Newsweek Turns a Widow into a Terrorist Mastermind

Christopher Dickey’s analysis of an interview with Defne Bayrak (pictured below), the wife of the Jordanian suicide bomber Humam Al-Balawi in Afghanistan, asks the wrong questions. Instead of pondering the reason why a woman of Bayrak’s intelligence would condone suicide bombing, he creates an image of women involved in al-Qaeda that made me feel like I was reading the review of a Lifetime movie called Wives of Terror: the Women of al-Qaeda. The article did not shed much light on the role of women in al-Qaeda, and it was misleading because neither the article nor the interview contained any evidence that Bayrak was a member of al-Qaeda. Furthermore, what seemed to be most incriminating were her views on suicide bombing.

Defne Bayrak. Image via Engin Irız (Newsweek Türkiye)

Defne Bayrak. Image via Engin Irız (Newsweek Türkiye)

While I applaud Dickey for mentioning the WISE Muslim Women’s Shura Council’s initiative to speak out against “violent extremism and domestic violence in Muslim households,” it was unfair to place Bayrak at the other end of that spectrum. What is significant about her is that she seemed to have a more egalitarian marriage with her husband, yet she supported such an extreme view of Islam. The question that really needs to be asked was not her role in her husband’s plot, but rather why she thinks violent jihad is the answer.

In the way that Dickey describes Bayrak’s marriage, it almost as though her husband fell prey to her will, and was doing her bidding. Al-Balawi is described as anti-social, and is portrayed as a somewhat victimized character, being described as “struggling with his medical career,” while Bayrak was developing her role as a “propagandist for violent jihad.” While women have a more pronounced initiative in the jihadist movement, the interview was only clear about her being a journalist, and she was not necessarily completely clear about her own views. In fact, she even said that she did not really read what her husband wrote.

In describing other women involved in al-Qaeda, there is once again this image of a cold and calculating woman, utilizing her sexual prowess to advance within the ranks of a patriarchal system. This article continued in the vein of writing about Muslim women in the expository “behind the veil” format, which only serves to fetishize women, rather than to understand them.

Bayrak’s interview sounded like a woman attempting to cope with her husband’s death and put on a brave face. While I have absolutely no sympathy for her or her husband, I do think that this lends more proof to the need for taking a more pronounced role in trying to understand why anyone would turn to terrorism as an answer. I think that Dickey missed a valuable opportunity to ask why women work within a system that seems to be inherently oppressive to them (e.g., leaving them to raise a family alone, or using them as suicide bombers),  rather than reducing them to another generalization.


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