Sexuality Policy Watch

ISIS and Women: A STATUS/Conversation with Rafia Zakaria

In this interview with STATUS/الوضع host Katty Alhayek, journalist and author Rafia Zakaria discusses her articles on ISIS and women, and the challenges that she faces when sharing her perspective on these issues with a wider audience.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and political philosopher. She is a regular columnist for Al Jazeera America and Dawn Pakistan and has written for many publications around the world including The Hindu, The Calcutta Statesman, China Daily, The Korean Herald, and Le Monde. She is the first Muslim American woman to serve on the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA for two consecutive terms. Her book The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan was selected by the American Booksellers Association as their Debut Selection for Spring 2015. It is also the Indie’s best pick of the month for February, published last week.
Katty Alhayek (KA): Welcome to Status. I am Katty Alhayek. Today my guest is Rafia Zakaria, an attorney, a political philosopher, and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan. I will talk with Rafia about her articles on ISIS and women, and the challenges that she is facing trying to share her perspective on these issues with a wider audience. Hello, Rafia.

Rafia Zakaria (RZ): Hello, Katty. Thank you for having me on.

KA: Thank you for talking to Status. My first question: In the last two years you wrote several articles on ISIS and women. Can you share with us the reasons behind your interest in this topic and how it fits with your broader interests?

RZ: Yes, thank you. Personally, of course, I am a Muslim woman. I am originally from Pakistan. I live in the United States and go back and forth between two cultures. The emergence of the Muslim woman as a political subject both in the West and the East has been the basis of my research. As the years have progressed and in our contemporary political discourse, I have seen different aspects of being Muslim and female emphasized in the media. In contemporary US media, there is this schizophrenic treatment of Muslim women as simultaneously either all oppressed as a group or more recently—especially following the San Bernardino shootings—as a terrorist in hiding, a secret terrorist, or bearing loyalties to anti-American interests. In all of this, my frustration has been that most of the discourse surrounding Muslim women either tries to pin them to some concept of Islam, the Quran, or Islamic teachings, or solely tries to understand them within the political context of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Syria. There is very little effort to put together how Western actions in the Muslim world, whether it is in Afghanistan or Iraq, have contributed to the discourse, the experiences, or the challenges that are faced by Muslim women.

To give you a concrete example, when they talk about the veil, for instance, the discourse surrounds the questions: Is it required? Is it in the Quran? Is it Islamic? So there is a reduction of this idea to a doctrinal question. There is no discussion, for instance, about the fact that in the run up to the war in Afghanistan in the United States circa 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the entire argument for war was based on this idea that Afghan women are oppressed. And the picture of oppression was the blue burqa. There was even an incident in which one of the US congresswomen who was arguing for the war brought a burqa to the floor of the US House of Representatives and put it on as an example of oppression. These discourses do not only color how Muslim women are seen, how the picture of the Muslim woman is created for the Western viewer, but it also impacts how Muslim women themselves see their practice—both their political identity as well as their spiritual practice. So that was the core frustration that interested me in showing how the Muslim woman, as she is constructed, is both an active project that is led by Muslim women, but it is also a reactive project in that it responds to over a decade of US imperial interventions in Muslim countries.

KA: In your article, “ISIS Wants You to Share This: How the Well-meaning Public Became a Handmaiden for Terror,” you discuss the naming-and-shaming mechanism and how it has changed with the spread of new technologies, such as social media. Can you share with us your main argument and what you hoped to achieve through this article?

RZ: The main purpose of this article was to show a mechanism that the West still takes for granted. The idea that if we see a human rights abuse—such as an honor killing, or the public mistreatment of women by the Taliban, the flogging, or instances of stoning—we believe that international advocacy around that issue is not only successful in stopping the act, but that it will produce moral change in those contexts. I wanted to question this idea and show that there was a time in the nineties when these mechanisms of international advocacy were used by human rights activists to publicize certain cases, and then the power of international attention was a basis through which the perpetrators of these acts could be deterred. So for the village that wanted to stone a woman, or the law that requires four witnesses for a rape conviction, this was the idea. And for a while that worked. But I wanted to show that in our contemporary context, in a world of social media, that mechanism of international advocacy has been hijacked by other actors so that it is no longer this singular province of human rights advocates.

The consequences of that are that naming and shaming has become only shaming; so that the communities where we want to bring about change—Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq—see themselves as shamed by international advocacy. They do not see the distinction between calling out a practice and calling out the whole community. The reason for this, of course, is that militarism and Western expansionist wars have relied on the shaming mechanism as a basis to justify wars. The Taliban are mistreating Afghan women, so that is considered a justification for an American invasion. So the problem with naming and shaming at this point is that it has become only shaming. The consequence is that if our goal is to end human rights abuses—or for me, particularly, to end abuses against women, honor killings, sexual violence, and harassment—then this mechanism is entirely broken because it is not bringing about the moral shift that has to occur within the communities themselves for the human rights abuses or the abuses against women to stop. There is very little questioning of this mechanism that we have taken for granted for so long. The idea that if Michelle Obama says, “bring back the girls,” then that is going to bring back the girls and so on and so forth, is something that is completely broken.

KA: Did you see or think about examples of alternatives used by groups or some activist organizations that provide an alternative for the naming-and-shaming mechanism?

RZ: Well I think there can be a successful use, but it depends on human rights organizations, and particularly feminist agendas, being decoupled from militarist projects. So as long as feminist groups, for instance, think that it is okay to ally themselves with the US occupation of Afghanistan, there is no way that we can save human rights or feminist advocacy internationally. This is because if you say, “I am going to build a women’s shelter in this village, but the same forces are going to bomb another village,” then the shelter becomes, in some very integral way, connected to the bombing and women in that society become disloyal. They are painted as traitors. That dynamic is something that can never be a basis for the empowerment of women. If international advocacy, human rights organizations, and women’s organizations want to take back this mechanism, they have to make a very explicit, overt, and strident criticism of military interests that try to paint war as a feminist intervention. What was done in Afghanistan is what is often done, particularly when it is a Western intervention into Muslim countries, and that, I think, has been the core of delegitimizing a lot of international advocacy within those communities.

KA: Last March you wrote an article titled “ISIL’s Feminine Mystique”. What do you mean by that?

RZ: I wrote this article at a time when ISIS was ascending in power and there was a lot of interest in talking about the group, the threat posed by the group, its social media presence, and its recruitment of women. But the part that I find troubling—and it is a theme in most of the articles that I have written on women and ISIL—is that there is very little effort to understand the discourse that is being used. Again and again there is a denunciation of what they are doing and this repeated refrain that ISIS is horrific and cruel. Of course I agree with all of those statements, but continuing to reiterate the fact that this is a very grim and grotesque group of people does not really help us to understand how they are trying to recruit people.

So “ISIL’s Feminine Mystique” was an effort to show how some of ISIL’s propaganda is very pointedly directed toward women who for whatever reason feel that mainstream politics does not represent their views. It was a means of showing how they are capitalizing on the abandonment of gender equality as a concept and trying to promote this idea of gender complementarity instead. So instead of the Western idea that we have to work toward men and women being equal in one field, they are promoting the alternative idea—and they obviously try to reinterpret Islamic history to support their premise—that instead of one sphere, we want to have separate spheres for men and women, and the women who join our ranks have the opportunity to lead within the female sphere. For Western audiences, the discourse revolves around, “oh my god, how horrific.” But the reality is that they are taking something that is often not very far from the lives of say a woman in Pakistan or a woman in a Muslim country, where society is to some extent already segregated, and then promoting an extreme vision of that. I wanted to show that the arguments that say, “Women are not equal,” do not really impact. They are not really interested in that. They are not even claiming to do that.

I was trying to unpack how they are building this alternate discourse that tries to appeal to women and that is very much built on coopting the anti-imperial arguments that are already popular in the Islamic world. So opposing ISIL has to go beyond simply saying, “ISIS is cruel and bad, and you will never be equal within that context,” and really look at how they are taking a mix of things that are familiar to Muslim women and other things that respond to their frustrations. For instance, in that article I talk about how the ISIS manifesto that they produced for women says the reason that Muslim women should enter the battlefield is because Muslim men have failed. The kind of rhetoric that says you have to fight because men have failed is, in a sense, a very radical feminist type of formulation because so much of even Islamist discourse within the Muslim world never ever says anything like that. If anything it says Muslim women are not permitted in the battlefield or tells them to respect Muslim men. It does not say your men have failed so you have to enter the battlefield. That is a pretty significant departure from existing orthodox Muslim, or Islamist rhetoric. The goal in that piece was to try and show how these different bits come together to create a narrative that is a pretty significant departure from traditional Islamic interpretations of women and war.

KA: In your article “Women and Islamic Militancy”, you compared ISIS women warriors to Aafia Sidiqqui. Why did you make this comparison?

RZ: There are a couple of different reasons. One, of course, is that Aafia Sidiqqui is a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted in 2010 of the attempted murder of US servicemen while at Bagram Prison in Afghanistan. She looms very large within the Pakistani imagination as a Muslim woman who has been wrongly imprisoned by an American imperial force. That is one reason why I wanted to focus on her. The other reason is that an analysis of her case or even her background shows that this idea of militancy is not necessarily an idea that is connected with orthodox Islam. In a sense, it is connected with a reinterpretation of Islam to the point that it is being understood and shown to Muslim women as a way of rebelling against cultural practices that prescribe a very domestic and private existence for women.

In Aafia’s case—a woman who has a PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University, a US institution—I tried to show how she was rebelling not only in the domestic sphere, or in her marriage against a husband who wanted her to stay at home and be with her children, but also her reported disagreement with traditional Islamist leaders. In this case, she and her husband go to a known sheikh and Islamic leader in Karachi because they are having marital problems, and she wants to devote her life to jihad. This leader says you have to obey your husband and you cannot say these things. She tells him very pointedly that he is wrong and there are other sheikhs that say I can fight, I can be a warrior, and I do not have to listen to my husband. So the point of that analysis was to show how militancy is being framed as a kind of empowerment by some radical Muslim women.

It is important to note this because there is a tendency to reduce militancy to something that alienated and excluded people are subject to. And there is some truth to that. But the problem I see is that there is an ideological foundation for militancy that is based as much on the failures of liberalism as it is on Islam. It is the former, the failures of liberalism—whether it is a failure of actually realizing gender equality or the existence of birth-right citizenship as something that treats people differently—that is being used in this propaganda, and to which liberalism does not have a response. This article and most of the articles that I write are an attempt to underscore that, unless we start engaging philosophically and ideologically with the critiques of liberalism made by ISIL and by other militant groups, we are not going to be able to either understand or defeat their propaganda. The analysis of Aafia’s case was an effort to show that there are many different dimensions to this, and I have faced a lot of criticism for that article.

KA: I actually wanted to ask you about that because this article initiated a debate between you and Meredith Tax about issues of women’s empowerment and agency. Can you tell us more about this debate?

RZ: Absolutely. The criticism was not just from the respondent Meredith Tax, but Michael Walzer—who is a very famous liberal theorist in the United States and a Princeton emeritus professor— who also criticized me saying, “I [RZ] was excited by the idea of Muslim women warriors.” And I think that their responses are important because they show what the discourse has been reduced to. For instance, Meredith Tax does the same thing in her response. Her emphasis is on the idea that ISIS is bad. Of course ISIS is bad, I completely agree that ISIS is bad, but in that attack there are two elements. The first element is that they are saying you are Muslim, you are writing about female militancy, and if you are not just repeating again and again how bad it is, then you are somehow suspect. It is a personal attack, of course, because they are trying to say that my identity precludes me from theorizing on this issue. The second is a far larger phenomenon that says that any kind of ideological engagement or an attempt to understand the mechanics of militancy equals an avowal of militancy. So if you are trying to understand: how does this work, what are their arguments, what kind of response needs to be made, that is somehow not permissible.

The second factor is very dangerous within the American discourse because what it is saying is that we need to keep this enemy as a mysterious enemy, because that is the way we can sustain their status and not actually go deeper or understand how this is happening. It is an effort to police thinking. I find that really, really troubling because now for the contemporary debate we are talking about ISIL, but six, seven, eight years ago we were talking about the Taliban, and they were doing very similar things. They publicized flogged women, they publicly beheaded people, and they cut off arms. A lot of the rhetoric was very similar. But the fact is, not only does the Taliban still exist, but we are now considering peace with the Taliban because we are done with that war. We have moved on to ISIS, and we are attaching similar arguments there. So what I am saying is that these are different flavors of militancy, but we are not able to defeat militancy until we can understand the ways in which it is perpetuating itself. And to do that, we need to go beyond, “this is bad and horrific.” We actually have to engage with the ideological claims that they are making and not just those about Islam. In fact, we are doing a great job of dissecting the portions of their propaganda that are Islamic, but we are not at all engaging in the portions of their propaganda that attack liberalism and look at its failure.

Another great example of that is the first thing that ISIL recruits do when they arrive. They burn their passports. That is one of the first things that they do and it is highly publicized. In the West, there is no understanding of what that means, because most people in most Muslim countries are imprisoned by the passports that they carry. So they are saying, “We accept you no matter what.” At the same time, you have Western countries that are saying that even four-year-old children coming up dead on the shores and trying to get in do not deserve our empathy because they are Muslim. These are the sorts of critiques. At the same time, you have liberal constitutions in these Western countries that again and again avow for the equality of all people. Now you are you avowing for the equality of all people, but at the same time you are saying, “Not these people who are born on this side of the border.” So this is hypocrisy and it becomes a very central part of militant propaganda, but we do not engage with it. Especially within political philosophy, there is no engagement with the idea that this is one of the core hypocrisies of liberalism. It avows the equality of all people while saying that citizenship should be limited. That is a problem in our collective efforts to defeat militancy.

KA: In your recent article titled “The Making of a Terrorist Bride”, you continue this type of conversation and argue that the San Bernardino attack is another act of domestic terrorism carried out by an American man rather than by a radicalized foreign wife. Can you elaborate more on that?

RZ: Yes. What troubled me most about the media narrative in the San Bernardino shootings was how closely it mirrored this misogynistic Adam and Eve calculus, where there was an American man and then an evil woman came, misled him, and radicalized him. There was no basis for this. There were actually no facts available to confirm any of this, but it was a narrative that was literally thrown out hour after hour for days in the American media. I wanted to point out the core misogyny of that. There is now a new trend that says we are going to victimize American Muslim women because they look suspicious and they look different, so they are probably all terrorists. This represents a new shift. Again, I want to point out the disconnect between American efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which very much paint themselves as an effort to “save” Muslim women, and the rhetoric at home, which says that all of these women are terrorists. There is a complete schizophrenia in that portrayal.

The point of all of it is that the truth does not matter. It does not matter what the reality of Islamic belief is. I can give a million examples, and I do in my articles, of the fact that Muslim women are probably least likely to commit crimes in the United States. But none of these facts have any impact because the real idea of this is to take a visible symbol, in this case it is usually the headscarf, and use of it as a symbol to mean something else, which is that these people are all terrorists. That is a consequence of not just one incident, but a consequence of the fact that for over thirteen years the United States has been fighting wars against Muslim countries. Images of Muslims have again and again been fed to the US public by the US media as automatically equalling the enemy. This rhetoric is not necessarily aimed toward defeating militancy or defeating ISIL, the Taliban, or whatever group we are talking about, but rather maintaining this idea that they are our enemy, they are bad, and we are good; maintaining this very binary, black-and-white distinction that is not supported by the facts.

KA: Thank you so much, Rafia. Do you want to add any final points?

RZ: It has been a pleasure speaking with you, and I encourage people who are listening to this, when you see this on CNN, Fox, or any of the US media outlets, to go deeper than that. I encourage them to see how fear and paranoia are being used to take a person or a group of people, who by and large have no connection and no power over what any militant group does, to create this enemy that is going to permit US imperial adventures abroad.

KA: Thanks again Rafia Zakaria, an attorney, a political philosopher, and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan. She has been writing about the Middle East, Islam, and women for several years. You can read Rafia’s work in a number of publications, such as al Al Jazeera, The Nation, Dissent Magazine. For Status, I am Katty Alhayek. Thank you for listening.

Read Rafia Zakaria articles

ISIS Wants You to Share This: How the Well-meaning Public

Became a Handmaiden for Terror

Women and Islamic Militancy

The Making of a Terrorist Bride

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