Bigotry and prejudice rooted in sexism and Islamophobia were common subtexts in much of the reporting on the siege of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in Kenya over the past few weeks. This was, of course, fueled by the alleged involvement of the so-called ‘White Widow’ in the brazen attack, which claimed several lives. Samantha Lewthwaite is a British national, who happens to be white and Muslim.
The reportage highlighted how women in general and Muslim women in particular are depicted when they are active in political causes, some of which are characterized by violence.
The fact that no conclusive evidence has been found to link Lewthwaite to the attack did not stop the media, especially the English tabloids, from framing women and Muslims in classic stereotypical terms. The Guardian’s Jamie Gilham explains:
“On Monday morning the front pages of the tabloids condemned ‘evil’ and ‘fanatical’ Samantha Lewthwaite, aka the White Widow, as the Nairobi ‘bloodbath mastermind’. The precise nature of the tragic events in Nairobi are still unfolding and, when the tabloids went to press on Sunday night, little was known about Lewthwaite’s alleged involvement in the Nairobi attack. A few days on, we still don’t know much, and the evidence against Lewthwaite is scant and contradictory. Nevertheless, the Muslim convert and widow of 7/7 attacker Germaine Lindsay has become the symbol of home-grown terrorism, a target of fear and loathing.”
Gilham goes on to say that for the tabloids, Lewthwaite’s transgressions are plentiful: she converted to Islam, took the veil and a Muslim name (Sherafiyah), married a black and notoriously radical convert, and is the mother of mixed-race children. And while it is not the first time a British citizen has converted to Islam, Lewthwaite’s case signified something else. It reveals that, by converting to Islam, women disturb conventions about ethnicity, gender and religion, Gilham argues.
Na’eem Jeenah, the director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, concurs.
“If this was an anarchist organization, for example, and the leader was a woman widow, then I think the treatment would have been different. But because it is a Muslim organization, there is already this kind of sense that women in Muslim organizations and Muslim societies don’t play prominent roles. So this (Lewthwaite’s alleged leadership of the group that staged the Westgate Mall attack) is already unusual, an oddity.”
Jeenah says her race is also a key issue; for some Britons, Lewthwaite’s actions mean she has crossed over to “the dark side”. “In the case of Samantha, there is an extra exoticization… From the Western media’s sense, this is a very strange phenomenon because she is a woman, but more so because she is white,” he argues.
Men’s political choices are hardly ever questioned. Conversely, women face all kinds of scrutiny when they become active in organizations, especially those with an Islamist bent, such as al-Shabaab. More so because the conventional view of Islam is that it relegates women to the margins, as if they have little or no agency.
Ironically, Lewthwaite’s alleged involvement as the possible mastermind of the Nairobi attack debunks the myth that Islam treats women as second-class citizens.
Throughout history, women have played a role in politics, even in the so-called Muslim world. In fact, very few countries that have had women heads of state are from the West. Margaret Thatcher of Britain, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Australia’s Julia Gillard are among the few who have reached the top of the political game. Compare that with developing countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil, India, Malawi, Liberia and Chile – all of which have had women heads of state – two of whom are Muslim.
The fact that the developing world, which includes countries with massive Muslim populations, has had women ascend to the pinnacle of political power proves that conventional views of the role and position of women in these societies are far more complex and fluid than mainstream Western media portrays them.
In the West, Muslim women are cast as people who stay at home, are given household chores to do and are oppressed in their domestic confinement. When women operate outside of that mold, it messes with the stereotype that casts all lslamist groups as
inherently misogynist and anti-women. Jeenah says Lewthwaite’s alleged leadership of the group responsible for the carnage in Nairobi blows the Western media’s view of women in Islam out of the water.
“She is going further. Not only is she involved in politics, she is taking up arms, planning the attacks and leading the group. Her alleged role simply doesn’t square with the stereotypes – firstly of Muslims and secondly of Islamist organizations.”
History also questions the media-fed formula that women under Islam are subservient. From the fight for the liberation of Palestine to the anti-colonial war in Algeria and the struggle for equality in South Africa, women have played a role.
In fact, women have led some of the most audacious attacks against their enemies. The bitter war of independence in Algeria is one example. According to Danièle Djamila Amrane-Minne and Farida Abu-Haidar of the Muse Project, Algerian women had joined the struggle for independence from the get-go. Their research shows that there were 10,949 fighting women, representing 3.1% of all those taking part in active combat during the war of liberation. This percentage, which may seem negligible, is approximately the same as the percentage of European women who took part in World War II. Algerian women who joined the struggle were not merely sympathizers or militants on a short-term basis, but proper fighters and members of the National Liberation Army or the National Liberation Front Civil Organization.
The daring 1969 highjacking of a Boeing 707 by Palestinian Leila Khaled ensured a visual image of a woman as a courageous fighter for the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. Another example is Fatima Meer’s leading role in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa. These are merely some examples of how women in Muslim settings have broken the mold that portrays women as inferior or lacking in agency.
Granted, there are some Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where women are actively prevented from living full lives. In the oil-rich desert state, Saudi women are not even allowed to drive. In Afghanistan, girls’ and women’s lives are threatened if they try to get an education. And while myths about the living conditions of all Muslim women is often false, they are fueled by the actions of states that claim to follow Islam when they oppress and sub- jugate women.
Jeenah concedes: “the thing about stereotypes is not that they are not true, but that they are not for most of the time”. Certain Muslim societies fuel stereotypes about the role of women in Islam – Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are cases in point.
Jeenah also points out that the position of women in Iran is often misunderstood. He says even if they are compelled to wear a headscarf, Iranian women are much more assertive than women in the rest of the Muslim world, and even in much of the Western world.
“If you look at the Muslim world, the biggest Muslim community is in Indonesia, second-biggest is India, the third in Pakistan… If you look at the manner in which women play their roles in all of these bigger communities, and even in the Arab world, where the biggest Muslim community is Egypt, in the broader Middle East, Iran and Turkey, women play a much more assertive role.”
The irony of the media’s stereo-typing of women in general and Muslim women in particular, is that the very stories meant to reinforce the negative framing of women as disempowered, often debunk that narrative. In reality, Muslim women, as in the case of Samantha Lewthwaite, are anything but subservient.