Book review: 'Wanted Women' by Deborah Scroggins

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For a while, I have put Wanted Women, a book authored by Deborah Scroggins, on my reading list. The idea came to me after I discovered the title by accident at a nearby bookstore during International Women's Week.

Scroggins' book is a detailed information-gathering collection about the lives of two women: Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was the first woman that was arrested by the U.S. on allegations of involvement with al-Qaeda.

Coincidently, a few weeks ago, I reviewed Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born woman who became a controversial politician, and who was later described as an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" by some of her critics. Knowing already the story of Hirsi Ali, I realized that I had read only about one side of our reality. With the story of Aafia Siddiqui, as narrated by Scroggins, I discovered the other gloomy side of the contradictory world we live in.

So why study the lives of these two women who, as portrayed by the sensational media reports, seem to be so much different? Why choose two extreme examples to describe the post-9/11 world we live in? After reading the book one comes to realize how similar and how connected their lives and stories are.

I found that the most valuable contribution of the book was to create some unusual links between these two notorious figures. The idea of relating, side by side, the story of an atheist who not only rejected Islam as her religion but is also fighting it daily "only with words" and the story of a conservative Muslim woman who embraced not only the Jihadi cause but went on to put it to practice, was brilliant.

Through the pages and chapters, the reader feels gradually the ascension to power and stardom of Hirsi Ali and, reversely, la descente aux enfers of Aafia Siddiqui.

Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui are both products of their clans, culture, geopolitical situations and economic realities. Both are women born to Muslim families at the end of the '60s and early '70s. While Hirsi Ali didn't get a sophisticated education during her childhood, lived rather in poverty, was abused by her mother and felt neglected by her ambitious father, Siddiqui went to the finest schools, enjoyed a wealthy middle-class upbringing and seemed to be loved and cherished by her parents.

Interestingly enough, both women grew up in a conservative Muslim environment impregnated with heavy local traditions. During her teenage years, Hirsi Ali wore the veil and flirted with the growing and hegemonic influence of Saudi Arabia throughout the Muslim world. During that specific time, let's call it "pre-enlightenment" for Hirsi Ali, Scroggins never reported that Hirsi Ali put into question her religion or traditions. The misery, dislocation of the strong tribal links and the civil war pushed many Somalis to flee their lands and look for better lives abroad. Hirsi Ali wasn't an exception.

Siddiqui didn't flee her native Pakistan. It was her brilliant academic records, her ambitions and her strong-willed mother who sent her abroad to America. Her wealthy family could afford to send her to best schools in order to further her education. The Siddiquis had both: the money and the right political connections.

Unfortunately for Hirsi Ali, her family didn't have either. This is precisely what brought Hirsi Ali to rely on herself and on stratagems. She lied and it worked. She reoffended and yet succeeded. Curiously enough, Siddiqui subtly rejected the success story of many Pakistani immigrants in America and relied on herself as well, but only to build a new definition of success. Her intelligence and stubbornness guided her all along. In her years as a student in Massachusetts, she became so fascinated with Jihadi websites and chat rooms that she made them as her raison d'être. What may have started as a fantasized picture of a young girl admiring men defending their countries from the evil forces of occupation and atheism (Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia) turned gradually into an obsession mixed with strong beliefs in conspiracies.

It is precisely in the West where the real lives of these two "wanted women" took an abrupt turn. Hirsi Ali discovered that she can use the freedom of expression to criticize Islam and to bluntly say what many "politically correct" pundits avoided to declare in public. The climate of fear and suspicion following the 9/11 events put her even more under the spotlight. She became a media darling, a feminist crusader, and a right-wing politician. Her exoticism, a black, tall, pretty, charming woman along with a simplistic message, fascinated many men and women in Holland, where she eventually became a citizen. Her message, with the help of right-wing politicians and activists, later spread to Europe and to America where she was treated as a hero by right-wing think-tanks.

Siddiqui, a tiny, frail-looking woman wearing the veil, collected one university degree after another. She lived in the dark side of the "Enlightenment" that is praised by Hirsi Ali. She supported the Jihadi causes happening all over the world. She went from one fundraising venture to another to help funnel funds to shadowy groups and rebels.

In her thirst to fulfill her grandiose Jihadi goals, she didn't see the time slipping by. Indeed, what used to be known in the U.S. as "freedom fighters" became "dangerous terrorists," and what Siddiqui used to write quietly in front of her computer without raising any red flag for the FBI became the early clue for "terrorism support." Siddiqui thought that the freedom of expression in America would allow her to pursue her quest for Jihad. She was wrong. Her obsession with Jihad blurred her vision. The events of 9/11 accelerated this metamorphosis. She was swept away by the big tide of arrests, torture and disappearances.

Scroggins didn't praise any of these women. To the contrary, she appeared to me to have a pronounced dislike of the opportunism of Hirsi Ali and how she hijacked some well-known feminist issues (women liberation, female genital mutilation...) to score some selfish materialistic goals.

Scroggins wasn't sympathetic to Siddiqui neither. She followed her tumultuous life with suspicion, with cautious curiosity and with increasing skepticism. Until the end (when she was convicted and imprisoned), Siddiqui didn't help herself nor helped her lawyers to defend her from the dangerous accusations that were levelled against her. Her enigmatic disappearance, her alleged torture and abuses in Bagram in Afghanistan were never seriously investigated.

These two women, sometimes willingly and sometimes unwillingly, became prisoners of a society dominated by men and their own views of women. Hirsi Ali was propelled mostly by men (her lovers, admirers, journalists, fellow politicians...). Similarly, Siddiqui was brought down by men (her violent husband, her connections to some shadowy leaders, her admirers...). At the end, both women came to symbolize the conflicted, complex and layered visions about women between the forces of liberation and those of oppression.

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and in 2011, a novel in French, Miroirs et mirages.

This article was first published in Prism Magazine.

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