Understanding Female Fighters: Perspectives From Southeast Asia

Understanding Female Fighters: Perspectives From Southeast Asia

– This is a new kind of thing for us. We have, for two years,
in this fabulous space, been doing a breakfast series, and this is the first time when we
took the opportunity of having this fantastic
panel together in New York at the same time, to grab
a room and gather them for a conversation that
I’m really, really looking forward to. I’d like to take a few
things, about why we do this and why this is a
particularly good conversation for us to be having at City College. The Colin Powell school is
relatively recent phenomena, we founded it in May of 2013. It is designated as a
school for civic and global leadership, it is part
of Historic City College, if you wanna know how
historic City College is, if you step outside of the university club before you leave tonight and you look over the doorway to the left,
chiseled into the face of the wall there, is the
logo of the City College of New York, we were one of
the founding institutions of this terrific space. We have been contributing to the growth and development of New
York City since 1947. And one of the things we
talk about a great deal, and it’s relevant to
tonight’s conversation, we talk about the
diversity of City College. And for years and years
and years, we talked about diversity in terms of
the access it gave people to a education. And that’s, to me, started
during, hollow, some time ago. It rang hollow because
good people from across the country can find an
education in a lot of places. Where our diversity matters,
and it will continue to matter as things go forward, is that voices are
represented in our classroom in the same proportion
that they’re represented in our globalized world. If you walk into a City College classroom, the perspectives and
experiences and the exchanges that happen among our students
and between our students and our faculty are like
exchanges that happen no place else in the world. And I was thinking about
that as we were coming down to the university club today, because that’s precisely the theme
of today’s conversation. We have listened to commentators
in the United States really for the last
two decades, talk about rebellion and radicalization. And part of that conversation
has been the interpolation of what motivates people. To join radical movements,
and for decades, the conversation has primarily been about what motivates men. But over the last several
years, a second conversation has emerged, about what
it is that moves women to join radical movements,
and particularly in reference to groups like
ISIS, which, what moves women to join movements
that at least on their face seem to be anti-women. And you’ll hear today,
explicitly from some of our speakers, by implication from other of our speakers, that
our conversations about those motivations have
been deeply dissatisfying, deeply dissatisfying
because they never actually focus on the motivations
of the women in question, and so today’s conversation
is really about recentering that conversation,
recentering that dialogue on the lives and experiences
and social and political structures that women
around the world live in, and particularly in areas
that have been sites of radical movements. We have a terrific panel. It is not my responsibility
sadly, to introduce them to you, but it is my responsibility
and great pleasure, to introduce today’s moderator
to you, Zanib Hussain Alvi is a data scientist. She’s currently working,
you’ll see in her bio, she’s currently working
on a project called the Copenhagen Consensus. Which is, it’s about the
relationship and the energy policy and human development. She also is a member of
Datakind, which as you’ll see, is a group of data
scientists who are dedicated to examining the relationship
between data and information, and humanity. She has taken an early
interest in thinking about how we at City College
teach our students data, and this is a conversation
that I’m really looking forward to carrying on with her. And as we were talking
earlier before, she is in the process of taking
programs that she has written over the last several
years, and cleaning them up so that they can be open source
and available to everything. So, information and data
is something that’s been important in Zanib’s life,
and we’re thrilled that she’s agreed to join
us today, and to serve as moderator for today’s event. So, without further ado,
please welcome Zanib to the podium. (audience applauds) – Hi, thank you for having me. I guess a lot of your are
probably wondering right now how a data scientist ends up
moderating a panel like this, and it’s because I ask lots of questions, and I think moderator is kind of a lofty term or title, I’d like to think of myself more
as your conversational sherpa, just wanna help
guide the discussion, make sure we’re all on the
same page, no one gets lost, we have a really incredible
panel here today, and I’m just honored to
share a table with them. I’d like to start by introducing them in the order that they’ll be
speaking, and start with … Nimmi Gowrinathan. I’m very nervous about
butchering everyone’s names, by the way, I tried to rehearse
all of them before, but it’s one of those things where, as soon as you open your mouth, it just sort of comes out butchered. But I got it. Okay. Even amongst a … A gathering of South
Asians, I think we have a lot of name diversity as well. I’ve been working with
Nimmi on something called the Last Girl, we haven’t decided if it’s an institute or a
collective yet, it’s still in the very nascent stages, but I was so taken with the way that she destroyed some of my views on data, which
was really interesting. We had a really great conversation about what’s missing from the data
that we use from day to day to understand the problems
affecting society, and so that’s sort of how we met. And Nimmi is a professor,
and in addition to that, is one of the most remarkable women I know at straddling these sort
of academic, political, media realms, she’s also
the executive producer of a documentary series
with Vice News, and has been not just an academic, but
a really powerful advocate and activist. Next, we have … You’re sitting right here, why
am I looking at the program? (laughs) Suchitra Vijayan, and … – You got my name right. – Okay, alright. Little round of applause for me. (audience chuckles) And one thing that you
won’t find in this program is that Suchitra has an
incredible Tumblr, and you should all go find it and follow it. But, in addition to
that, she is an attorney and has been working at
Yale on a project called Borderlands, and also
covers a lot of fascinating different subjects, theories
of war and violence, and just is an, overall,
an academic powerhouse. And our last panelist is Rafia, and she is an activist, and author,
and also an attorney, and she recently wrote
a book which is sort of a combination of history,
memoir, and analysis, and it’s called the Upstairs
Wife, an Intimate History of Pakistan, it came out
in February I believe, and is sort of clearing the slate on … – (mumbling) – And everyone should buy
it, and gonna be reading it this week, and I just, I’m very excited. As a Pakistani American,
it’s nice to see this sort of coverage and in-depth analysis, it’s just, her writing
is absolutely beautiful and incredible, I’m
familiar with her work, more through her publications,
like Dissent Magazine, she has a really beautiful
article that was published recently there as well,
covering militancy, in regards to women and what attracts them to ISIS, so we have a really
incredible group of women collected here today. I think we’re going to get started with Nimmi’s presentation. And she will be sort of setting
the tone for the evening, and diving into the sort
of main subject matter of female fighters and why
we have such a hard time identifying and understanding them. Thank you. (audience applauds) – I’d like to start by
just really thanking the Colin Powell center. One of the reasons I’m
really happy to be there, is that they take seriously
this idea of engaged scholarship, I think at
other institutions, you have one scholar who’s an engaged scholar, and at Colin Powell,
you have every scholar is an engaged scholar, so I’m really grateful
to be there, to them for hosting this. This panel was born out of
the frustration of women, and I think that’s really important. You know, to recognize that
this idea, this moment, this sort of reclaiming
of space, came out of myself, Suchitra, Rafia,
being really frustrated with these perceptions of female fighters, and they’re from the
countries that we are from. Right, this idea that
they were sensationalized, in some cases, they
were fetishized, right? And we had very little control over it, ’cause the mainstream
media was in charge of it, and this, obviously, is
not something that’s gonna be broadcast on CNN,
but it is a way for us to reclaim that space. As something of what I call myself, which is an inside outsider, Sri
Lankan, Tamil, American, who has lived and worked in Sri Lanka, who grew up as a Tamil Sri Lankan in a very intense community,
has thought about, Sri Lanka from every possible perspective. So Sri Lanka, for those
of you who don’t know, about five years ago,
came out of a civil war that was between the
Tamil Tigers separatists, and the majority Ceylonese government. I was there, sort of at various stages of the war, over the past
15 years, as an activist, as a volunteerist, as an
academic, as a policy worker, as a human rights researcher, as a writer. I tried every possible way
to get out the Tamil woman and her struggles. And they really informed
my thinking today, those 15 years with those women. So, one of the things that,
you know, I wanna start with, is what our assumptions are about women. The first is, that they’re
more peaceful than men. And people are very
careful now not to say that out loud, but it’s still there. It’s still underlying
this moral outrage we feel when we look at the women of ISIS, right, you still want to believe
that women are more peaceful. The second is that when
women join a rebel movement, they’re necessarily pawns of
a man’s patriarchal project. They’re cannon fodder. These are words that’ve
been used before, right? Which in itself denies them any agency or any sort of politics to themselves. And it’s not as if this
is a new phenomenon, the women of ISIS. Women have been 30% of
movements in Eritrea, in Napal, in El Salvador, in Sri Lanka, for decades and decades now. And one of the things when
you struggle with people talking about women and
violence and they have a hard time understanding
it, one of the things I always go back to
is, well, let’s look at these women that you
think are so peaceful. Let’s give them the respect
of seeing their politics, the real politics. If you take someone like Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace
Prize, for her activism. And is seen as this ideal
of the peaceful woman. Right, what about her politics? What about the violence
within her politics? The fact that she is sort of implicitly allowing the violence
against a minority community in her own country? So even if you don’t want
to see women as violent, let’s look at the
peaceful women, let’s see what their politics are. One of, you know, the really
good theories I think, on women who join movements,
is this question of pushed and pulled. That they’re pushed into
movements and they’re pulled into movements. Particularly when you
look at what’s happened with ISIS, our focus
is on what pulls them. Right, we look at the recruitment methods of the groups, we look at social media, this is my favorite, of
the recent phenomenons, is social media. Social media is not a social movement. Social media does not have an ask. A social movement has an ask. Generally, they’re asking
you to sacrifice your life for a political message. Not add a hashtag to something. This is not a way we
should be understanding female fighters. And there’s this
assumption that these women are sort of untethered,
they’re apolitical, they’re existing in this
blank space, just open to be pulled by any movement that decides to talk to them. Right? And this is the assumption
that we have about female fighters, you know, all the stuff coming out about women joining ISIS, all these unauthorized sort
of mini-memoirs that focus on her Twitter
feed and the fact that she liked Harry Potter
or she liked Coldplay, and that’s how we’re gonna
understand the entirety of her identity. Through Harry Potter and Coldplay. If you look at the difference between the Bangladeshi girls in
the UK, and the white woman in Colorado who joined the Islamic state. Right, the Bangladeshi girls in the UK are a completely different case. Whether or not they liked
Harry Potter or Coldplay, they come from a legacy of violence. They come from a space
where they were raised by a generation that left
the political violence of the west. That’s not going to not affect them. It didn’t not affect me, it’s
not going to not affect them. And we assume that social
media sort of works in this one way. You think all the
information they’re getting is about ISIS. But they are also hearing
about the millions of Syrian women who are middle class women who have now been forced
into prostitution. They are also reading about the beheadings of women in Saudi Arabia, every day. Right, and it pulls on
these identity threads in a unique way, and we have to be able to see that, right, they’re
gonna read that information, hear it, differently. You know, the FBI has dismissed terrorists as these wound collectors. And I find it a very
problematic term, because when you’re talking
about women, these wounds are very, very deep, and
they’re in very intimate spaces, and it’s very hard to ignore that those wounds exist. So what is pushing them,
what is pushing women towards these movements, right? How do we understand, not
just what’s pulling them but what is pushing them? And to me, I focus a lot
on misogyny and militancy. And particularly the case of Sri Lanka. In the recent years, you’ve
had all these moments of extremism, right, the
woman blows herself up, she’s at the Paris supermarket
and she shoots everybody, and we wait for this moment of extremism, and then we go backwards,
looking for motivation and meaning in her actions, right? But we wait till that
moment, we didn’t ask the questions in time. What was driving her? You have all of these
women, Sajida al-Rishawi in Jordan, you have Hyat in
Paris, and the only thing we know how to do, is to
read her politics through the men around her. That this was her boyfriend
who wanted to do this, or that her brothers had been
killed by American militancy, I mean, Sajida al-Rishawi
in Jordan got married two days before she tried
to set off a suicide bomb in a hotel. It’s very likely that
the man was her vehicle to political agency rather
than the other way around. Right, so … There’s been a lot of
focus on suicide bombers, and I’ve met a lot of
suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, a lot of would-be suicide bombers. And I always find it a very strange focus. Yes, it’s very shocking,
she blows herself up, and it disturbs us, but … Everybody I met, every woman
I met, entering the Tigers, said, this is how I chose to die. Not this is how I chose to live. This is how I chose to die. So your real problem is,
why are there so many women in the world who are suicidal? Not the suicide bomber,
that’s just how she dies. And to me, I focus on
sort of the daily life of these women. What made her suicidal? This life of militarization,
of displacement, of gender-based violence,
all of these things that we look at and we
say, well, it’s gonna make women sad and it’s
gonna make them, you know, socioeconomically deprived,
and it’s gonna make them disadvantaged, but we
don’t look at them and say that there’s gonna be a political impact. All of these things,
militarization, refugee camps, gender-based violence,
these are political acts, so they necessarily will
have a political impact. But we don’t wanna see what
the political impact is. My work is actually on forced
recruits, it’s on women who were forced to join the LTTE. And it was sort of an
interesting moment, because I went in to find out
why they wanted to join the movement, and
everybody was like, well, I was abducted. And you can’t write a Ph.D
about that one sentence. So I started looking deeper
into it, and what I found was that we were focusing
too much on that moment of recruitment, because
you had all these women who were abducted into the Tigers, who ended up becoming high-ranking cah-ter, who ended up being the most
committed to the movement. How is that possible? I mean, we would assume
that once they had a chance, they would leave. But they didn’t. And this is where the
life histories come in, this is why I work on
course of recruitment, because over the course
of their lives, they had these experiences that
shaped their politics. Militarization is a big one. Everybody looks at militarization as just it’s a part of war. And we talk about it now in the context of the police, which is
great to hear it finally being talked about, in
the US, because that’s what it is, it’s militarization, right? What militarization
actually is, is the deepest intrusion of the state
into the intimate spaces of a community, right? With violence, and who
occupies those spaces in the developing world? It’s women. Who occupy those spaces, so
if everything about her life is determined by the
military, where she goes to the bathroom, how she
gets food, how her daughter walks to school, that is necessarily gonna shape who she is as a person. Politically, it will change her politics. Displacement, you know,
you don’t actually need a woman to have seen her
husband’s head blown off to go crazy to join the
movement, just sitting in a refugee camp, if you haven’t been in a refugee camp, they’re
like the saddest places on Earth, and sitting in
the dust for hours and hours and sitting in the heat,
and waiting in line for rations, and leaving
your babies behind to have babies, that’s gonna
change the way you think about the context of your life. Right? Rape, again. You know, the women that
I met in the churches when I was sort of hiding
out doing this research, the first thing that
they would say is I can’t go back because my father
doesn’t know I was raped. So she’s outside the family. And I can’t go back,
because I was an ex-soldier, so the government will
look for me in the village. So she’s outside the village. She can’t go to weddings or anything happy in the community, so she’s
outside the community, and she’s living in this space of extreme marginalization. And if you wanna worry about
an extreme, worry about this extreme. How you deal with extreme marginalization. Sexual torture, this is
something the U.S. Senate report came out with. This wonderful report
on all the things that the U.S. did wrong
except that there was not one woman mentioned in it. And perhaps the U.S. has
never tortured a woman. You know? Who am I to say? But, there’s enough
evidence that they supported plenty of countries, like
Jordan, like Sri Lanka, like Libya, who did regularly
sexually torture women. You don’t come out of that
having the same politics that you did before. It never will change that. And on the other side,
internal to the community, it’s not, they didn’t see
a difference, the state was oppressing them. And then yes, the
misogyny in our community, was also pushing them that direction. This was a chance to be equal with men, this was a chance not to
have an early marriage. All of these things work
together, there’s not one or the other sort of
reason for these women. And the real struggle is,
you’ve had these women who’ve been dispossessed
personally, politically, marginalized, and how do
we drive them back in? We drive them back in to
the mainstream of society with this language of
equality and empowerment. That’s what we do, I mean, I refer to it as a chickens and cows
argument, which is sort of glib, but it is what we do, we
throw chickens and cows at women around the world,
we throw sewing machines at them, and we expect that
that’s gonna bring them from all the way out here,
back to the mainstream of society. And this is something I
have loved, Rafia’s work on this idea of feminist equality, this myth of western feminism. Even with ISIS, we’ve created
the good female fighter and the bad female fighter. We have the Kurdish women
who are good, and we have the bad ones who are in ISIS. Again, applying a feminist
lens, to them, right, there are these articles
in the New York Times that women in the, Kurdistan,
are fighting sexism and ISIS. No, they’re fighting for Kurdistan. That is what they have
always been fighting for. They are not fighting
for women’s rights, that is not their primary
source of tension, right, you’re not gonna die
because you’re a woman. It sucks in a lot of these countries, but you will die from being
a Tamil, you will die from being a Sunni, you will
die from being any number of things, and you are
going to fight along that fault line. Right? You’re not necessarily gonna
fight for women’s rights. And that’s sort of where
I struggle with this idea, people look at the Tigers
and they’re like, well, they were anti-feminist. I don’t know, a lot of
the women that I spoke to, that wasn’t their fight,
that wasn’t their concern, they never had any interest in this idea of feminism. And yes, there is this moment,
I think, of battlefield liberation that most women
feel, and they feel empowered, and whatever that word means. But that isn’t necessarily
addressing sort of engendering this movement, right? It’s not that they’re not
aware that there’s patriarchy, they’re well aware that
within a movement, there is patriarchy, but ISIS
is not the first movement where women joined a
movement that was oppressive to women. Almost all of these movements
were oppressive to women. And it was something that
you couldn’t get away from, ’cause if you talk about
building a Tamil nation, what is that nation, who
belongs and who doesn’t belong? The movement had to create
an idea, an identity, based on cultural values,
based on identity. And gender roles are essential to that. They couldn’t go in and
be seen as challenging gender roles. So you had women in boots
in the Tigers walking around telling women on bicycles they had to wear longer skirts,
telling them they had to wear their hair braided, you know, while they’re walking around in fatigues, and they would say, well,
if we’re not fighting for Tamil values, then what
else are we fighting for? So these are sort of the
complications that we have in the female fighter and
that we struggle with, and this is, you know,
the work I’m doing now, is this question of
empowerment, and I’ve just come from Mexico City, and a lot of my new work is to get rid of this
word altogether because I think it’s ridiculous,
you know, it means the transfer of power,
and this is what NGOs are doing all over the world,
they’re offering empowerment to all these women, which first assumes there was no power. And second, that they have no politics. Right, and having been in
the NGO world for 10 years, we would go to these meetings
the State Department, and they would say, okay,
it’s very interesting, but we’re looking for
a clean intervention. We don’t wanna get into like,
messy politics and stuff. And here, I think (slurs
words) was really on point in this essay she wrote for
(slurs words) magazine, she said, there has been this
NGOization of resistance. Where we’ve taken women’s
politics and we’ve co-opted them in this ridiculous
empowerment framework, and we tried to blunt the
edges of political resistance. By offering them this vague
sort of notion of empowerment. And when the NGO community recognized them as political actors, they just finished a long project in Afghanistan. It’s through the quota system. Right, that you have this
many female parliamentarians you know, this many, like
Afghanistan, like Mexico City, like everywhere else. And what that actually means,
is that you have these woman in institutions that are
fundamentally flawed, corrupt, patriarchal, any
number of other things where the men can’t get anything done. This is not a space to
realize women’s politics. Right, all the women
campaigning right now for the 50% candidates in Mexico City, are given the worst
districts, for not giving any money to campaign, are
being sexually harassed on their way to the campaign trip. This entrance into formal
politics, that can’t be our way of solving this, so … I’ll just end with sort
of thoughts on repression and radicalized resistance. You know, I fundamentally
believe you cannot understand radicalization,
without understanding repression in all of its forms. Whether it is cultural,
whether it is imperial, whether it is state repression. There is this … Mother who I met in Mexico
City, who, or the movement around her, sorry, her lawyers … But she was shot while
asking the president in the middle of the day, in front of the government building,
about her daughter, who was killed in one of
these sort of femicides that happen. In Sri Lanka, a few months ago, you had a woman who was jailed for asking where her daughter was, jailed
for five months in a high security prison. And the mother fighting in
Mexico who’s still alive is fighting for her
son-in-law to be brought to justice for killing her daughter. She looked at me and she
said, you know, I don’t want empowerment. We need something radical. That’s what she said, she said, we need something radical, and
everyone in Mexico uses this word, feminicide. You know, the western word, it was created by western women, femicide,
and the spanish word is feminicidio. And I thought it was really
interesting that they kept saying feminicide,
feminicide, because it was almost like they
needed to take it back. It couldn’t be western feminism anymore. It had to be them that
were articulating this and it was this new word,
you know, feminicide. And they thought they
were saying feminicide, but they were saying
feminicide over and over, and maybe that’s sort of what we need, maybe that’s what we’re
doing here, you know, we need a new language, we need a language from people who are
intimately familiar with how culture wraps around
context, who understand these sort of intersecting
layers of repression, who are painfully familiar
with the risks of resistance, from the woman in Pakistan
who was shot last week, to any woman who stands up
in any of these contexts. From a new subset, which
I think some of them are at city college, of scholar activists, of critical humanitarians, of … Inside, outsiders, you know, like myself. So … I think we talk often
of uplifting the voices of women, it’s one of the things I hear all the time in the NGO world. The real problem is, that we don’t hear the conversation that they’re having. We’re taking their voices
and we’re putting them into our conversations,
and if you wanna understand the female fighter, then you have to hear their conversation, even if you don’t like what you hear. (audience applauds) – Thanks, Nimmi. Next up, we have Suchitra,
and she’s gonna be discussing, when we, you know, when we
do identify them, there’s a further problem, which is … Let me start over, sorry about that. The problems we have in identifying them actually illuminate
greater problems we have that relate more to theories
of violence and war, and that’s what Suchitra’s
talk is going to be about. Thank you. (audience applauds) – I’m gonna start off by
saying thanks to Nimmi for organizing this, and
I’m really happy to be here and share this date with remarkable women, who’ve all accomplished
impressive things in a very, very short period of time. I’m gonna start with a small anecdote because I always do. I started debating when
I was about 13 years old. And since then, in all
these years, I’ve been a lawyer, I’ve been to debates, I’ve been to moot courts, I’ve sat
in many of these panels. And this is the only
time in which I’ve been on a panel where all the women
starting from the moderator to the speaker, have all been women. And … While this might sound
shocking to many of us, it isn’t. Even before we go away
and talk about women in these far, distant lands,
that we have no idea about, I think one has to look
around and see within our own houses, our
own lives, where we are and where it begins. And that’s why I started,
and I wanted to start with this quote. No one ever asks the man,
what’s, no one ever asks what a man’s role in a revolution is. And that is not just about
revolution, it’s about everything that we do in our lives. And it comes from this
very little research and written about in
mainstream, especially about the Black Panthers. And I couldn’t start this
without this exceptional image that I found recently. And these images are
not just important to us today, I mean, these
images are important to us today because of what’s
happening in Baltimore. We’re talking about a
group of people, trying and voicing their opinions,
fighting for resistance. And when they do it, women
are an important part of it. And these are people who
are discarding the ideas of non-violence, and instead
going out and rioting. They are trying to say
that violence perhaps is also a means of political resistance. And these are important to have. I’m going to go and show a
couple of images, and set up the stage before I go
and say other things. I do not know how many of
you recognize this image. How many of you have been to Palestine? When you get to Palestine,
one of the first things you’ll see is a graffiti of this beautiful woman, Leila Khaled. And right next to her,
you’d find the word, I am not a terrorist. So Leila Khaled, this is an image taken by a famous American
photographer, Eddie Adams. When this, she is intimately, she’s a part of the Palestinian
Liberation Organization. And she was part of
the group that hijacked one of the flights
flying from Rome onwards. And after this image came
out, she is, she’s pretty much became this symbol of
resistance, a woman, a beautiful young Palestinian woman,
with a weapon in hand. These are images of women who were a part of the suffragette movement. These are surveillance images
of what the British police did and they photographed these women. They photographed these
women, because these were women who believed that sometimes, you could use violence to reach an end. In this case, the end was right to vote. Right to own property, as
your brother, right to walk on the street and not be
escorted by someone else. This … This is an image of violence
of a bombing committed by women of this movement. A bunch of the police officers here are instructing a place, and apparently, the suffragette movement
of women, a militant wing of the suffragette movement,
is supposed to have inflicted this atrocity or damage or success or victory,
however you call it depending on who’s narrating the story. This is an image of women of the KKK. This was taken not very
long ago, only 45 years ago, this image was taken. And it was not just the men
who were going out there and trying to implicate
and inflict things, but these were women who were very much a part of the propaganda,
the ideology, and how these things are done. This is a very gruesome
image, and if you look at the right-hand side
corner, what you’d find is this young married couple. Every time you look at
the history of lynching in the United States,
and we talk about this, this is an iconic woman, the iconic image, and many people talk
about this image, not just because of the gruesome
spectacle of what’s happened to someone, but also of this
image of these two young, couple, sitting there
in some ways, partaking in this terrible spectacle
of what’s happening to another human being. And the woman’s face, if you actually look deep into it, has this
look that is almost, you cannot describe it, I
could never describe it, in any of the essays
that I’ve ever written about this image. Finally, images of women who are a part of the United States
army, and these are images from Abu Ghraib. Women in the military,
who apparently don’t to combat roles, but yet
women who have inflicted a certain kind of violence. All these images exist,
and yet these stories never get spoken about
in one single context. But what connects these images … What connects these images, is that these are women, women in
these subversive roles, a society thinks is
subversive, these are women trying to do something,
and these are women and their role in society, and violence, and the structure of
violence that comes with it. So, how do we, and how
do we think and talk, and think through these ideas of women, violence, and resistance? And as Nimmi was talking
before, why is it so difficult for us, to understand very
simple, basic questions? Today, let me talk about ISIS. What other things do we want to know? Who are these women? Why are they fighting? What would they, or what
possibly forces women to do these things? And yet, when we try to
answer these questions, we are unable to come to the right answer. And why is it that we’re not
able to come to right answer? It begins with a simple
idea that we always look at women as somebody
who’s a victim of violence. Never as people who actually, physically perpetrate violence. And that kind of takes away the equation, especially when you talk
about women in these so-called repressive societies. Societies in the Middle East, societies in South Asia. And then, when you put
these two contexts together, it becomes even harder to think through, why is it that we’re
unable to make a connection between who these women
are, and why is it that they want to do these
things that they’re doing? Second, the debates that
you have in United States are debates about, can women
still join the military, in combat force? The point is that those
questions are completely irrelevant, because the
front line is no longer where we think the front line is. This image happens, not in a front line. This image happens in a very
secluded place, in a prison, within the structural
hierarchy of the US political and the legal system, not
outside it, within it. And this is how we need to look and think through issues. And today we can no longer sit and make a distinction between
combatants and non-combatants. Women, may I talk about,
women can no longer be distinguished between
combatants and non-combatants because that distinction no longer exists, and we can no longer have the conversation in a world in which the
front lines almost always is disappearing and
disappeared in certain places. So, why is it that behind
such a terrible time, is that it comes back to
ideas of theorizing war. How do we theorize war today? Today, war is theorized
within the limitations of agency, and when we talk about agency, there are two things. As Nimmi pointed out, is that one, we talk about emancipation,
and one is empowerment. It’s very easy to theorize a beautiful young Palestinian with a gun. And it’s also very easy
to talk about women in Yugoslavia who have been
raped as a part of the war. War is incredibly hard to theorize. Are women who have been
victims and perpetrators and both. In Liberia, there have
been instances in which women were a part of the
combat, in the Liberian civil war. Have been convicted and
charged of perpetrating sexual violence against men and women. So let me repeat it. These are women who have
been charged and convicted of perpetrating sexual
violence against women and men. The tribunal in Rwanda where I worked for, was one of the first
international tribunals to convict a woman. Of an actual crime of genocide. Why is this yet a problem that we have about theorizing war,
and how we look at women? And women in these positions? One of the stories from
Rwanda that I would like to share today, is that
this woman, a Tutsi woman, who was killed, her
entire family was murdered and thrown into a well. That’s pretty much what
happened in all of Rwanda. She survives. As a part of survival
mechanism, she actually starts living with the Hutu
commander in her area. The Hutu commander falls in love with her, and in some ways, she uses him as a way of looking for other family members. She then starts wearing fatigues. She in some ways assists
him, and also uses his own political agency
to find the remaining of her family. Years later, when Rwanda
is kind of coming back to a semblance of normalcy, she’s caught, and acquitted, caught, and then charged. With perpetrating war crimes. And the problem with
this narrative is that, where would you put this woman? Here was the woman who has
lost everything in her life. And yet, she uses whatever
that is left to her in some way, hijacks the political agency of another man, and yet goes and searches her own relatives, rescues
them, at the same time perpetrating violence in
her own combatant fatigues. So where exactly do we put these women? And this is not an exceptional
case, this is what happens almost every single place. Now, the interesting
question is that, so where does all of this take us? What it really takes us to is this place where you can no longer talk
about women and violence without thinking about
gender, collective identity, and how these women place themselves and narrate themselves. And that’s why South Asia becomes a really fascinating place. It’s a place where theory,
theories, new theories can emerge. And we can talk about
them in an interesting way that is just not about
the immediate things of agency, that again
looks at only empowerment and emancipation. For instance, if you look at India. In India, women have been
in combat roles since 1940 as a part of INA. These were the men who were
part of the more militant wing that was looking for and
fighting for independence. Beyond that, India’s also
had women who were fighting its own separatist wars in
Punjab, in Kashmir, in Assam. Places where they’ve taken up arms, places where they’ve
actually helped, not only in operational ways, but
they’re also ideological heads of places. But increasingly women
have also been a part of RSS, which is India’s
fundamental Hindu organization, and they have also been
a part of the 1984 riot, the 1992, 1993 Bombay riots. They were a part of the
19, the recent, 2004 Gujarat riots. The Godhra riots. But they’ve also been victims. If you look at the Partition
narrative in India, there’s a very fascinating
story that comes out of it. Especially if you go
to villages in Punjab. There are certain women
who are called martyrs. They are called martyrs,
simply because the families kill these women before
they could be raped during the Partition. Their pride comes from
the fact that they killed themselves or they were killed instead of being defiled by somebody else. And this is not, and these
women are commemorated, and thought about, and in
some races, they’re also local deities. And this is how the woman’s
body is being transformed, not just as someone who’s a
site of communal violence, communal identity, and these
are a lot more complicated to think through and theorize
than the far distant ISIS that we have to fight about. How do we look at our
own sense of resistance and agency in the streets of New York? Or in Baltimore? Or in the streets where
increasingly communal and ethnic violence has become something
that’s an every day issue? And one of the things
that we need to look at, is that, yes, women can be victims, women can be perpetrators, they
can hold a gun, women actually are better shooters than men because they, for some reason,
they have smaller shoulders apparently that helps. But beyond that, these are only
two of the main narratives. There are more narratives
that we need to think about. And narratives, and I
say not just in terms of journalistic dispatches. Is that we need to go through a, we need to move towards a space
where we’re not just thinking about theory in isolation,
we are not writing terrible stories for
Newsweek or New York Times, which has no sense of history. Or politics. But something that takes into
account a very simple fact that history and memory are local. And sometimes, to retrieve those things, we need to do more than
just listen to a story. We need to listen to a
story, we need to think about the story, and above all, we need to give the people the agency
that we’ve always seemed to take away, which Spivak
many years ago, said, can the subaltern speak? The question is not the
subaltern can speak, the question is whether you
will allow the subaltern to speak anymore. Again, thank you so much. And I will open the … (audience applauds) – Okay, thank you, everyone. Thank you Nimmi and Suchitra and Zanib. It’s been a very engaging
set of presentations so far. It’s very enriching for
me to be in dialogue with … With Suchitra and Nimmi, because when most of the work that I’ve
done on some feminism on the emergence of Jihadi feminism, has been done kind of in isolation, there is … You know, a lot of skepticism
in terms of, you know, conceptualizing women
who join militant groups like ISIL or you know,
the particular madrassa that I’m going to talk about. As a sort of empowerment. You know, in writing
about this, I’ve faced a lot of pushback from editors who don’t want to conceptualize it in that way. But I think one of the crucial things to remember when we’re talking about this, and you’re, you know,
you’re gonna see this, literally every day, in the newspaper, in terms of girls going to join ISIL, on the prevalence of
women in Jihadi networks, is that their acts exist and occur very much in dialogue with this. Very much in dialogue
with American feminism and post-feminism. If you listen to the
way they conceptualize what they think women’s
roles are, it’s not so much of a question, I think,
of, you know, for instance, what is Islamic, or what’s not Islamic? It’s the question far more of constructing an authentic idea of women’s empowerment, in the shadow of American intervention. I cannot emphasize that enough. In Pakistan, you know, when obviously, in South Asia, when the British were there with a physical sort of
colonial presence, right, because they were there on
the ground for 200 years. Over 200 years. The American presence, of
course, is very different. It’s, you know, we’ve
had drone attacks now for years and years, and
we’ve had other sort of secret operations,
renditions, things like that in Pakistan, so it’s a
different kind of omniscient presence, right, because
it’s a remote-controlled view of this country that is available to the colonial power
that is looking at it. And the other sort of
omniscient power is through ideas. And sadly, one of those
ideas has been this idea of empowerment in education. On one side, the US has
droned Northwest Pakistan causing literally hundreds of thousands of people to be displaced,
on the other hand, you have millions of dollars being pushed particularly into
programs that are supposed to serve women. So you’ve got kind of this
colonial intervention, very much into the intimate
lives of people, right, because it’s this idea
of changing the power, but it’s connected to a war agenda. And the consequence of
that, and I’ll give you one figure, UNESCO put out
their education for all report last week, that looks at
the progress of countries towards the millennium development goals, education goals from 2001 until 2014. In Pakistan, the support
for girls’ education has fallen from 71%,
seven one, 71%, in 2001, to only 47% today. So, this is a number that you have to keep in background of this,
because there’s a lot of talk about empowerment and education. But the fact is, is
that when you attach it to a war agenda, that idea
becomes delegitimized, becomes tainted. And then there is a consequent
search for a different kind of a way to be. That is, that’s, you
know, throws that off. And you see that very
much in womens’ lives. Because they want to
be empowered, there are local customs and things in their culture that they don’t like. Pakistan is a rapidly urbanizing society. We’re going to move by 2040, into a 60% urban country, which is,
you know, in 20 years, you’ve gone from a rural
to an urban country. So you know, you have that breakdown of tribal and other caste
community structures that used to exist, and in
some ways, protect women. So, everyone moving into
the cities, there is a search for what are we going to do? What are womens’ lives going to look like, what is their participation going to be in the public space? And in a sense, that has also created a move to look at law
differently, because now the customary law is
not as easily available, in the village panchayat, or
you know, the tribal councils are no long accessible,
you live in the big city. These cases are coming
forward, so the story I have for you today is, you know,
it’s a very particular story of a very particular case, and I think in the details of that story, you can see the complexity of this issue, and some of the very complex questions
that are being asked. Now, within Muslim
feminism, there has been this debate, and this is
kind of the context for this, is whether women’s roles
have to be constructed side by side, in juxtaposition with men, so you know, equality,
for instance, or rather they have to be constructed
separate from men. So having separate communities,
separate leadership structures, so complementarity versus an equality concept. No, there’s great arguments
within that you know, Muslim feminists were doing
the work of reinterpreting Islam and doctrine,
are doing in this area. But this, the weight
of this, has obviously created a greater popularity for ideas of separate, you know, and
complementary, rather than you know, juxtaposed next to each other. So, within ISIL, for example, you know, their Al-Khansaa brigade,
which is their women’s brigade, you know, I wrote recently for Al Jazeera about their women’s
manifesto, that they put out, and it’s really interesting,
right, because some of the biggest principles
that they throw out right at the beginning
is one, the Muslim world is in disarray because
of the weakness of men, so there’s all this stuff
about how men are emasculated and so women have to now do this, which is very, very interesting,
because you know, you won’t see that in traditional,
Islamic, even in, you know, traditional Islamic jurisprudence. And the other idea is that because we are in a state of war, women
are basically allowed to do anything. So they can be in the war battlefield, they can fight, they can do anything. So, that is a theoretical aspect of it, I’ll, you know, the story
that I have shows how this plays out now. It focuses on a madrassa
that is, and for those of you who are Pakistani, who know this, is a madrassa called Jamia Hafsa, which is in Islamabad, it’s in
the capital of Pakistan, and it has a tense history. In 2007, again, women, from this madrassa, went out and kidnapped
a woman who they said was a brothel owner, and
they brought her back into the madrassa, and they
were holding her hostage. And the reason they
were holding her hostage is that, you know, they believed that this was disempowering to women, the work that she was doing, and they wanted her to renounce that and so
they were keeping her there. The politics surrounding that ended up with a Pakistani military holding a siege into this madrassa, and
so this was the woman, the Jamia Hafsa’s, the women’s madrassa, the Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque
is the men’s portion of it. And it ended up essentially, you know, the siege that the Pakistani military did, killed I think it’s about 80 people, on both sides, it was a very bloody thing. But, this madrassa has
been allowed to exist. It continues to be there, and it continues to recruit. So, the story, this
story begins in December, you know, on December 16th,
in Pakistan, there was a horrific attack on Army
Public School, in Peshawar, in which hundreds of children were killed. The Taliban came into the school, this was a school for children of army officers, and there was just the most
despicable kind of carnage that you can imagine. Now, a few days after
the, you know, the attack on the school, a couple of
days, the guy who’s the leader of this Red Mosque came on Pakistani TV, and he basically refused
to condemn this attack. He, and this was, I mean, this was a very, very emotional time in Pakistan. Heartrending beyond anything,
because there’s just these coffins of little
children, you know, little, little kids, being carried
out of this school, and so this, Maulana, Abdul Aziz’s refusal to do this, became a national controversy. Two of my friends were
lawyers, decided to participate in this protest outside the Red Mosque. So, you know, in Pakistan,
like you know, Nimmi was talking about, NGOization,
the protest against these militant organizations,
I mean, I can’t tell you what a courageous thing
it is, okay, because they have a lot of power
and they don’t have a lot of people, even within the Pakistani law enforcement, that are
willing to take them on or stop them. So even when they were
trying to do this protest, there was like, the
police was telling them, please don’t do this, you
know, another militant group said they’re gonna have a counter-protest, anyway, all of this is going on. These two friends of
mine who are lawyers go to this protest ’cause
they were like, you know, this is the least we can do. These people in the Red
Mosque, they’re just an example of how the
country’s not cracking down on these extremists,
allowing them to exist. Not exposing them. So, you know, they’re
at this protest, and one of these, a man comes up
to them, and he tells them you know, I need your help. He’s got a long beard,
and he’s like, I need your help, my daughter,
they’re holding my daughter, they’ve kidnapped my
daughter and they’re holding my daughter inside Jamia Hafsa, inside this women’s madrassa. So you know, these, you
know, my friends are called Heather and Noesse, they
said, okay, you know, you can also have the
megaphone, everyone is allowed to speak, so when
this guy told his story, he was basically saying that
in June the year before, so we’re in December, the
June of the year before, his daughter was 26
years old and I emphasize the age of Uzma Qayyum
because 26 years old means that she’s spent most of her adult life with Pakistan being at war. Okay? And this is an important
indicator of this generation, that is now in Pakistan. Comes from a middle
class, lower middle class, very religious family. And he said, you know,
for years, she’s been a student at this madrassa. Not Jamia Hafsa, this one that’s just in their neighborhood, she goes every day, and you know, she told us that she wanted to learn more about Islam,
we said that’s great, two of my sons are
hafiz, which means like, they know the Quran by heart, it’s a very devout family, and they
were like, this is great. So, she goes to the
madrassa, no problems for a couple of years. You know, there are already people who do, you know, cover and wear a
burka, so not a big challenge for them, and then in
June one day, he says he, you know, she went to the
madrassa as she always does and then it was evening,
and she didn’t come back. She didn’t come back, and so obviously, the family’s very very
worried and very frantic. They go to see her room,
they see that she’s laid out a burial shroud on her
bed, and kind of saying that I’m leaving. Then, that night, they get
a call from Jamia Hafsa and the principal of Jamia
Hafsa is Umme Hassan, a woman, she’s the wife
actually of the guy who runs Red Mosque, so it’s, you
know, she runs the women’s section of this madrassa, and she says, don’t worry about your
daughter, she’s come to us, she’s decided to devote her life to Islam, and we’ve got her, so just
don’t worry about her. And that’s it. That’s the phone call, they
don’t let her, let them talk to his, or anything like that. Now, another thing to
remember is that Jamia Hafsa you know, a few months before this case was filed, Jamia Hafsa has
declared its allegiance to ISIS, okay, they’ve
put out a video with all the women saying
that they would like ISIL to come and liberate Pakistan from its corrupt government. So, they get this phone
call, the next day, you know, the father says, we’re absolutely frantic. We go to Red, Lal Masjid,
to see if we can see her, you know, and they, you
know, they say we’re not gonna let you see her, you
can’t see your daughter. She doesn’t wanna talk to you. Go away. So, this is the story they
hear at this anti-terrorism protest in Islamabad, and
this guy says, you know, help me, you’re lawyers,
I don’t have any money, I don’t have a lot of resources, I need to get my daughter out of there. So, they say, of course, this is exactly what’s happening in our
society, they’re brainwashing these girls and taking
them inside the madrassa and keeping them there. So, they say, but at
the same time, he says, you know, we were a little
worried because this guy was very, very very religious,
and we were thinking, maybe this is someone
that the Red Mosque people have sent to be a plant who’s gonna try to see what we’re up to, whatever. So the next day, so they say,
we’ll have another meeting, and they decide to have
it in the compound of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which is also in Islamabad,
because they figured there’d be a lot of
security there, you know. Anyway, when they met
there, they find out that, you know, he is a legitimate,
he has this legitimately has this issue, he brought them pictures of the, ’cause, you know, when they’d gone to try to, you know,
they tried to forcibly get in, because they
wanted to see this girl. And the Red Mosque guards beat them up. You know, one time, I think
they had finally been able to see her, but, you
know, she was fully veiled and there were three or
four other women present and they weren’t allowed to
talk to her by themselves. So, my friends, you
know, fresh-faced lawyers that they are, filed a
petition on behalf of the father, saying that,
against Jamia Hafsa, saying that you have to produce this girl in court, because this is am issue where she’s being kept against
her will, there’s been no contact, we don’t know
what sort of situation she’s in. And the case ends up in
a Islamabad court room. And, you know, the, at
the initial hearing, the judge says, okay, it’s, because it was (mumbles) from the Supreme
Court, you know, he’s actually like really being
expediting everything, which is not how usually goes
in Pakistani court rooms. But, so he says to the
police chief of that area, you have to go and you
have to get this girl and she has to be produced in court. So, all of this culminates
in this hearing, that they have, where Uzma
Qayyum finally shows up and Umme Hassan, who’s
the head of the madrassa shows up with her, and some of the things that happen in this
hearing show you how … You know, how difficult this question is. Now, in preparing for this
hearing, Heather and Noesse had looked at Pakistani
law, and, you know, I’ve written about this before too. Under Pakistani law, one of
the most problematic things in Pakistani law has been that if a woman is unmarried, she’s legally, her father is her legal guardian. And she cannot leave or even really marry of her own choice, without
permission of her father. So, the cases in this
area of law, have actually all been in cases in which the woman wants to marry someone of her
own choice, sometimes that marriage even happens,
and she’ll, you know, and the father’s trying to recover her from whoever has married her. And in nearly all of the
cases, Pakistan has decided in favor of the father,
so the father’s right for walia, or guardianship,
is considered paramount in that situation, even
if sometimes there’s evidence that there was a
marriage that has taken place, and you know, they won’t
talk to, they mostly do not listen to the women
themselves in that situation. So, this is the precedent
that they were going to use, and they were
uncomfortable with it, but they were certain that
Uzma was being brainwashed and kept against her will. So, this hearing happens. The, you know, Umme
Hassan gets on the stand, and she talks about Red
Mosque, and she’s basically saying that look, we are
not keeping her against her will. My father has been trying to marry me off to this cousin for several years, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in devoting
my life to a bigger cause, and that’s what I’ve done. I don’t want to leave. I want to stay at this
madrassa, and I don’t understand why you are … Doing this. Essentially. So, the point being, at the
culmination of the case, you have people who are totally against you know, discrimination against women, arguing for the right
of a father to compel a girl to leave this
madrassa and come home, and you have the madrassa
that is arguing to change the law so that women,
these girls, have the right to choose to stay within the
madrassa if it so happens. And that is in a nutshell,
the complexity of the question in Pakistan. If a girl runs away from
her family in Pakistan, she, her reputation is destroyed forever. Unless she runs away in the cause of God. To a madrassa. So you have a situation
now, where you have this rapidly urbanizing
country, a population that is 60% under 25, okay,
and no other social system that’s going to absorb the
casualties of that change. And what these madrassas
are doing, and they have a militant agenda, there
is no doubt that they are completely, you know,
proponents of violence in every way. They will not deny it. But, they’re absorbing these women that the rest of the society has
no idea what to do with. And unlike the NGOs, and
it was interesting, right, because in this case,
so, then my friends had a existential crisis after this hearing, because they’re like, we
don’t want to send her back to her father’s place if
he doesn’t want to do this. So then, you know, they
tried to find shelters at interim places where she could go. And the problem with those
is, is that they don’t have the kind of protection
to keep her family away. They don’t have the kind,
I mean, in a country where security is such a
problem, they don’t have the armed guards, they
don’t have all of that, that’s going to be able
to say, no, you cannot come in, this is, you know,
this is a women’s shelter, there’s absolutely no way you can be here. Because the social cultural fabric will always defer to the
family in the case of a woman. Who’s run away. So, the case ends, I
mean, you know, right now, I mean, and this story’s
going to be published in the nation, so you know, a longer piece if you want to look at that. The last I spoke to
Sheikh Qayyum, the father, you know, Uzma was sent back. The judge sent an order
and, you know, the order that you read, I mean,
it’s sort of, it’s really kind of heartbreaking, because she says, I mean, this was kinda the agreement that the judge said, this
is, you know, what are your demands? We’ll issue an order to your families, that they listen to these
demands, and her demands are, I should be allowed to
continue my education in Islam if I want, I should not be
married without my choice, that the home environment,
you know, should be more Islamic, which means,
and she specifically says, apparently, because you know, the man that her father wanted to
marry her to is a cousin, and this is one of the
contradictions, right? In Pakistani culture. Is that even though it’s very
religious, family members are in and out, and so,
if you’re trying to refuse marriage to someone who is your cousin, that person’s family
members are constantly in your house, and it’s
very difficult to do that if you are like, one girl standing up. So these are ways in which these madrassas are completely upending
social and cultural norms in Pakistan. Their politics and their
agenda is accessible to women in a way that NGOs … You know, that whole realm is not. I’ll say that, because I
grew up in a conservative Muslim family, and you
know, my father would say, you can go to any all-women things. You know, which means
that it would be like, religious classes, or
classes that are held under auspices of quasi-religious groups, you know, he would not let
me go participate in a march, or a protest. You know, and that’s
the reality of millions of Pakistani women. But because these are
sort of women only groups, women have more, you know,
have accessibility to them. They’re able to, and you
know, there’s different levels of … Of what they supply to women, right? So, you know, not
everybody’s going to join Jamia Hafsa and take up
a gun, but it is a way of saying that, you
know, I’m going to learn about the Quran, so
you can’t stop me, dad, or you can’t stop me,
husband, or you can’t stop me, brother, or son, and that is a very, very popular phenomenon in
Pakistan, urban and rural, revivalist movements that have spent a lot of time doing the
groundwork and developing the grassroot support among ordinary women who are actually not very
politically inclined. But you know, it started out as spiritual empowerment, and now,
it’s obviously revealing a very political agenda. And the question is, is
where that’s going to go? And I don’t have an
answer, because it probably would not have been in
this place, if there hadn’t been a war in Afghanistan,
if there hadn’t been drones in the Northwest frontier, or (speaks foreign language), sorry. And, but the fact is that there have been. And so, when you stand up, to talk about empowerment in Pakistan,
it’s a very class-based argument. Because if you’re very wealthy,
or you’re upper middle class educated in english, you’re going to say, yes, the NGOs, empowerment,
you know, you can participate in what I call
essentially, the aid culture that the United States has created, right? You’ve pumped in millions of dollars, and it enfranchises a
particular class of people who can then work for these NGOs and write their reports and do all
of that, and you know, it’s difficult quite
honestly for me to even talk about that, because
those are all my friends. You know, those are all people I know, and they are the most well-meaning people. But the fact is, is that
there is a tremendous class difference between that and families like Uzma Qayyum, who
are educated families, but educated in Urdu,
more religious, concerned about their daughters’ reputations. And who they’re going to associate with. They don’t have access to
that world of aid economy, and they’re the ones who are by droves now signing up onto a different
idea of empowerment. And because it’s this idea
that if you are at war, you are permitted to do anything. So, thank you. (audience applauds) – When we try to build a predictive model and figure out what’s
going to cause someone to do something, we sort of
look at a list of factors, and a lot of the factors
that I see for these young women that are
moving to ISIS, and to all of these, to these
different organizations, that are becoming
radicalized, I see a lot of the same factors, but something stopped me from going in that direction
that didn’t stop them, and I was wondering if you had any insight about that. What makes someone radicalized,
and what, you know, that fits the same profile, and prevents other people from not
going down that same path? – Yeah, I’m probably gonna
be permanently disbarred from political science
for this answer, but … (audience chuckles) I don’t actually believe
there are patterns and models that you can use as predictive of human behavior, I
think, if you ask me why the female fighter fights,
you know, the first struggle people have is, well,
women join these movements you know, and the second is,
well, okay, why do they join? And they need the one answer, you know? But some of the women I
met joined because they found love with a boyfriend,
some of them joined because they believed
the intellectual cause, some of them joined because
they needed the money. Some were mentally ill
and they needed a place to belong and some changed
their minds along the way. They decided to join,
they left, they were more into it before, and they changed. And what happens is when
you look at women in the developing world, you don’t want to give them the same sort of
exceptions and ideosyncrasies that we give ourselves, right? We need them to be one thing or the other, poor, or something. For me, that’s why I find the thread being sort of state repression, now, the context of state repression will always intersect with personality, right? Personality becomes a
big driver in terms of who joins and who doesn’t join. You know, when I was much
younger, when I went back to Sri Lanka, I thought,
well, if I lived here, I would join the Tigers. And I think that part
that we’re missing with the whole Coldplay, Harry
Potter, the whole aspect, is that we’re not able to understand the role of identity. Right, and that even if she wasn’t sort of militantly in support
of the extreme version of some religion or another,
it’s that she was around conversations the same way I was, she was listening to the legacies of violence, she was exposed to the
idea that she was somehow different than these
countries that she lived in, whether or not she read
Harry Potter and Coldplay, and one of the things that
I love about City College is the diversity of the young women there, who are all struggling
with this sort of tension, whether they’re secular,
religious, or they should to be traditional
or modern, or social media versus history and context, and one of the things that I’ve gotten to do in this space in the
past three years, is just embrace all of it. And to say that these
tensions are providing insight and providing value and
that there is an identity there that we’re missing. But yeah, I think that the
pattern of human behavior is a problematic approach. – [Zanib] Great answer. Let’s go ahead and let’s
take one from the audience, does anyone have a question
they’d like to ask? – You know, the question
I ask is one about maybe what your visions from,
you know, your experience and general conversations
with the women is, about what that future vision of community and also like, nation
or whatever that group could be, ’cause one of
the things I see here is the ways in which they very honestly talk about the state, and
their own local community, as sources of violence,
whereas we interject the state as the solution,
right, we gotta go and fix the state, but
they’re saying, the state doesn’t work. So, how do you, you
know, what are the ways in which they talk about
growing and developing a complex of rights that
work outside something like the nation, state, and
outside of the ways in which their local communities work,
and are there right now? – Sure, I can. I think, I mean, that’s a good question, and one of the issues
underneath that I’ve noticed is that, you know, there’s
two kinds, and this is talking particularly
about Muslim women, that there are two kinds of
global, civil society you can tap into now, you know. There’s, there’s kind of
the global empowerment discussions in terms of,
you know, transnational organizations, things like
that, and then there’s this, Muslim, transnational
identity is very real, and I think that ISIL, as well, I mean, it’s one of the
commonalities actually that I see within both, you
know, a girl like Uzma went, or a girl like Ak-sa, who joins ISIL, is this, you know, desire to
be part of something greater, greater than yourself, and … What they perceive as a greater ability to influence what that greater will be. I think that one of the
challenges in post-Afghanistan, Iraq, that a lot of Muslims face, is that (slurs words) is that global civil society doesn’t always reflect their identity. There’s no real
acknowledgement of the fact that if you’re born Muslim
today, you’re far, far more likely to be born in
conflict, displaced, war, but you know, that’s not
reflected in the politics of the UN, of UNESCO,
of other rights groups, and it is, I mean, it
is the first denominator of groups like, these militant groups, they’re putting that at the forefront. And so, they see that,
okay, if you really care about, you know, the latest
reports from physician for social responsibility,
1.2 million casualties, right, Afghanistan, Iraq,
and Pakistan combined in the war on terror, so 1.2 million you know, they want that
to be the forefront of their political identity. You know, the religious
part, in a lot of ways, is incidental, but … – I guess I would just
add to that, I mean, I would see the Tigers, had
a nation, lost a nation. The part that I would
speak to is that, how the ideology is bred, and of nationalism, you know, and … That it becomes this
response to extreme Buddhism, or Buddhist nationalism, and so it was the counter-nationalism that
emerged, which in my you know, sort of now,
it was that that was a failure of imagination,
because had there been at that point what looked
more like a class struggle, across ethnic lines, it’s very likely it would’ve succeeded and the fear with extreme ideologies like
nationalism, is that it’s very easy to map
other things onto them, like militarization, like patriarchy, and then have that sort of trickle down into the lives of men and women, in a way that they weren’t really
able to recognize, all that they saw, these
women, was that nationalism was a solution to Buddhist nationalism. Not being able to see that it provided this framework for all
these other oppressive ideologies to take hold in their lives. – And how do we get that in these places, where the access to
these things are mandated and mediated by other structures? That structure could be a
structure that’s state owned, that could be a structure
in certain places which is owned by
insurgence, in some places, it could be something
as simple as owned by the one patriarch in a family. And in these places, we
cannot, again, imprint upon these ideas of rights anywhere, and it never works, and it
has never worked at all. And when we look at the
idea of ungoverned spaces, what ungoverned spaces do in the study, and this is fascinating
study, in which they, you know, you look at who
are the ungoverned spaces initially, it was the
gypsies, it was the Romas, it was these traveling
nomads, that, the wild wild west, and what I
really see is this hierarchy in which people are very
fluid, and that’s true of Afghanistan as well. Each village even
separated a mile away, one would have a kinship in
which it’s hierarchical, and couple of months down
the line, would become egalitarian. And a few years down the
lane, the con who was the single most important
person would be replaced by the madrassa and this
is not mean, that somehow the power has been lost,
it simply means that people mediate their life through
a hierarchy of needs. And as Nimmi rightly
pointed out initially, is that … We cannot theorize human
nature, and that’s why we’re all in business. Because otherwise, then,
none of us would actually have jobs, simply because
human nature is that volatile, and whether you believe as
(slurs words) it’s short, nasty and brutish, or
do you believe that it is not so bad, is where
we live, and a big part of what we do is not so much
as to theorize the world, as we want it reflected,
but try and understand theory as a way of perhaps
understanding the small things that can be mediated,
that is actually possible, that, you know, if you
look at someone perhaps, it helps you have a better conversation, which means that the other
person will perhaps not go blow up a cafe. Those are the very small things that you could possibly do, and political science and everything else has actually failed in understanding that. The only group of people
that actually give credit to understanding
it are anthropologists, who also seem to understand
a little bit of philosophy. And I’m kind of saying that,
because all three of us do that, so it’s … (audience chuckles) I’m being quite selfish, though. I’ll leave it at that. – [Zanib] We have time
for two more questions. – Hi. I’m a professor, a new
professor in the Colin Powell school, I’m a sociologist
by training, but also, I do ethnography, which
is, I follow people, mostly women in New York
City, and I’m very interested in the, there is a book
that I use in one of my class, on the (slurs words),
which is by anthropologist Egyptian anthropologist,
Egyptian American anthropologist Leila Abdul who, and she
writes about, you know, how the west and western
societies are now interested in a saving Muslim women
in the Middle East, and whether or not Muslim women are really in need of saving, and I
don’t mean saving really, just saving in terms
of political ideology, and from what I hear tonight, I’m really delighted to hear all the empowerment and all the ways in which
women join radicalism, right, and I’m really
interested in knowing, under what circumstances women
in the Middle East, in Islam, create their
own ideology to integrate in the society, not
just for radical sisters who join Islam to do
bombing to join the war, but how will, how do you think, after all that you know, and all that
you expose, how do you think women in Islam, or for
that matter, in New York, among immigrant women who are minorities like Latinas, will join a
cause that will help them integrate complementarily along men, because from what I hear,
it looks like men are the one that needs rescue. (audience laughs and applauds) – I’ll start by saying that
women are already doing that. Women do it every single
day, they do it, not just in the confines of New York City, they do it in every
other part of the world. I’ll give you two examples,
since you brought up Egypt, I spent two years
in Egypt when I ran an NGO that gave legal
aid for Iraqi refugees. These were people from
Iraq who had left Iraq, and this Egypt was their third country. And the legal aid that
I was giving, or my team was giving, was simply to
make sure that these people could not go back home, so they had to be resettled to a second or third country. Often, when you sit
down to prepare refugee legal case files, what
you need is a story, just as Rafia beautifully
narrated a story today, I need to narrate a
story that would convince the person sitting in front of me, in less than 20 minutes, why this
person whose family has gone through the worst of
anything, that includes entire neighborhoods
being ethnically cleansed, families in which women been raped, men, boys been raped, why do
they deserve a second chance in a place like United States? And often, when you look
at it, it’s the women who always come with the
documents, they remember everything, they are the
ones holding the family together, they are the
ones who, if the boys get picked up, they are the ones who need to go to the police station and negotiate in every single time. Again, similarly, in a
place like Kashmir in which now I’ve started doing
extensive field work, it’s the women who are on
the forefront of resistance, these are the women, I’m
not talking about women who go and find out routes for insurgence to cross the border, I’m
talking about women who have to get up every day in one of the world’s most militarized zones, go
and get a bottle of milk. That milk might not be available. So you need to find a way
of, one, having money, also we’re talking about a space in which where a good 75% of the,
okay, that’s considered, let’s say 50% of the young boys between the age of 18 to 45 have
disappeared, in this last 20 years. So men have disappeared. So often, these are women
who are head of families, so one, there’s no money,
second, if there’s money, there’s probably no rations. So you need to go get the milk. And by the time you leave
your house, and you have to go get the milk and
come back, you’ve probably crossed two checkpoints. Right? Second, these women
also have children, boys who belt, boys who get
picked up by the police, boys, who do you think goes
to the police stations, who goes to these local centers
and tries, to negotiate, begs and pleads and make sure that the boy comes back home? It’s the mothers. In that sense women are
doing it every single day. If you ask a mother who has raised a child in New York City, she
will tell you how hard it is, because I’m now
in an age where I finally have friends who are having
children, and apparently, having a child in New
York City and putting it in a good school is an act of resistance. (audience chuckles) And sometimes, you have to deal … (audience applauds) With those things, right? I mean, women do it every
single day, and some of the strongest person
I know is my mother, it’s the women in my house. Which means that women
do it every single day, it’s not that we do it
because we are special, we do it because the world
around us is completely shitty and I do believe
the world is really short, nasty and brutish. In that sense, yes, and
the solidarities that you have today is what you seize, that … When Nimmi wrote an email,
she was very frustrated, simply this one act of email that says, let’s do something about it. And then reaching out to
Rafia or me, means that today, there is a panel. And that is an act of resistance. And somebody making sure
that this space is available, and negotiating for the space, I think all of that matters and
women do it all the time, and we do it because there’s
no other option but to do it. So yeah, that’s … (audience applauds) – I would just add that, you know, I mean, I think that’s an excellent book, and if you in terms of Muslim women, if you leave with one idea, it is
that you know, some of the ways in which Muslim
feminism is politically being interpreted right now, is because for a long time, it has had to be the lesser sister of white feminism. You know, that’s just the plain truth. For a long time, and
now, feminism in the west is defined against the
repression, or the constructed repression, of women in
Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Egypt,
without any effort at all, it’s a contextualized,
those issues, I mean, I wrote about the whole,
I mean, I called it school girl feminism,
because it’s, you know, let’s save the school girls, or let’s give this, because it’s this, it’s
this very very concerted effort to treat other
feminisms as uncomplicated. I mean, no one’s ever
going to have a panel, one panel, on how you save
American women, you know? Because everyone understands
that their problems are spread across class,
and race, and ethnicity, and so many other, so many other factors. But, you know, they do
have those all the time. Where Pakistani, Afghani, or Muslim women are concerned. Because it’s this idea that,
you know, that white feminism is superior, and we have
to, I mean, and that’s the legacy in a lot of
ways, of colonialism. The tragedy of course, is
that when ideas get sort of politically tainted,
in that way, sometimes you have reactions to them that
are not entirely productive. I mean, I’m not gonna deny that. That, you know, Uzma going
away to like, Jamia Hafsa is that gonna give her
any real empowerment? No. She’s gonna be in this
madrassa with other women, she’ll, you know, have a marriage in which she probably will have as,
you know, as little say, but it will be to someone
who’s as religiously devout as her. But, it’s an alternative
in a situation where there aren’t always a lot of alternatives, but that paradigm of saving Muslim women is the dominant paradigm. I mean, you can’t read one
New York Times newspaper without encountering it,
so, you know, if you take anything from here, you
should take some skepticism to those depictions and to those ideas, and how they portray
things in a certain way, so that in a way, that
silences women here, right? Because like, oh, you’ve got
it great, ’cause, you know, this isn’t happening to you. So … – I think, the other thing
I would add, is that is part of the political project
for the next generation. You know, I think this idea of engendering justice, whether it’s
racial, religious, ethnic justice is a very complicated one. And one that I think most
of us didn’t start out with, you know, because at that
stage, your choice was to be a nationalist or
a feminist, you couldn’t necessarily challenge the
patriarchal structures within what you were doing, because it was too important to the Tamil cause, right, which meant that in a
meeting, where you know, a bunch of Tamil
politicians were very sexist and very rude to me,
we still had to finish the conversation about
how to get the, you know, supplies to a certain area
where a thousand people were dying a day, right? And that’s a choice
that young women today, I hope, won’t have to make, they’ll start to insist that from the very
beginning of any conversation of justice, it is
engendered that you can ask both those questions at the same time, and similarly, amongst
young men, who we’re now terrified of, this UN Vice
Chair millennium development goals the other day came
in, and she way like, well, you have to look at
these numbers, you know. There are so many young men
being born around the world, and it’s just terrifying. And I just thought, what
happened, that we’re afraid of young men being born? How ridiculous is it that
you’re already putting this assumption of radicalization on them? So it is something about the sort of process of dismantling
patriarchy and the opportunity this next generation
has, to do that, and one that I now sort of come
to a bit late, but I still find it very difficult,
because you know, you’re with all these men activists, and you’re just, you’re getting nowhere,
because, so you figure, may as well go with the
point that you can make, because you’re just
getting nowhere, you know? And so I think that is, that, keeping those two equal, I hope, is
something that we’ll start to see in the next generation. – I actually would just like
to remind you of one thing which is that when you
read about Muslim women all over the world, you
probably don’t think of me. You probably don’t think
of someone well educated who had pretty much all of the advantages that a person could ask
for, I had great parents, I’m not the only one,
there are a lot of people like me, and when we talk about feminism in the United States, I
know a lot more people with a similar background
to me, and I don’t think that’s just a consequence
of being insulated in my own bubble world, I
think that it’s actually probably largely because
of the brain drain of the Pakistani community,
so when you see other Pakistani, you know,
Muslim Americans, they tend to come from pretty
well to do backgrounds. But I consider myself to
be a fairly devout Muslim, and I dress like this,
you know, pretty much all the time, so you can’t
really tell how someone feels about their God in their
heart and how that dictates the way that they engage with the world. I also don’t believe in
theocracy of any form. So, that makes me
dramatically different from a lot of the young women
that you see that are becoming radicalized in other ways. But at the same time, I’ve made the same argument to my parents, that Uzma, is that what her name was? That Uzma made, in Islam,
my parents don’t have the right to tell me who
I can and cannot marry, and you know, up until the
point even when I got married excuse me, we were trying to find … Excuse me. I was really obsessed,
very adamant about finding an Imam that didn’t
require my father’s consent in order to marry us,
and it was symbolically very important to me, because in Islam, my father’s consent is
not required, and it was a big deal to me, it caused
a huge fight in my family. But ultimately, you know,
my power as a Muslim woman is not given to me by my
father or by my husband, and it’s never been the
case and it never will be the case. (audience applauds) – I don’t know that I’ve
ever attended a panel where a dominant narrative
has been so deftly and persistently turned on
its head, so thank you all for the vision and the insight. And the ideas that I’m sure
we’ll be carrying around and mulling over for
weeks and months to come. Wanna thank all of our
panelists, Rafia, Suchitra, Nimmi. (audience applauds) Zanib … Really terrific. Wanna thank the fabulous people
at the Colin Powell school that work to put this
together, Kim, Deedee, Charlene has gone, Joanna has gone. And finally, thank all of
you for coming out tonight and joining us in this
conversation, it was terrific to have you, it was a wonderful dialogue. Thank you, good night. (audience applauds)

One thought on “Understanding Female Fighters: Perspectives From Southeast Asia

  1. As for the first speaker ( I cannot clearly hear her name, unfortunately) – there is a misunderstanding about the Kurdish movement. The western media are not making that up, that the Kurdish women are "fighting sexism". In West-Kurdistan (Rojava/Syrian Kurdistan), the liberation of women is an active point of the agenda of the liberation movement. One of their leading ideologues wrote way back in the nineties "the most oppressed have to drag the rest out of oppression – the Kurdish woman has to drag out the Kurdish man".

    You are completely right to say that it is wrong to believe that integrating corrupt political structures via a quota system is wrong. In Rojava, they don't work on a parliamentary basis, but on an anarchist-style council bases. In all councils there is a 40% quota for either sex. AND for each such mixed council, there is an equivalent all female council.

    It is really a very interesting movement, I encourage you to read more about it.

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