In 2001, first lady Laura Bush discussed the need “to kick off a world-wide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaeda terrorist network” as a principal justification for the Afghanistan War. Following that line of thinking, President Bush repeatedly referred to “women of cover” who needed reprieve from the misogyny of Islamic extremists, and war hawks seized upon the issue of helpless Muslim women to advance conflict in the Middle East through the 2000s.
The truth is that in our post 9/11 world, Muslim women are not beneficiaries of violence in Muslim countries, but a gimmick used to justify it. Indeed, women are themselves major, underappreciated victims of the war in terror, including the recent incidence of drone strikes.
The disastrous effect of drone attacks on women is threefold. First, Muslim women themselves are killed devastatingly. Though their deaths have been largely ignored by the Western media and denied by the U.S. government, the wealth of data on drone strikes is clear: “targeted” killings murder scores of civilians, including many women and children (a report by the Investiture Bureau of Journalism put the civilian death toll between 411 and 884). In late spring 2011, the women of Mir Ali village in North Pakistan were encased in their modest stone houses when the sky starting falling. Though they did not know it then, five of those women were about to die in U.S. drone attacks that have proliferated over the past two years.
Moreover, the deaths of Muslim men have an additional negative impact on Muslim women. The male civilians killed in drone attacks (and they are often civilians) do not exist in a vacuum; they are the husbands, fathers and sons of Muslim women. They are breadwinners, community leaders and parts of families. Their killings dissolve and disintegrate whole communities. Their absence can lead to economic ruin in places where instability has already made economic prosperity impossible. Paying the resulting medical bills of men injured by strikes can put untenable financial burdens on women. Interviewees in the tribal area of Pakistan report that drones often destroy the buildings upon attack, and rebuilding these structures is another monetary strain in a region dominated by poverty.
Finally, drones exact a toll on Muslim women’s communities simply by the very presence of the vehicles. In many regions of Northwest Pakistan, drones constantly circle villages, giving rise to an atmosphere of intense fear. Sites for drone attacks have included mosques, civilians’ houses and funerals. The phenomenon of secondary strikes has contributed to further degeneration of civilians’ mental health by discouraging civilians from coming to the aid of their neighbors. Civilians are now more wary of gathering in groups for any reason and parents have stopped sending their children to school out of fear. A study done by Stanford and NYU reported one result of these drone strikes is psychological trauma in civilians.
What the dialogue on Muslim women in America has failed to capture is that they are intertwined in communities with Muslim men; and though the U.S. has tried, it’s not possible to rescue one while killing the other. Muslim women are part of Muslim countries and Muslim cities; they do not exist independently of their homes as damsels in distress for the U.S. to pick up. U.S. foreign policy for the last few years seems to fall into the trap Gayatri Spivak warned of in the 1980s; that of “white men saving brown women from brown men.”
During the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Muslim women were brought up as a major casualty, with commentators assuming that the War on Terror has been a good thing for them. In the aftermath of Malala Yousafzai’s shooting (she eventually survived), the calls for the U.S. to save Muslim women went up once again.
And yet, despite the fact that one of the primary justifications we were given for the War on Terror was the rescue of Muslim women, they lose their lives, money and sanity to the war, including the recent rash of American drone strikes. Muslim women are not only underappreciated victims of drone violence; they are victims we were supposed to play heroes to.