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  • Gender, Vulnerability, and the Optics of ViolenceThe Case of Afiya Siddiqui
  • Khanum Shaikh (bio)

To call the frame into question is to show that the frame never quite contained the scene it was meant to limn, that something was already outside, which made the very sense of the inside possible, recognizable. The frame never quite determined precisely what it is that we see, think, recognize, and apprehend. Something exceeds the frame that troubles our sense of reality; in other words, something occurs that does not conform to our established understanding of things.

Judith Butler, Frames of War, 9


In March 2003 the FBI issued an alert requesting information about Afiya Siddiqui, a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin who had been living in the United States since 1990. The FBI alert claimed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad—one of the masterminds of the 911 attacks on the US—had implicated Siddiqui as someone who had provided administrative support for Al-Qaeda operations in the US. This was the first time the FBI had issued a notice linking a woman with Al-Qaeda’s operations. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft named Siddiqui as one of the seven most wanted Al-Qaeda fugitives and described her as “armed and dangerous” and as a “terrorist facilitator.”1 The US media also began circulating Siddiqui’s name, referring to her often as “Lady Al-Qaeda” or “Al-Qaeda Mom” or “Mata Hari of Al-Qaeda,” and casting her as a dangerous female terrorist.2 Seven years later, in 2010, a US criminal court convicted Siddiqui for attempted assault against US Army personnel in Afghanistan. What is especially noteworthy about this case is that Siddiqui was never charged with or convicted of terrorist activity, even as she has continued to [End Page 29] serve an eighty-six-year prison sentence for her criminal conviction since 2010 at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Siddiqui’s controversial case animated two contrasting discourses about Muslim women in the war on terror in the US and in Pakistan. In the US criminal case Siddiqui emerged as a threat to US national security and as a potentially dangerous agent of violence with links to global terrorist networks. Conversely, in Pakistan, her trial ignited a movement of protest among religio-political groups who deemed the criminal trial to be a cover-up for her enforced abduction and secret detention in joint US-Pakistan counterterrorism operations. In these mobilizations, Siddiqui is deployed as an injured and pious daughter of Pakistan who has suffered violations at the hand of US imperial power and its collaborations with a corrupt and weak Pakistani state rather than as an agent of violence herself.

In this essay I juxtapose the mobilizations of Afiya Siddiqui as a deeply violated victim-subject of the war on terror among her supporters in Pakistan, on the one hand, with her emergence in the US criminal trial as an agent of violence and a threat to US national security, on the other. My review draws on feminist analyses of nationalism and nationalist movements and the centrality of the gendered body to the articulation of religio-political and nationalist projects.3 In Pakistan I examine the political and emotional force of her deployment within an “Islam vs. West” binary that posits Siddiqui’s imprisonment in the US as Western domination over an emasculated Pakistani state, and her recovery as a religious and moral obligation. I also build on Ramzi Kassem’s analysis of the gendered erasures in the war on terror, in which he examines how the US government’s strategy of regulating the optics of the violence in the extraterritorial front of the war on terror (i.e., its policies of rendition, detentions in secret prisons, interrogation practices, civilian deaths by drone strikes, etc.) is central to it self-production as a beacon of women’s rights, human rights, and democracy. To consider how various moments in her US trial produce her as a “possibly terrorist” subject who does not elicit sympathy, I draw on Judith Butler’s analysis of the mechanisms through which certain populations are “cast as threats to human life as we know it rather...


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pp. 29-54
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