boiling’. Nourredine’s wife had been abused and traumatised to the point where she did not even recognise her husband and would shiver in fear.
In the case of the Chechen plot, several women were arrested and interrogated in conditions that breach several humanitarian laws, all in the name of security. Saliha Lebik, wife of Merouane Benahmed who was sentenced to ten years, had been interrogated for over 30 hours and was jailed with her 6 month old baby, who she was separated from during her time in police custody. For any mother, separation from your children is never easy but this tactic was used repeatedly during the War on Terror, again for ‘intelligence gathering’.
Fatiha Mejjati, known as Umm Adam, was the wife of an al Qaeda suspect, Karim Mejjati, who was killed in 2005 along with their 11-year old son Adam. Fatiha and her 10-year old son, Ilyes, were arrested in Saudi Arabia after a visit to the doctor then put on a CIA plane to Morocco, where they were detained further and interrogated at the infamous Temara prison, notorious for torture as seen in the Binyam Mohamed case. Fatiha was initially asked about her husband’s whereabouts but when it became apparent that she had no knowledge, the questions turned to her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan . Whilst detained, Fatiha was threatened with rape, sleep deprived and found a camera in her room which caused her to have a mental breakdown when discovered. Her son, Ilyes, had attempted to commit suicide whilst detained and now has problems interacting in social settings. His life, according to his mother, has been ruined by the Moroccan government as she remains doubtless that her son can ever rebuild a ‘normal’ life.
The use of women for intelligence gathering was also a common feature in Guantanamo Bay and Bagram prison. In the case of Moazzam Begg, he described hearing the torturous screams of a woman in an adjacent cell, similar to Nourredine Nafia, which caused him psychological trauma as he was made to believe his wife was the one screaming. The echoes of the screams remained, as several other detainees were told their mothers and wives would be taken to Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere if they did not comply. On the other end of the spectrum however, scantily dressed women and prostitutes were brought into Guantanamo to ‘break’ the conservative Muslim men, who abstain from sexual relations outside of marriage. On several occasions, detainees were offered prostitutes in exchange for cooperation but more importantly, these women were a tool to torture, punish and mock the men. Reports were coming out of GTMO where female interrogators would abuse their power to provoke the detainees, such as smearing fake menstrual blood on their faces which expectedly caused many of the detainees to break down.
Whether the intervention saved or deteriorated women’s rights in Afghanistan is an exhaustive argument but for many Muslim women particularly in the West, their identities are continuously being challenged and questioned. As demonstrated in the cases above, women are being used for national security purposes and on a domestic level, Ayesha Kazmi recently explained how Muslim women ‘no longer feel safe to openly speak of the issues they face within their communities and at home for fear of fuelling Islamophobic discourse’. The altruistic attempts of liberating Muslim women in foreign lands have in fact opened a can of worms, further propelling women to feel like victims, who will never be free from oppression.