Save us from ‘securo-feminism’

Because in this ‘civilised’ world order, it is not Muslim women who urgently need to be saved from their own extremism.

A photo of two Muslim American women crossing the street with shopping bags.
Muslim women cross the street in Brooklyn, New York, on May 26, 2017. [REUTERS/Amr Alfiky]

Welcome to the brave new world of securo-feminism*. In the long tradition of systems of patriarchal violence representing themselves as the solution to patriarchal violence, the ongoing expansion of draconian “war on terror” measures is being advertised as an advance for women’s rights.

For instance, countries like the United Kingdom have extended anti-terrorism provisions to now not only strip citizenship from “terrorists”, but also from (some of) those convicted of sexual abuse: a “double punishment” reserved exclusively for dual nationals and suspected dual nationals, predominantly Muslims and other racialised targets from former colonies in the Global South.

Simultaneously, the British government itself is threatening the rights and safety of abuse survivors and others fleeing violence, with its proposed new bill to “secure the borders” by penalising asylum seekers for arriving by unauthorised routes (never mind that such penalties flagrantly violate international refugee law).

In the United States, President Joe Biden’s “feminist” credentials include the introduction of new justice mechanisms to address sexual assault within the military: packaged in the same piece of legislation escalating American “defence” spending to unprecedented heights, surpassing even the previous record set by his predecessor Donald Trump.

As for the women, men, and children on the other side of the US military’s operations – they continue to be denied any legal avenue of restitution from the American state for the rapes, tortures, and massacres they have endured. Instead, they have been offered paltry “condolence payments” in lieu of justice, if anything at all (and only if they are “friendly to the United States”).

Now, many are advocating for states to consider violence against women as a form of “terrorism” – ignoring how counterterrorism itself has functioned globally to sanctify state violence against women as well as men.

Among the women placed in the crosshairs of the “war on terror” are Palestinian women’s rights defender Khitam Saafin, sentenced last month by an Israeli military court to 15 months in prison after her organisation, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, was listed alongside several other Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist” entities by Israel; Sudanese women’s rights defenders including Amira Osman, arrested and detained in January on “terrorism” accusations by the military coup government; Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, tried in a special “terrorism court” for her work in service of women’s rights (she was released last February after being tortured and imprisoned for almost three years); Aafia Siddiqui, abducted, disappeared into a US “black site”, and sentenced to 86 years for “attempting to shoot” an American soldier (although she was the one who was actually shot); Indigenous Mapuche land and rights defenders like Patricia Roxana Troncoso Robles, criminalised as “terrorists” by the Chilean state; and Indian activists such as Hidme Markam and Ishrat Jahan, imprisoned under sweeping anti-terrorism laws for protesting against the Hindutva government’s assault on Adivasi (Indigenous) and Muslim communities.

Such cases are not simply an “abuse” or “misuse” of counterterrorism, but an expression of its original function: to suppress resistance to the colonial, capitalist status quo, whether on the 20th-century British killing fields of India and Kenya, or in the current-day open-air concentration camp of Gaza.

Likewise, the collusion of some strains of feminism with the “war on terror” is not an “aberration” or “co-optation”. Rather, it is the continuation of a long history of Western feminist collaborations with white supremacist and imperial rule – from penetrating colonised women’s harems, to promoting moral panics about Black and brown men for violence against women, to providing ideological cover for expanding policing and prisons.

According to this version of feminism, the intensifying criminalisation of women under counterterrorism is to be hailed as a sign of “progress”. As a claimed corrective to the stereotype of the “oppressed Muslim woman”, academics and policymakers have been urging for Muslim women’s “agency” to be recognised by treating them as “terrorists” on a par with Muslim men.

As “feminist demands for equality within the prison system … have ironically resulted in demands for more repressive conditions in order to render women’s facilities ‘equal’ to men’s” – as abolitionist scholar-activist Angela Davis observed – so too does women’s “equality” in securo-feminism mean equal subjection to state mass surveillance, extreme punishment, and control.

Exemplifying the perversities of “equal-opportunity” criminalisation, Syrian migrant woman Rehab Dughmosh was charged with 14 terrorism offences and sentenced to seven years imprisonment by a Canadian court, for waving a golf club and a knife around in a store – despite having caused only one minor injury, and having been diagnosed as experiencing paranoid schizophrenic delusions at the time.

Dughmosh’s “attack” has been cited by women security scholars to critique male-centric agencies for overlooking Muslim women as threats; although Dughmosh was in fact punished much more harshly than many white men responsible for more damaging racist assaults.

Similarly, the UK has stripped citizenship from young Muslims like Shamima Begum – who travelled to join ISIL (ISIS) at the age of 15 – while teenaged British Nazi bomb plotters and cell leaders have been offered rehabilitative measures and spared.

Courts have been ordering children removed from the care of “radicalised” Muslim mothers and fathers, while parents’ membership in neo-Nazi and far-right groups has been deemed irrelevant to their child-rearing abilities – or in the words of one British court, “neither here nor there”.

Germany has been prosecuting women for “war crimes” for living in houses on land illegally occupied by ISIL in Iraq; while at the same time working to shield Israel from accountability for its crimes of occupation before the International Criminal Court.

The US has set precedents barring women from an asylum for having been kidnapped and forced to cook and clean for violent rebel groups – “material support for terrorism” – even as the US’s own (very) material support for regimes inflicting mass terror on civilians in Yemen, Palestine, and elsewhere persists.

Despite the proliferation of far-right and fascist parties and movements across Western states, the United Nations’ 2020 “global” consultations on “the gendered dimensions of violent extremism” focused on every region of the world except for North America and Western Europe – perpetuating the colonial geography of “the West and the Rest”, in which the Rest have extremism while the West has enlightenment.

Apparently, in the pursuit of securo-“equality”, some people are “more equal” than others.

While Muslim women are pathologised for their participation in or proximity to violence, the “war on terror’s” women drone warriors and torturers are exalted: celebrated not only for their own prowess, but also as markers of the superiority of the civilisation that produced them.

Senior CIA analysts are feted by Oprah as “superwomen” for writing books on how counterterrorism is like mothering – replete with such wisdoms as “the moms of America will [defeat Osama] bin Laden and all terrorists like him”, “don’t give in to a bully” (in which the US is supposedly not the bully but the bullied), and “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”.

Surveillance drone manufacturers hold free drone giveaways for International Women’s Day, while websites such as Women And Drones honour “trailblazers” like Miriam Foxx: manager of the Chula Vista Police Department’s drone programme, who previously “oversaw detainee operations” at the torture camp of Guantanamo Bay.

Hollywood productions lionise all-woman US military units like Team Lioness, whose exploits will soon be coming to a screen near you in a series co-produced by Zoe Saldana and Nicole Kidman.

According to the plot summary: “Saldana plays Joe, a strong-willed, hard-nosed, station chief of the CIA’s Lioness program, tasked with training, managing, and leading her female undercover operatives working to assassinate the world’s most dangerous terrorists.” Of course, the real-life Team Lioness was established to search and surveil not “the world’s most dangerous terrorists”, but Iraqi and Afghan women under occupation – pitched as an act of “cultural sensitivity” on the part of the occupiers.

Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) 2019 guide on understanding gender and violent extremism praises Western armies in Afghanistan for engaging with Afghan women to find out about local events like weddings – which otherwise “could easily be interpreted as an insurgent tactic”, which “in turn could have led to violence”, thus “result[ing] in longer-term risk to the force from a resentful community.”

The disturbing underlying premises – 1) that the weddings and other community gatherings of the occupied may be assumed to be “insurgent tactics” and targeted unless proven otherwise, and yet 2) that it is the “resentful community” that is the source of “risk” to the occupying military, and not the other way around – remain unquestioned.

Since the launch of the “war on terror”, the world has been fixated on the problem of “Muslim rage.” Yet, to invoke the great Black feminist Audre Lorde, it is not “our” rage that has constructed the world’s largest mass incarceration system, encircled the globe in military bases, amassed a nuclear arsenal sufficient to destroy life on earth several times over, and consigned those fleeing war and environmental devastation to die by the thousands crossing borders and seas.

“Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change,” Lorde wrote in The Uses of Anger. “It is not the anger of women that will destroy us, but our refusals … to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”

The other side of “Muslim rage” is the power of radical Muslim love – as manifest in the women who care and mourn for counterterrorism’s supposedly “ungrievable” casualties, while confronting death, torture, loss, and displacement themselves; who continue to challenge multiple forces of violence and oppression, even though impeded and imperilled by the “war on terror” waged in the name of women’s rights; who are charting out new paths of justice and freedom, beyond the false horizons of “equality” and “empowerment” delineated by the national security state.

Because in a “civilised” world order driving itself towards military conflagration, nuclear annihilation, and ecological collapse, it is not Muslim women who urgently need to be saved from their own extremism.

*The term “securo-feminism” was coined by Professor Lila Abu-Lughod.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.