Revered-And Yet Repressed: The Deeply Ambivalent Role Women Play in Bin Laden's World

By Dickey, Christopher; Kovach, Gretel C. | Newsweek, January 14, 2002 | Go to article overview

Revered-And Yet Repressed: The Deeply Ambivalent Role Women Play in Bin Laden's World


Dickey, Christopher, Kovach, Gretel C., Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Dickey and Gretel C. Kovach

In the cosmos as defined by Osama bin Laden, men and women have very clear roles. Men are the warriors, and the foremost among them become martyrs. For their sacrifice, they are promised 72 virgins in the afterlife. It's up to their mothers, wives and sisters to help guide them toward jihad, and then to mourn for them when they're gone. The men in turn should fight for the "honor" of the women. On page five of the Qaeda training manual, recruits are encouraged to take a pledge to "the sister believer whose clothes the criminals have stripped off" and "whose body has been abused." The men must "retaliate for you against every dog who touches you even with a bad word."

Testosterone has always had a lot to do with terrorism, even among secular bombers and kidnappers like Italy's Red Brigades and Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang. As Andreas Baader himself once declared, "F---ing and shooting are the same thing." The rise of radical Islam in the 1970s and '80s saw a change in that pattern. Fundamentalist groups like Islamic Jihad in Egypt, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine made women central symbols of their struggle, a measure of both male righteousness and machismo. But as April Ray's story shows, the woman behind the veil is not always submissive. And the male need to dominate and "protect," more often than not, is a reflection of weakness, not strength.

The West is regarded as a threat, in part because of its potential influence on Muslim women. Bin Laden, in his declaration of holy war against Americans in the Arabian Peninsula, took particular offense that Washington "brought forces of Christian women" to help defend Mecca. The Covenant of the Palestinian fundamentalist movement Hamas explicitly regards "the Muslim woman" as an object of the struggle. The "enemies... consider that if they are able to direct and bring her up the way they wish, far from Islam, they would have won the battle," the Covenant states. "That is why you find them giving these attempts constant attention through information campaigns, films, and the school curriculum."

The Taliban and Al Qaeda, of course, made sure that women saw none of that in Afghanistan. Women became virtual prisoners of their husbands' or fathers' homes, unable to work or study. But while pledging to protect their "sister believers," the fundamentalists often abused them. Some Afghan girls were sold into marriages with local and foreign Taliban; others were kidnapped. "There were a lot of forced marriages during this time because it made life easier for the [Qaeda] Arabs," says Anisa Mahmood Omar, director of an aid program for Afghan women in Kabul. Outside Afghanistan, Qaeda wives had a role in the organization similar to Mafia wives--to take care of the family and remain ignorant of "business" details.

The stereotype of the abusive Qaeda husband doesn't always apply. Fariba, a 20-year-old Afghan woman, was forced to marry a Saudi Qaeda member against her will--a man she saw for the first time at 6 p. …

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