The aftermath of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s conviction nearly two weeks ago in a New York courtroom has seen several protests in her home country of Pakistan. On February 13, students from universities all over Islamabad congregated at Aapbara Chowk and demanded her release, while pointing out the silence of human rights groups. A day earlier, Lahore’s Liberty Chowk saw students and faculty members of several educational institutions come together to protest against Dr. Aafia’s continued detention. Many other protests have been witnessed since the verdict was announced.
While the facts of Dr. Aafia’s case remain shrouded in secrecy, the transformation of her case from one of suspected terrorism to Pakistan’s cause célèbre is undeniable. No other female figure facing serious criminal charges has ever garnered so much public outpouring of support in Pakistan’s recent history.
More notable is the wide spectrum of groups supporting her cause. The recent protests have illustrated the breadth of her allure, driving groups as diverse as the Tanzeem-i-Jihad and students from elite schools to the streets of major urban areas. From women in burka on the streets of Karachi chanting “down with the US” to jeans-clad members of student action committees at Liberty Chowk, Aafia Siddiqui seems to have captured the collective heart of the Pakistani nation.
This ability to unite such a diverse group of Pakistanis behind her makes her appeal worthy of analysis. It is rare indeed for those frequenting elite private universities to have a platform in common with the burka-clad members of organisations such as the Tanzeem-i-Jihad.
While the human rights violations in her case are the obvious explanation for such unity among the Pakistani public it is not the only factor. Human rights violations are rampant in Pakistan but are routinely ignored and do not provoke much public outcry. Indeed, the alleged torturer of 12-year-old Shazia Masih who is believed to have died of violence inflicted on her was released on bail without generating much of an outcry. Thousands continue to languish in the country’s jails without being afforded hearings.
How then does Aafia Siddiqui’s case appeal to the public? If anything, she has flouted conventions dear to Pakistani culture. She is divorced from her first husband with whom she has children. She then went on to remarry. Ordinarily, this alone would be considered enough to render a woman morally suspect in the eyes of Islamist groups whose teachings and literature uphold dutiful wives and mothers.
Indeed, groups like the Jamaat-i-Islami and Tanzeem-i-Jihad would normally have problems with the idea of a young woman like Dr. Aafia Siddiqui travelling all over the world, as she did, without being accompanied by a male relation or mahram. Also problematic would have been the fact that she attended a Jewish-funded educational institution and did not live with her family while completing her education.
As the emblem of Pakistani womanhood, one that is being venerated and defended around the country, Aafia Siddiqui’s unfettered popularity represents perhaps the emergence of a new kind of female rebel. While she may have lived the life of a liberated western woman, attending American universities, working routinely with men, the visible image she presents is quite useful in allowing her to evade criticism.
Wearing the niqab she refuses to remove, shouting anti-imperialist slogans and taunting the institutional justice of her American captors, Aafia Siddiqui is able to channel the voice of every downtrodden person who has been misjudged and mistreated by the US. In accepting the visible garb of an obedient Muslim woman she seems to have won the hearts and minds of those very men who may have been her most avid critics.
Ironically the most magnetic aspect of Dr. Aafia’s appeal lies in the most harmful allegations levelled against her. Simply put, while it is entirely likely that the stories alleging that Dr. Aafia grabbed an unattended assault rifle and shot at her American interrogator are untrue, the possibility of their being correct titillates every Pakistani wanting to defy the US.
Pakistan’s beleaguered sense of sovereignty — assaulted by repeated drone attacks and an unending series of conspiracy theories regarding the presence or absence of US troops on Pakistani soil — is instantly assuaged at the idea of a frail, helpless woman attacking a trained American law-enforcement official. Cumulatively, the explosive mix of appearing to be the obedient Muslim woman clad in niqab and a would-be assassin defying the US make Dr. Aafia Siddiqui irresistible as a heroine and an icon.
Undoubtedly, Aafia Siddiqui is a rebel. Born to a middle-class family she chose a male-dominated career and earned a PhD degree in a field where women are severely unrepresented. She abandoned a conventional life as a mother taking her children to and from school and looking after her husband and home to marry someone who was known to be an Al Qaeda member. She was arrested, disappeared in extremely suspicious circumstances and resurfaced in Afghanistan, leading to several questions. Even more questions remain about her guilt or innocence but her elevation to the status of an icon bears deeper consideration by all diverse groups supporting her cause.
The most pressing of these questions is whether similar attention and unquestioning sympathy would have been afforded to a Pakistani woman who had similarly thwarted convention but was persecuted by Pakistani authorities rather than the American ones. There is much valour even in the dream of defying the US but should such defiance be the only mark of heroism in our society? Concern for human rights, due process and justice are venerated principles that apply universally and indeed unequivocally to Aafia Siddiqui’s case but they also do so to all other cases of justice denied which may not vindicate a country’s suffering pride but whose victims are equally tortured and helpless.
Rafia Zakaria is a contributing writer to Altmuslimah and a US-based attorney who teaches constitutional law and political philosophy. She can be reached at rafia.zakaria[at]gmail.com. This article was previously published in Dawn (Pakistan).