Congressional Panel on Women and Terrorism Puts Women in the War on Terror’s Crosshairs

Pushing back against the institutionalization of Islamophobia.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

With increasing attention on Western ISIL fighters, a new topic has emerged: Muslim women being recruited to fight alongside the fighters as well as to become their wives, etc. This was the focus of the women and terrorism roundtable that was hosted by the House Committee on Homeland Security and convened by GOP Rep. Peter King on Tuesday, March 15.

The pretext of the roundtable was victimization; that the U.S. government needs to wonder why Muslim women would choose this life and develop policies that can “save” them. 

According to Anne Speckhard, one of the self-styled experts welcomed onto the panel, ISIL is the most powerful and ruthless Islamic extremist group in modern history. Why would men, much less women, join its ranks? Speckhard argued that some Muslim women “have drank the purple Kool-Aid of ISIS.” While the West has renamed this “ideology,” the term purple Kool-Aid is perhaps more important in underscoring the abstractness of a purported belief system that no one, not even the experts, can clearly articulate. Thus, while women have supposedly accepted and become intertwined in this complex narrative, the West continues to struggle with how to define and frame it in a way that makes war possible. In other words, the narrative of the West and the actions of ISIL exist and operate in a symbiotic relationship.

Next, Asra Nomani, a Muslim, provided personal anecdotes of her own family’s path to radicalization. She spoke about book after book that documented Muslim women victimized by the brutal patriarchal culture of the Islamic world, using the hijab, or headscarf, as a specific token through which their oppression is made visible. Nomani then constructed a scenario in which the hijab serves as a warning sign of terrorist intentions.

"On the conveyor belt of ideas, what you end up with is in Libya, ISIS putting up billboards telling you how thick your fabric has to be," said Nomani. "You end up with women beating other women who do not comply with these regulations, you end up with mandatory laws that require that women live with this partition. Because hijab does not mean headscarf, it means separation."

“It’s a very dangerous trajectory,” Nomani continued, “and it’s one in which we hear disturbing comments in which mothers in the Islamic state are forcing some of these sex slaves to have abortions so that their sons can continue to have sex with these sex slaves.”

According to Nomani, putting on a headscarf can set women on a path that eventually leads to martyrdom. “It is a virtue then to kill,” she declared. "For all the reasons that have come before us on this conveyor belt, a woman is virtuous if she then becomes a shaheed, or a martyr.”

In reality, the conveyor belt theory of radicalization that Nomani draws on has been debunked by scholarly research and numerous governmental institutions, including an academic study backed by the Department of Homeland Security and Britain’s M15 spy agency.

Nomani’s disturbing statements on Muslim women who wear hijab were consistent with a long history of inflammatory rhetoric. As AlterNet recently reported, Nomani defended Ben Carson’s statement that a Muslim who doesn't believe in the "strict separation of church and state" should never be president of the United States, supported NYPD spying on Muslims, and protested President Barack Obama’s appearance at a mosque, claiming she was “standing up for women’s rights” by doing so.

Those who are actually working to challenge the status quo through a number of means, including hijab-as-resistance, were ignored by this congressional panel. That might be because their stories make for narratives of positive resistance, which hardly fits with the U.S. quest to wage war to protect these women. 

In the case of Muslim women, while no specific conclusion was offered at the roundtable, the underlying and ever-present solution was the employment of military means in order to save Muslim women from Muslim men. This version of winning the war on ISIL positions Muslim women as pawns whose stories we can shift and maneuver to make their lives the justification for future wars.

While presented as a form of feminism, the notion that Muslim women can be liberated from patriarchal structures through Western military intervention is itself the product of a system of oppression, one based on an Orientalist perspective that sees Muslim women as passive victims without agency. There are numerous reasons to be skeptical of this portrayal of women. While many Muslim women suffer in patriarchal societies, the desire to save them is marked not by genuine interest in their lives as individuals, but rather as a means to an end. That end is the initiation and perpetuation of war.

Nowhere was this more clear then when Laura Bush began advocating for Afghan women, stating, "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes, They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment, The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

The Bush administration claimed, in part, that it went to war to “protect” women in Afghanistan. The same story of the Muslim female victims was offered at the congressional hearing. However, the roundtable went further, telling the story of women as victims and women as perpetrators.

Based on the United States’ eagerness to wage war in the Middle East, it’s no surprise that they adapted the image of a Muslim woman as multifaceted; an image that is typically and categorically rejected. In other words, the United States cannot afford to justify more violence on the basis of victimhood alone; that tactic is overdone. But turn Muslim women into perpetrators and you get a different equation – hyper-indoctrinated women ripe for the killing. By extension, children can be the only possible collateral damage in the so-called war on terror because the narrative now identifies both men and women as potential terrorists.

In order to sustain these paradigms of disempowered Muslim women, violent Muslim men and now women, the panel relied fundamentally on a distinctly Islamophobic narrative. Islamophobia is a phenomenon meant to articulate and disseminate the contrived hate of Muslims built into structures of the state and society. It is based on the social construction of Islam as violent, barbaric, uncivilized, and opposed to normative democratic values. Islamophobia exists as a system of dehumanization of Muslims that results in consequences ranging from prejudice to discrimination, detention, and even death. Because the variegated identities of Muslims intersect along various racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic lines, the source of Islamophobia is difficult to distinctly isolate. However, Islamophobia represents a particular type of oppression as it operates at the nexus of anti-religious animus and racism, cultural racism, nationalism, and xenophobia. Islamophobia is maintained and perpetuated by a white supremacist outlook that upholds notions of counter-posed ideological values between the West and Islam.

The important point to stress is that Islamophobia is institutional. The roundtable on women and security could not have illustrated this idea more clearly, as the goal was to ostensibly formulate policy around which Muslim female terrorists — and headscarf-clad pre-terrorists — could be identified and rehabilitated, or simply killed. This is one clear example of how anti-Muslim politics has been instrumentalized to broaden the parameters for state violence against civilians across the global south, from Kabul to the Horn of Africa.

Is it possible, therefore, to be Muslim and accept these propositions that our community is one of hate and violence? If you paid attention only to the dominant narrative that the congressional panel on women and terrorism aimed to reinforce, this might be a logical conclusion. However, we must recognize that the need to fundamentally alter the framing of the problem. ISIS, as mentioned above, is an outgrowth of U.S. intervention in the region. Opportunistic voices angling for influence within the mainstream by parroting the imperial narrative or cashing in on CVE programs are actually prolonging a problem that has never been properly defined. Where Muslims engage in an uncritical process that denies root causes, they are perpetuating Islamophobia, while also internalizing it. 

Muslims are a heterogeneous community with divergent political views and diverse identities, but the external climate has suffocated their ability to articulate their nuances. This roundtable performed precisely this role, allowing the dominant narrative to go unchallenged, furthering trope of Muslims as violence prone fanatics. Though officially sanctioned events like these have made the struggle to formulate a counter-narrative increasingly difficult for Muslims, many have and continue to work toward justice categorically and unapologetically.  

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Maha Hilal, Ph.D., is the Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s also a steering committee member of DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a board member of the DC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.