The debate over Salman Rushdie and radicalism reminded me of a book I read recently, Wanted Women, in which Deborah Scroggins reconstructs the histories of two Muslim women – Ayan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui. The former is a Somali born, ex-member of the Dutch parliament and author of the bestselling book Infidel. She was raised as a Muslim fundamentalist in Kenya, but later turned into a fierce critic of the religion of her birth. Her personal tale of courage in the face of constant threats from violent, fanatical enemies won her the admiration of many across the globe.
Aafia Siddiqui is a native of Pakistan who obtained a student visa in 1990 to attend college in the United States at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shortly after graduating from MIT, Siddiqui’s parents arranged for her to marry Amjad Khan, a Pakistani doctor whom she hadn’t met. Khan joined Siddiqui in the United States after the wedding, and both became active members of the local Islamic community near Boston. It was during this time that Khan allegedly began conspiring with Khalid Sheik Muhammad in plots to attack gas stations in Baltimore. After 9/11, the couple came under scrutiny from Federal authorities and consequentially moved back to Karachi in the summer of 2002. Shortly after Muhammad’s arrest in March 2003, Siddiqui disappeared from her home in Karachi, and didn’t surface again for five years when, in 2008, she was arrested in Kabul and extradited to New York City. She was tried and convicted of attempted murder.
Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Wanted Women traces the origins of these two women and tries to explain why they chose opposite paths that “transformed them into emblems of a [larger] civilizational struggle.”
Fatima Bhutto, the niece of the late Benazir Bhutto, is also an example of international curiosity. Her rebellion against her prominent family has won her acclaim from people across the subcontinent. This was evident, for example, at the Japiur Literature Festival on Monday, where a large crowd filled the Mughal Tent to see her conversation with journalists Karan Thapar and Ayesha Jalal.
The crowd hung on Bhutto’s every word, hoping to get a hint of whether she planned to form her own political party or join Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf, as has long been speculated in Pakistan. But Bhutto defied expectations when she began fiercely criticizing Khan (although she added that she won’t be forming her own political party either). She said Khan was soft on former dictators and incapable of providing the necessary visionary leadership for the country.
“Is he a savior? No, I don’t think so,” she said. “He has an incredible coziness not with the military, but with dictatorship.”
“As a woman, I worry very much about Imran's politics. I worry about a person who voted against the Women's Bill in 2006,” said Bhutto of the legislation, which amends a previous Pakistani law that held female rape victims responsible for adultery. For Bhutto, a popular journalist and writer, Oxford graduate Khan is simply a status quo politician who is both pro-army and pro-Islamist.
Mocking the rising political star of the country, Bhutto remarked that it’s tragic that “We've got this enormous country with so much in it, and we only seem to be able to talk in cricket metaphors.”
Bhutto’s co-panelist, Ayesha Jalal, who teaches South Asian history at Tufts University, also doubted whether Khan can be a successful political leader.
“I don't see a major change. What we see is parliamentarians and politicians seeing him (Imran Khan) as the horse to bet on, which will hurt Imran. It will tie his hands,” Jalal said.
Later in the day, Bhutto was part of another program entitled “War, Revolution and the Writer as Exile.” During this event, she recounted her turbulent childhood living as an exile in Syria with her father, who was forced to flee Pakistan after Zia Ul-Haq came to power. She also spoke of her father’s tragic death in a shooting in Karachi when she was just 14 years-old. She explained that these tragic experiences during her formative years have shaped her identity today. Interestingly, Bhutto also added that she still feels like an exile in Pakistan.
Sanjay Kumar also blogs at Indian Decade.