Remember the women in the War on Terror

Anti-terrorism laws and regulations, like stop-and-search policies, interrogations at airports, or worse, imprisonment without trial, extraordinary rendition, extradition, torture, deprivation of citizenship or killings by drones not only affect the lives of Muslim men. This ever-glooming suspicion also deprives women, the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives of a sense of security, emotionally, physically and/or financially. Within mainstream media, however, the stories of women whose family lives have been shattered by the anti-terrorism laws, are virtually absent.

On Thursday 7 March at the Osmani Centre in London, these stories were given a stage as human rights organisation CagePrisoners hosted a panel discussion on the recently published book “Shadow Lives, The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror” to celebrate International Women’s Day. In this book, author Victoria Brittain gives a voice to the women whose husbands are held under house arrest or are imprisoned. None of the men have been found guilty, in fact, they have not even been charged with any crimes. We listened to Josephine’s story, broadcasted earlier on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, in which she talks about her husband’s arrests and the consecutive control orders that affected her family’s life.

The panel was chaired by Victoria Brittain herself and consisted of Khateeba Checki, keyworker at CagePrisoners’ Helping Households Under Great Stress (Hhugs), Liz Fekete, director at the Institute of Race Relations and Aisha Maniar, human rights activist for the London Guantanamo Campaign. The important messages from this event are summarized below.


1. The war on terror did not start yesterday 

In her talk, Aisha Maniar, who has conducted an extended amount of research on how the British law deals with issues around the war on terror, immediately reminded us that the war on terror did not start in 2001, when US president George W. Bush declared the war, but was already enacted from 1996 on. Some people, like Shaker Aamer’s son, she urged, have lived their entire life with a loved one in prison due to the war on terror.


2. The war on terror leads to social isolation and causes mental health issues

Aisha identified that the main reason why women whose husband has been imprisoned or put under control orders, such as house arrest, are forgotten, is because of isolation and the feeling that they are on their own. People will not tell you that they have a family member in prison. In addition, the women remain invisible in news reports; there is no name or face, preventing them from becoming real people.

Fighting the isolation is important, because the isolation leads to severe mental suffering. But, Aisha urged, it is also important to remember that the isolation and mental suffering does not stop when the imprisoned family member is released. Many Irish people often link their stories of imprisonment to the practices at Guantanamo Bay. An Irish mother, for example told her that the suffering continues, despite her son’s release from prison in 1972.


3. Listen, do not judge

Khateeba Checki, who has supported women whose husbands have been imprisoned, expressed that one of the most important lessons she learned from the women’s stories is to listen and not to judge.


4. The women’s stories are empowering

The women’s stories do not serve as a plea for pity; in fact, the contrary is true, Victoria Brittain emphasized that the stories in her book reflect the resilience of the women affected. The anti-terrorist laws inflict collective punishment through the use of control orders, like a ban on computers in the house, assets freezing measures, in addition to the physical and psychological damage done after a house has been raided. Part of the difficulty is also the arbitrary nature of the imprisonment. Why and how long husbands, fathers, sons are going to be imprisoned for is unknown. On top of that, women are the ones who have to deal with other family members, the school, and neighbours. Despite all this, the women are able to continue their lives. According to Victoria Brittain, it is this resilience that makes them role models.


5.The war on terror is not an issue of the Other

Liz Fekete shared her experiences of the book launch at a London Review Bookshop in Covent Garden. The book seems to uncover some of the broader underlying problems in addressing the impact of the war on terror. At the book launch, the chair of the event asked Victoria Brittain: “How did you get this involved?” The question, Liz emphasized, underpins the notion that one cannot have a friend who has a different religious conviction than you. But, she says, friendship is about sharing and caring; if one only loves people that they would consider the same, this would be narcissism. Unfortunately, she noted, the idea that difference does not allow friendship is widely spread within society and aggravated by the war on terror, which has created enemy images. A person eager to pose the first question during the question round asked: “I am a progressive person, how can you support the cause of these conservative women?” Progressiveness, Liz stressed, is about pluralism. The question, one should be asking, according to Liz, is: “Can you be a progressive person, without talking to people who are different from you?”


6. Mainstream feminism should create platforms

In response to a suggestion from the audience by a woman who is part of a black women’s organisation, to make visible what women are doing, bring movements together, and create platforms for these women, Victoria Brittain responded that the challenge of the women’s stories of the war on terror is that privacy and reticence are key corner stones of the women’s culture. She said that they wouldn’t be on Facebook or be speaking in public about these issues. Instead, the book is a channel for these women. She said: “The time to have women speaking or attending public meetings is over. It is our responsibility to talk about this.”

Aisha Maniar, however, emphasized that many of the women are asylum seekers and that they are therefore part of a marginalized community within a marginalized community. In addition to their vulnerable legal positions, there is also a strong fear of worsening the case if they speak out.

Although we need to take into consideration the difficulty of the situation of these women, I think we also need to acknowledge the particularities of all the different cases. As Aisha Maniar expressed, not all of the women are Muslim women and, I can imagine, not all of the women would want to stay out of the public sight to voice their experiences. Liz Fekete stressed that mainstream feminism has yet to give attention to these stories, but it is important to realize that although some women might not wish to talk about their experiences, because it could affect the legal situation, the time for women to speak or attend public meetings is never over. Moving these stories into the realm of mainstream feminism would help reach a broader audience, but in my opinion it is most important to create a platform for all women to be heard and not a platform in which these women’s lives are discussed, but in which they themselves would be excluded in the name of cultural sensitivity. Lessons can be learned from the way in which mainstream feminism appropriated the hijab/niqab debate.


7. Not doing something, is perpetuating the idea of people as suspects

As much as we need to be aware of the silencing powers of privilege, in other words, how the urge to speak for others, can exclude them from speaking or being heard, speaking out against the violations of civil liberties and human rights is necessary. Speaking out, however, can be done through small acts, such as supporting CagePrisoners or Hhugs, attending a demonstration, signing a petition and inviting others to listen. If we don’t, Aisha Maniar urged, we are perpetuating and feeding the idea that people are actual suspects.

One of the pressing cases, Aisha urged us to take action in, is that of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantanamo. He has never met his youngest son. Although he was cleared from any charges, he remains in Guantanamo. Signing the petition for his release and joining the demonstrations is important.


8. Finally, the war on terror affects us all

Depending on our circumstances, the war on terror will affect us in different ways. The fact is, it affects us all. So, how can we make sure the women in the war on terror are not forgotten? By realising that we are those women. We are the women affected by the war on terror, because the simple truth is, everyone is affected by the war on terror. If it is not because a family member, friend, colleague or neighbour is in prison, is repeatedly stopped and searched, is tortured, extradited or  harassed, humiliated or stripped from his civil liberties and human rights in the name of the war on terror, it will be because this war has divided us. It has created the idea that some people are superior over others. This divisive power will make some of us feel it is ok to remain silent when they can speak out, while others will feel that they have to speak for those who want to speak for themselves.


What can you do?

  • Educate yourself and create ways to articulate your opinion
  • Read “Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror” and share the stories
  • Sign the petition to release Shaker Aamer here
  • Attend demonstrations. On 23 March an all day petition action will take place for Shaker Aamer at 12 outside Tooting Mosque, London


 See also:

  • Aisha Maniar’s informative blog on civil liberties and human rights One Small window
  • FreeTalha and FreeBabarAhmad give insights into the British extradition practices and provide ways to support those affected