Award-winning reporter Deborah Scroggins turns a critical eye on the intersection between women’s rights and modern Islam in her latest, Wanted Women.
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Scroggins profiles two of modern Islam’s most provocative figures, using them as a lens to illustrate the various roles women have played in the conflict between radical Islam and Western culture. “This is the story of two Muslim women, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali politician and author who is a fierce critic of Islam and served in the Dutch parliament, and her polar opposite Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who for five years was the only woman sought by the FBI for helping Al Qaeda,” the author says. “It’s a tale of two women with similar backgrounds who pursued two completely opposite paths.”
How did you first start to draw parallels between the two women?
I happened to learn about them both at the same time. It did fascinate me that these two women, who did have some similarities—they were both extremely intelligent, from politically active families, were both educated in the West—were at the same time becoming heroines on the opposite sides of the war on terror.
Neither would grant you an interview for this book. How did that change your approach to the project?
I didn’t have any expectation to interview Aafia because she was in hiding when I started working on the book. When she was captured, she was held in solitary confinement.
Ayaan has been interviewed by a number of journalists before, but she did not agree to be interviewed by me. Fortunately, so much has been written about her and she herself has written extensively in three autobiographical books. Obviously, the book presents a different picture of her than she does in her own work.
You moved to Amsterdam for four years while researching this book. What was that experience like? How did attitudes toward Islam differ there than in America?
It was a great experience for me and my family—the Netherlands is a wonderful place to live. But the attitude toward Islam is different. I think especially at that time that I moved there, people were much more willing to display a prejudice against Muslims. There is an underclass in the Netherlands of Muslim immigrants and there was a lot of hostility toward them. That was a priority on the political agenda when I arrived in 2005, and Ayaan [as a member of the Dutch Parliament] was right at the center of all that.
That was different, we don’t have anything like that here. There’s a much larger population of Muslims there, they’re like 5 percent of the population in the Netherlands. That’s nowhere near what we have here. Plus, here in the United States, most Muslim immigrants are middle class, or upper class, and highly educated. In the Netherlands, most arrive as guest workers, working in menial jobs or are unemployed. It’s a totally different situation.
Have either of these women affected the role of women in Islamic culture?
No. Ayaan and certainly her supporters in the Netherlands had hoped that she would be able to make a change. They wanted to make her into this feminist standard bearer, for the emancipation of Muslim women. But she has almost no following in the Muslim world because she’s so anti-Islam. Even among Muslims in the West.
Aafia has a big following in Pakistan. But she didn’t try to do anything to help women. She believes Islam protects women better than Western feminism does.
That’s one of the things that was interesting about working on this book. Whereas women’s rights was the issue that interested me the most, when it really came down to it, it was more about these women’s attitudes toward the West. Ayaan is a great champion of the West, while Aafia considers it a threat. Their fate revolved more around their attitudes to the West than what they had to say about women.
One of your reasons for writing this book was that you wanted a deeper understanding of modern Islam and the war on terror. What did you find?
One of the lessons was the sometimes hypocritical way that women and women’s rights have been used as a weapon for the war on terror. They’ve used Ayaan to drum up support for military action, or to goad liberal politicians who were judged too soft on Muslims. And they’ve use Aafia and tales of her imprisonment at the hands of the Americans to whip up public sentiment against a Pakistani government who was seen to be in bed with the Americans. Both of these women came to serve as symbols in the war on terror. But the whole issue of women’s rights was more important as a symbol than a reality.
These two women were on opposite extremes, but they definitely echoed each other. In some ways, they seem to be egging each other on, and I mean that in a sort of symbolic sense as they didn’t know each other. But if you look at what they were saying at different times in their life, they seem to be saying the same things at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Karen Calabria is a writer and editor based in Long Island, N.Y.