Bin Laden’s Wife and the Stereotyping of Muslim Women

This was originally published at The Guardian’s Comment is free.

Women played an interesting role in the account of the final hours of Osama Bin Laden’s life. Three wives, as well as nine of his children, lived in the compound where he was killed, along with the families of two Pakistani brothers. Initially, it was erroneously reported that Bin Laden had used one of his wives as a human shield. However, as we began to learn more about the compound in Abbottabad and the events that made it so famous, one of the most discussed members of Bin Laden’s family quickly became Amal Ahmed al-Sadah. In spite of the considerable number of people living in the compound, Bin Laden’s youngest wife has garnered a huge amount of attention.

Amal Ahmed Al-Sadah

Al-Sadah's passport photo. Uncredited.

A bride at the age of 17, Sadah moved to Afghanistan, and then to Pakistan with her new husband. While some articles speak of her being “gifted” to Bin Laden, this is contradicted by other reports that she “dutifully accepted” the proposal arranged by an aide of Bin Laden in Yemen. While Sadah’s family recently provided some details of her life with Bin Laden, they have not seen her since her marriage in 2000, so there is still very little concrete information about the realities of her life in the compound.

According to Sadah, she “never left” the upper floors of the three-storey compound during the five years that she was there. But it is difficult to know whether or not this was a result of Bin Laden’s extreme religious views or of life on the run, much like testimony from the wives of other well-known terrorists.

Either way, the construction of Sadah as the pitiful child bride of Bin Laden reminds me of the language used in relation to Muslim women in Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11. Such images risk provoking the problematic question of whether or not certain Muslim women need “saving”. For me, this takes away from one of the most important victories of the Arab spring – the shift in perspective regarding the coverage of Arab and Muslim women. Rather than focusing on stereotypes, media images of women playing an active role in creating social change have begun to paint a much more nuanced picture of the diverse struggles faced by women in the Arab world. This considered, I believe it is imperative to focus on the realities of the lives of women attached to religious fundamentalism, such as Sadah, as opposed to turning them into sensationalistic soundbites and images.

The fixation on Bin Laden’s personal life is significant for a number of reasons. In the past 10 years, what Bin Laden represented, and thus the image that was constructed of him, was almost as significant as the actual pursuit of him. Since his death, many people have wondered how the son of a wealthy and seemingly cosmopolitan family could become the face of the “war on terror”. The actual roles and agencies of family members in Bin Laden’s work and life are therefore crucial to identify, not least as US officials attempt to determine what should be done with those currently in custody.

However, it is my belief that the focus should be on what actually occurred in the home of Bin Laden, rather than sensationalising the details of life on the compound or generalising from them. I am wary, for example, of comparing the relationship between Bin Laden and his wife with that of other Muslim marriages in Pakistan: for in Pakistan, the relationship between gender and religion is complex and varied, and I would not want to perpetuate the essentialising of Muslim women.

Furthermore, I think it is hard to relate Sadah to the wider context of Pakistan because of the different cultures that are involved. Since she is Yemeni and Bin Laden is Saudi, it is difficult to persuasively tie them or their actions to Pakistan, or even understand their relationship to it beyond a hideout. I could relate Sadah to the general context of Muslim women, but once again, I think this risks essentialising her and Muslim women in general.

Like many American Muslims, I am hopeful that Bin Laden’s death will be the closing of a chapter. Not just one of a violent ideology – but also of a sensationalistic and oversimplistic approach to discussing such incredibly important world issues.

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    Does anyone know if a woman was indeed killed in the raid or was that just misinformation? I remember it being said early on that a woman who died was Bin Laden’s wife though they had to retract that later on so now I’m wondering if a woman died at all.

    Also I didn’t understand why they said at first that Bin Laden used his wife as a shield and then retract that statement…it makes them look incompetent in that they can’t keep their facts straight.

    And I found it interesting how the media tried to at first paint Amal one way (as a poor pitiful figure) but then gave her story some nuance with articles about her determination to die alongside her husband and so forth. Goes to show human beings lead complex lives.

    And I was put off by this one reporter actually judging Amal by her looks, because apparently that’s what all women should be judged by first and foremost/sarcasm! He went on about her being a “pale young woman with generous lips” (his exact words).

  • Marilyn

    Thank you for this insightful post. As an American raised in Pakistan (I also lived there as an adult before moving to Cairo, Egypt) I too am troubled by broad strokes of the brush when painting a picture of Pakistan and Pakistani women. One of the best marriages I know is that of friends, both Pakistani. An arranged marriage, they met only once prior to their wedding day. He was raised in Libya and Malta, educated in the United States, she was born and raised in Pakistan educated as a physician. They are an excellent argument against stereotypes of both women and marriages.
    There is little understanding of the system of Pardah and how it works in daily life. For instance, village women are completely free in their villages protected by the men of the village. They are not veiled, although they wear dupattas. This proved to be a problem in refugee camps during the flood of last August as villages were brought together within the camps and did not feel safe-much like many of us may feel with strangers.
    In terms of Muslim women needing to be saved from cultural bondage? I would argue that Charlie Sheen’s women really need saving from cultural bondage.
    Love this blog. Thank you.