Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror
In George Orwell’s novel 1984, Winston Smith, whose job it is to edit historical documents so they reflect the party line, reads from Goldstein’s book. “In accordance to the principles of Doublethink, it does not matter if the war is not real, or when it is, that victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous.”
Sixty-four years since it was published, Orwell’s words bear striking similarity to the war that is raging against Islam in the media and in government discourse today; a war which has no end in sight.
It is this war that author and former associate foreign editor of the Guardian Victoria Brittain’s recently published book, Shadow Lives addresses. Contrived suspicion of Islam has been tightly woven into a myth, Brittain argues, which society and its various authorities have swallowed up and failed to see through. A monolithic image of the oppressed Muslim woman, hidden behind the veil, is what is left of a culture that spans centuries and continents.
Yet Shadow Lives looks beyond this damaging and clichéd stereotype. In a society where many have been taught to equate the word Islam with terrorist, she asks where this fear of Muslims or destructive, entrenched Islamophobia come from? Her conclusion is that it is largely manufactured fear. Fear created, or at least maintained by Western powers with a vested interest in the Middle East and by leaders who have forged mutually corrupting relationships.
Perhaps if parts of the judicial system, the media and the government read between the lines or talk to their Muslim neighbours they would understand the destructive laws that are handed out in the name of anti-terrorism. Perhaps they would paint a fairer and more realistic picture of the real people behind the stereotype.
This global war on terror has extended its tentacles into Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, reaching its culmination after the 9/11 attacks that struck New York City and Washington D.C. in 2001. In its name Muslim men have been sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, or left to fester in British prisons without trial, or placed under house arrest for being found guilty of having links to al Qaeda. Many of these links, Brittain points out, are paper-thin.
Shadow Lives explains that after 9/11, 1,200 Arabs, South Asians and Muslims were detained in America alone, some deported and many held in solitary confinement. None were found to be associated with the attack that day. Thousands of others were arrested, many tortured across the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Gambia, countless of whom were innocent.
This war’s impact is not just felt in Iraq and Afghanistan where battles have long been part of the background of our daily lives through TV and newspaper reports. Much of it is taking place right on our doorstep, in homes across England where women agonize over the space their husband once filled, exposed to whispers of the torture they endure at Guantanamo Bay.
Brittain takes us into the homes of these women, into Sabah’s north London kitchen, where she waits five years for her husband to return from Guantanamo. There he is ‘interrogated’ and forbidden access to his wife’s letters for years. At home Sabah steps outside to cry so her children won’t hear; inside the family pray for his return. In 2005 Mark Jennings, assistant to her MP and one of her supporters, committed suicide feeling he could not change the reality of Guantanamo.
Later we meet Ragaa, who left Egypt to be with her husband Adel Abdul Bary in London, after he was tortured numerous times under the former President Hosni Mubarak. Later Bary was arrested in Britain under operation ‘USA vs. Usama Bin Laden et al’ for his link to bombings in the American East African embassies. The only solid evidence against him was possession of a fax; another defendant, being held under the same terrorism case, was only found guilty of one of his 286 overall charges.
These women, like so many others Brittain introduces us to, live in isolation, disconnected from their neighbours and in some cases shunned by their friends and extended families, scared of being tarred with the brush of terrorism. Many families are not allowed a computer, or are subject to raids where children’s toys are confiscated. In the meantime their husbands are detained without trial, referred to as Mr U or Mr A; to the judicial system they are indistinguishable, or not real, stripped of their identity.
Yet what Brittain does so well is to humanise these women, to bring the families back to life by describing their houses, how she drinks tea with them and brings cakes and toys for the children. Essentially, through the tales of her visits, they become human again; real people, with real feelings of desperation. It is refreshing to read an academic text which focuses so centrally on people.
Brittain’s writing style is engaging and informative. It is storytelling by someone who has gone to the homes of others, formed close relationships with women, and tells their anecdotes from the inside looking out, rather than from the outside looking in. Though Shadow Lives describes only a handful of women, their story is reflected in the homes that we walk past every day, or our neighbours on the bus, and sadly their lives are physical manifestations of how British and American foreign policy has affected many Muslims across Britain and the United States.
Perhaps saddest of all is that these families arrived in Britain seeking refuge from intolerable systems at home, searching for the justice our system supposedly offered. What they have met instead are courts in anonymous London basements; secret evidence against them which they themselves are not allowed to see; detention without trial; and financial sanctions, which have banned them from work and offered a tiny allowance for personal expenses in exchange.
Whilst the whole world is talking about the imminent threat of terrorism, barely any are talking about how far we are prepared to go in the name of security or to shelter ourselves from it. According to Brittain, “the abuse of few is justified in the name of protecting the many.”
In Shadow Lives, the Muslim characters certainly do not play the decided terrorist we are so used to seeing on our television sets, and the United States and Britain is certainly not ours, or their hero.
Originally published in Middle East Monitor
Published in Book Reviews, The Middle East