Damsels in Distress: Using Victimized Women as Political Ploys

A few weeks ago, a New York Federal District Court sentenced Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-trained neuroscientist, to 86 years in prison for attempted murder. The verdict, which was reported only in the regional section of The New York Times, brought large-scale protest to the streets in Pakistan, as its Prime Minister named the woman convicted of terror charges "daughter of the nation." The peculiarity of her case aside, one thing is clear: Siddiqui's story is only one of many in which women play victims in an epic battle over the competing sensitivities -- and masculinities -- that are taking only increasing hold of mainstream Western media and the Muslim world.

If Siddiqui is the daughter of a nation, she is by no means the perfect one. Although much emphasis has been placed on her role as a devoted mother, Siddiqui apparently divorced and then remarried an al-Qaeda operative without her family's consent or knowledge. Although women in Pakistan have been killed for much less serious affronts to their "honor," thousands have overlooked this fact, offering unqualified support to a woman they believe was detained and tortured by US officials for years.

Columnist for Dawn, Pakistan's most widely read newspaper, Nadeem F. Paracha astutely notes that no such public outrage was made in the strikingly similar cases of Zarina Marri or Shazia Khalid. This disparity makes clear that the primary issue in such cases of violence against women is not to the crime committed, but the culprit.

What many hold to be Siddiqui's abuse at the hands of her American captors has come to symbolize western aggression in the area. Waged through unmanned drone attacks that all but undermine direct retaliation, Pakistanis feel helpless, and have perhaps taken the side of Siddiqui as a subconscious way to map their sense of emasculation across the female figure.

But it is not just Pakistanis who are bringing gender into the game of politics. The case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman whose death by stoning is ever-imminent, has become a mainstay on the docket of news reportage which dutifully highlights the savagery of Islamic law. Charged first with committing adultery following the death of her husband and then for his murder, the case makes unsaid claims regarding the invariably invidious nature of Muslim men packaged under the pretense of a brutish moral code to western viewers for whom such an oppressive take on the institution of marriage is worse than archaic, it is abhorrent.

As if the point is to pick a side and prove the other crueler, I have heard many American Muslims combat the horrors that await Ashtiani with references to the case of Teresa Lewis, the first woman to face capital punishment in Virginia in over 100 years. Although found to be the "mastermind" behind the murder of her husband and stepson, many experts conjecture that her IQ of 72, at the borderline of mental retardation, undermines any agency she might have had in the crime for which she is taking the brunt of the blame.

As heartrending as each of these cases are, our responses to them should give us pause. Playing in to the notion of a "clash of civilizations," it is becoming increasingly clear that female victims are wielded as the weapon of choice in ideological battles over the very concept of humanity. The focus of these accounts are drawn deliberately to expose callous criminal proceedings and lay blame with no recourse to aid obvious victims or reform unfair systems of justice. Even worse, the competition is squarely in the arena of machismo, as each side alleges the other unfit to maintain the status of women -- with little to no regard for what the victimized "weaker sex" might want for itself.

In the Muslim world, this emotive issue is divulging into terms closely tied to the rhetorical justifications of colonialism, which saw the subjected male as effeminate and child-like to justify a never-ending mandate for a "civilizing mission" which is detailed in Ashis Nandy's The Intimate Enemy, a landmark work on the topic. Nowhere is this recent trend better evidenced than in Time Magazine's unforgettable cover photograph of an Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off as punishment for trying to escape abusive in-laws. This shock-and-awe approach is aimed directly at readers who remain skeptical about American designs in an unending War on Terror. Showcasing this truly unstomachable portrait beside the a headline which slyly inquires, "What happens if we leave Afghanistan?" provides an implied equation between women's liberation and western occupation, as if gender-based violence will recede only through the continued presence of western forces. As if "we" need to protect "them" from their own devices, while willfully forgetting our own highly imperfect track record in domestic abuse.

Indeed, either side is proving all too quick to string together incidents of female oppression that will bolster its own claims. Caught in the crossfire of this battle for hearts and minds waged in the most paternalistic and patriarchic of ways, women are seen invariably as victims. Such tales have uniformly dressed all women in the age-old garb of damsel in distress, woefully awaiting a savior to prove himself more adept than an arch-nemesis at protecting his idea of her honor.