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Shadow Lives focuses on the families of men in detention in Belmarsh or Guantanamo, underlining the cruelty and injustice of the US and UK governments’ War on Terror

Victoria Brittain, Shadow Lives: the Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (Pluto Press 2013), ix, 182pp.

The work of campaigners, ex-detainees like Moazzam Begg, and solicitors like Clive Stafford Smith and Gareth Peirce, have revealed what the US and UK governments would have rather remained unknown: the plight of the men held in Guantanamo or in Belmarsh and other UK prisons without charge or trial, or under house arrest and control orders. Shadow Lives does not go over the same ground but adds another dimension, by focusing not on the imprisoned men but on the effect that this state injustice has on their families.

The selection of the particular women appearing here covers a range of different forms of detention: Sabah and Zinnira’s husbands were in Guantanamo, Dina, Josephine’s and Hamda’s between Belmarsh and control orders, while Ragaa’s husband, Farida’s son and Amna’s brother are imprisoned in a US supermax. They are also stories with different outcomes. Sabah’s, which opens the book, is relatively happy, as her husband Jamil el Banna was released from Guantanamo in 2007. In contrast, Zinnira’s husband Shaker Aamer remains in Guantanamo on hunger strike, and in 2012 Ragaa, Farida and Amna lost their fight to prevent Adel Abdul Bary, Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmed from being extradited to the US, where their trial has just been put back to 2014.

Brittain clearly spent a long time getting to know the women, enabling her to go beyond a surface, journalistic portrait. The result is a series of accounts not just of their men’s arrest and detention but of their adult lives and the choices which put them in the path of the persecuting state. This could have been more controversial than it would seem, as in other hands, some at least of these stories could have been used to make Islamophobic points about radicalisation and the position of women in some forms of Islam.

It is clear that for most of the women, their identity as wives and mothers is paramount, regardless of whether they have been forced to work by the long absence of their husbands, and many had followed their husbands to different countries without apparently having much say in the decision. For some, this view of gender relations was explicitly part of their religion: Ragaa, for example, growing up in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s, ‘was a girl in tight jeans and a t-shirt, with long hair below her waist’, until she went to Cairo University and adopted a stricter form of Islam. This included wearing hijab and regarding education and working outside the home as forbidden. Her marriage to Adel was part of this process as he was the teacher at her Islamic study circle (pp.82-83).

Brittain does not attempt to skate over this aspect of some of the women’s lives, nor over their religion. The short section on Abu Qatada’s family, for example, spends some time discussing how his daughters in particular negotiate practising their faith in a society which gives it at best only the barest tolerance, and describes how outside the home they wear ‘dark coats, long black veils and niqabs’ (p.116). However, the sympathetic and matter-of-fact recounting of the women’s stories forces the reader to see them as individuals rather than as tabloid stereotypes. Some of this is in the detail: Ragaa was not forced by oppressive men to start wearing hijab but did so in a spirit of rebellion against her parents; her parents tolerated the hijab but drew the line at abandoning education. When her sister wanted to leave college, ‘her mother hit her, and then sat hard on her, and she changed her mind’ (p.84)). For Amna, Babar Ahmed’s sister, ‘our faith is everything’ (p.112), but she also works as a doctor. One of Abu Qatada’s daughters organised a campaign to get a women’s prayer room at her college. Mostly however it is in the quality of Brittain’s writing and her engagement with her subjects which reminds the reader that practising a strict form of Islam is not terrorism, and that judging other women’s lifestyles is not feminism.

The focus on the women’s lives means that Brittain says little about the men’s cases, sometimes not even precisely of what they are accused. This does not mean that the book is short on detail of detention and control orders; on the contrary, the concentration on the domestic brings out the bureaucratic absurdity and the sheer vindictiveness of the treatment these families receive. The constraints of control orders, imposed on a number of men released from detention in Belmarsh and other prisons, including banning un-vetted visitors to the house and forbidding computers with internet connections and memory sticks, are as much a punishment for the family as for the detainee himself. A friend of Abu Qatada’s family, for example, had to look into getting them a caravan where the children could use the internet for their homework, as they were not allowed to use it in the house. Dina eventually sent two of her children to school in Jordan because these kinds of restrictions were holding them back. The courts had consistently refused to lift any of the restrictions which affected the schoolwork of Dina’s children, despite the fact that her husband, Mahmood, was unable to get upstairs to the computer because of a beating from the guards when he was detained. Josephine recounted how after her husband was released on bail from Belmarsh, he was not allowed to leave the house at all, even for heath care, and they were not allowed to receive any visitors. It took three months to get permission for his solicitor to visit, and when Brittain visited, Josephine had to entertain her in the hallway outside the flat.

Josephine had two washing-machine stories which illustrate the absurdity of the control orders. The first one was that it took weeks for clearance to be given for someone to come and repair their washing machine, and it was only granted on condition that her husband did not see or speak to him. The second was more ridiculous still. They had bought a new washing machine, but could not allow the delivery men to bring it in as that would have breached the order. They had arranged a plumbing company to plumb it in, but the company could not say in advance the full name of the plumber who would come, and the Home Office would not grant permission without being able to vet them. Eventually, Josephine’s solicitor hired a different, named, plumber. ‘Then after all that the man from the Home Office just sat there on the sofa and never even went downstairs to see the plumber fixing the machine. So, we’d paid two plumbers. For what?’ (p.60).

Reading these accounts of the reality of control orders for the families of the detainees, it is difficult not to see them as a form of collective punishment, a weapon to separate the detainees from their families by making life associated with them intolerable. Brittain also makes clear how these bureaucratic measures are imposed on families and children already traumatised by their fathers’ years of detention without trial, by their violent arrests and by subsequent searches. One of Dina’s children wrote about the day their father was taken away: ‘it was the worst Eid I ever had … early in the morning and we were sleeping … it was so scary … bang, bang, bang and there were lots of police in our bedroom … my mum was crying, our baby was crying … downstairs the police were sitting in our room smoking … they took my dad away’ (p.56).  Small wonder that one of Dina’s daughters wrote: ‘Listen to my story, then decide if you will be able to live my life’ (p.67).

As Brittain sets out in her conclusion, struggles like that for freedom for Palestine, or the vision of a new Islamic society which drew some detainees like Shaker Aamer to Afghanistan, are seen as terrorism, when viewed through the lens of the ‘War on Terror’ and the Islamophobia it fosters.

Individuals are thus swept up in the US and UK governments’ extra-legal proceedings almost at random. In this process, the ‘actual details of what happened in people’s lives, and with that some understanding of the costs, were mostly invisible’ (p.164). This book puts those costs in the foreground and provides more ammunition for the continuing fight to end detention without trial and bring the detainees home.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 

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