Portrait of The Grey Lady: Aafia Siddiqui’s Construction in the Media

*Jan 13 - 00:05*

Image via New York Daily News. Sketch by Jane Rosenberg.

Following a long trial, this month Aafia Siddiqui was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder of U.S. soldiers and FBI agents while being held in custody in Afghanistan in 2008. Known as “Lady al Qaeda,” she was identified in 2004 as the only woman among seven most wanted al Qaeda operatives.

The media coverage of her trial has made much of her extensive psychiatric testing, which eventually concluded that she had faked her mental illness. Doctors stated that she was “intelligent and at times manipulative… [and] showed goal-directed and rational thinking.” In contrast to images of Muslim women, especially those who cover, lacking confidence, Siddiqui’s many outbursts and demands regarding her situation, particularly those relating to her paranoia regarding Jewish people, were trumpeted in headlines internationally, the prosecution even declaring that she was “no shrinking violet” in their closing argument.

In a Vogue magazine article titled “The Most Wanted Woman in the World,” everything—from her education and her strength of character to her mother’s devotion to women’s Islamic rights—is held up as exceptional and ominous. She is uniquely threatening, yet a warning of the neglected danger represented by Muslim women. It is claimed that Siddiqui “sheds light on what psychiatrist and former CIA analyst Marc Sageman calls ‘the neglected role of women’ in motivating men to fight for radical Islamic causes.” Just as in Newsweek’s analysis of Defne Bayrak, Siddiqui has been portrayed as a master manipulator.

Siddiqui has been dubbed “The Mata Hari of al Qaeda” after the notorious convicted spy and femme fatale famed for her “exotic” appeal and alleged use of her sexuality to acquire military secrets. Much like the convicted counterspy, the doubts surrounding Siddiqui’s story enable many narratives to be projected onto her. Claims that her first husband was violently and emotionally abusive to her vie with claims that she was abusive toward her first husband, pushing him towards taking violent action in various conflicts involving Muslims around the world. Speculation about her past abounds in the media, despite her trial being about a matter unrelated to her extremist views or her alleged ties to al Qaeda and actions taken on their behalf. More important than the possibly unknowable truth behind all of the allegations regarding what Aafia Siddiqui has done and what has been done to her is the opportunity to tell a compelling tale, and it seems – in the West, at least – the term “The Grey Lady of Baghram” lost out to “Lady al Qaeda.”

Stereotyping of minority groups is conspicuous in that the group being stereotyped is able to exist in the social consciousness as both harmless and in need of patronizing, as well as uniquely dangerous and subversive. Contrast the white man’s burden and the noble savage with the barbaric native, or the woman in need of patriarchal protection versus the calculating femme fatale rendering men themselves helpless. The stereotype of the Muslim woman who needs to be saved by the secular (or Christian) West from Muslim men, Islam, or patriarchal Islamic culture is well established. But Siddiqui embodies the other side of societal anxieties surrounding Muslim women: the darker reflection of this dichotomy is
the Menacing Muslim Woman, who unleashes fundamentalism, terrorism, and death wherever she goes.” Rather than requiring protection from a menacing culture or religion, she is the personification of the threat to Western civilization said culture or religion comprises. Ultimately, neither side of this dichotomy is representative of Muslim women as people, nor is the media saturation of these portrayals conducive to anything but fear mongering.

The portrayal of Aafia Siddiqui as a menacing threat to Western civilization is another example of the projection of different narrative onto Muslim women to serve political purposes—often ones that have little to do with the well-being of Muslim women.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-28727-Woodside-Family-Examiner RCHOUDH

    I’m praying for Dr. Siddiqui during this immense ordeal. What I worry most about though is where her two other children are. Her older son is now living with her family but it’s such a terrible mystery to not know where her two other children (a girl who would be around twelve now and a six month old baby now probably around seven) are. Maybe I’m especially feeling emotional about this because I’m a mother too to children close in age…

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  • http://www.vsthepomegranate.blogspot.com Joseph Shahadi

    This is an excellent essay. Great analysis of the media storm around Siddiqui. It is a neat trick how they use the fact of her independence and intelligence to “prove” their opposite by arguing she is the exception to the rule.

    It is always the same when it comes to Arab and/Muslim female insurgents… you’d think they get tired of that Mata Hari thing by now, but they never do.

  • Emily

    Hang on . . . you gave no defense of her innocence or not. Biased media doesn’t make her innocent, it just means the media is biased. Do you think she is an Al Qaeda operative or not? That’s kinda important, you know, because if she is, then she is a threat to Western society (whether you think being a threat to the West is just or not is another story).

  • Fatemeh

    @ Emily: We’re a media analysis site, and so we analyze the media. It doesn’t matter whether WE think she’s innocent or not; we’re looking at how Western and Pakistani media approach things. Western media portrays her one way and assumes guilt; Pakistani media portrays her another way and assumes innocence.

    I don’t appreciate the finger-pointing overtones in your comment. More than half of the writers on this site are born-and-raised in the West, and I think calling into question our patriotism or insinuating that we have evil, terroristic intentions is inappropriate (and an example of what has happened to Dr. Siddiqui)

  • Ayaan Hassan

    @ RCHOUDH, regardless of anything else, the doubt cast over what has happened to Siddiqui’s children is upsetting.

    @ Joseph Shahadi, thank you!

    @ Emily, it is really not my place to say whether Aafia Siddiqui is guilty or innocent, I am neither acquainted with her nor the full facts of the story. It seems a little much for you to expect me to have an opinion on her guilt or innocence just because I wrote an article about the portrayal of her trial in the media.

  • Emily

    Fatemeh, ” . . .calling into question our patriotism or insinuating that we have evil, terroristic intentions is inappropriate (and an example of what has happened to Dr. Siddiqui).”

    I’m sorry, but that is very paranoid. There is no way you could impute those sentiments onto my comment reasonably. For the record, that is NOT what I think. And finger pointing? This is the blogoshpere, where disagreement is the nature of the beast. My comment was in no way disrespectful, and was completely on topic. Please try and see what I am actually saying, without filtering through the lens of your own preconceptions.

    Ayaan, the question of Siddiqui’s guilt or innocence should be absolutely imperative to this post. If she has been deliberately framed, as some contend, then “the portrayal of Aafia Siddiqui as a menacing threat to Western civilization is another example of the projection of different narrative onto Muslim women to serve political purposes” is true. However, if she is indeed an al-Qaeda operative, then she IS a threat to the West (whether the West deserves to be threatened or not is another question). I don’t think it’s fair to just assume this is media stereotyping: maybe they are right (I’m not saying they are).

    The way the Pakistani media assumes innocence and the West assumes guilt reminds me of the OJ Simpson case, where everyone focussed on the black/white division, while the real issue went mostly unnoticed: the murder of an innocent woman. In the interests of justice, it’s not enough to just survey and comment on respective tribalisms, we must at least attempt to become informed enough to begin to form judgment on the guilt or innocence of the accused.

    The Siddiqui case is emblematic. Either she IS a terrorist, and there are Muslims with murderous intent against the West, or she is innocent, and the whole case is a charade concocted by the West to accuse the Muslim world, thereby justifying continuing incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, her guilt or innocence can accuse / exonerate either the West or that aspect of the Muslim world which wishes to challenge Western hegemony. I think ignoring this context, and content, of the media around this case, in order to just focus on bias, is to miss the point.

  • Ayaan Hassan

    “The Siddiqui case is emblematic.”

    Wrong. Regardless of her guilt or innocence, Aafia Siddiqui is one woman. The question is not whether there are Muslims who wish to harm the U.S./’Western world’, there clearly are, just as there are Muslims who are a part of the Western world. I think that if Aafia Siddiqui is guilty of terrorism (which is not what she has been tried for, or charged with) there is no justification for that, just as I don’t believe that there is any justification for the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t believe that there is any justification for the murder of innocent people at all.

    If you’ve come here expecting me to declare a woman I’ve never met guilty of a crime, as though I were a court of law, or to accuse the U.S. government of perverting the course of justice when I am not familiar with the facts of the case, then I’m sorry to disappoint you.

    The purpose of this site is to explore the depiction of Muslim women in the media. It is not accuse or exonerate either the West or the Muslim world. I’m honestly not sure what the point would be of attempting to generalise large portions of the world into singular, homogeneous entities which must be either primarily good or primarily bad.