Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals

Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals

by Farhana Qazi


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"This is an extraordinary book, written by an extraordinary woman. Qazi is a master storyteller, capturing the emotion as well as the subtleties of what she wants to communicate. And as the first Islamic member of the U.S. Counterterrorism Center, there is a lot that she wants to tell readers about."
-Anna Jedrziewski, Retailing Insight

The first Muslim woman to work for the U.S. government's Counterterrorism Center, Qazi found herself fascinated, even obsessed, by the phenomena of female extremists. Why, she wondered, would a girl from Denver join ISIS, a radical movement known for its mistreatment of women? Why would a teenage Iraqi girl strap on a suicide bomb and detonate it?

From Kashmir to Iraq to Afghanistan to Colorado to London she discovered women of different backgrounds, who all had their own reason for joining these movements. Some were confused, others taken advantage of, and some were just as radical and dedicated as their male counterparts. But in each case, Qazi found their choices were driven by a complex interaction of culture, context, and capability that was unique to each woman.

This book reframes their stories so readers can see these girls and women as they truly are: females exploited by men. Through hearing their voices and sharing their journeys Qazi gained powerful insights not only into what motivated these women but also into the most effective ways to combat terrorism—and about herself as well. "Through them," Qazi writes, "I discovered intervention strategies that are slowly helping women hold on to faith as they struggle with versions of orthodox Islam polluted by extremist interpretations. And in the process, I discovered a gentle Islam and more about myself as a woman of faith."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626567900
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 09/25/2018
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Farhana Qazi is a gender expert instructor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and a research fellow at the Center for Global Policy. She received the 21st Century Leader Award from the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York and the Humanitarian Award from her alma mater in Texas.

Read an Excerpt



Austin, Texas

Growing up in Texas, I learned about war from my mother. I listened to stories of countries born out of conflict; women taking up arms for national pride; and the speeches, songs, and scholarship created by women to fight their oppressors. Mama taught me about female fighters. I was always curious about why she chose to join the army, why she rallied for a socialist political party, and how she lied to her family to do what she believed was her God-given right as a woman. The right to go to war. The right to vote. And the right to choose her destiny.

We lived on a quiet, tree-lined street in north Austin. I knew very little about the country of my birth, Pakistan, or the religion I was born into, Islam. On faith, Mama preached: Pray when you can. Fast if you're healthy. Never judge anyone. Take care of the poor and your parents. Islam was made simple and easy, so long as my sister and I followed the cultural traditions cloaked by religion.

When I was a girl, my mother introduced me to Kashmir, a place that bids fair to being Heaven on earth. A tiny fraction of the world's population lives in the blue-green hills, divided unevenly between the two nuclear-rival countries of India and Pakistan. More than ten million Kashmiris live on the Indian side and six million live in the autonomous territory of Pakistan. By contrast, my childhood home in the state of Texas is twice the size of all of Kashmir. This region is the site of the world's highest battlefield, at twenty thousand feet, where Indian and Pakistani military troops fought. Though Mama romanticized Kashmir, she had never visited or lived near the white-blue mountains. For her and millions of Pakistanis, the valley symbolized resistance.

"Kashmir is worth dying for," Mama said.

On September 6, 1965, Pakistani soldiers crossed the ceasefire line and entered Indian-controlled Kashmir. The army began looking for female recruits. My mother volunteered. "I was the only girl from a college of two hundred students to sign up for training," she boasted.

After class, Mama boarded a bus heading to the cricket stadium in Lahore, where the air swirled with dust and mosquitos. She slipped on her military uniform — a statement piece 100 percent her own — with her hazelnut-colored hair falling to her shoulders. She learned how to shoot the enemy. She learned how to load a British-style rifle known as the 303. She learned how to bandage a wounded soldier.

Mama trained without wearing the hijab or burqa, the head-to-ankle cloth that flowed loosely to hide the contours of a woman's body. Refusing to cover her hair, Mama reminded me of American women in jeans, a symbol of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. I remember thinking how bold and sanguine she was while growing up in a country that offered girls few choices. She valued her freedom and refused to be controlled or cajoled by men. Not even her mother believed in male dominance or the meddling of family members. "Independence is God's greatest gift to women," Nano would say.

At the outset, I had no idea that Mama's story of a time long gone, and fragments of the truth shrouded in mystery, would lead me to other women in war. True to her faith, Mama is thankful for what she did.

Why did you want to fight?

"I had hope for my country. I wanted to prove that women are capable of what men can do. Besides, men can't fight wars alone. They need women to help them," she said with her characteristic Punjabi bluntness.

"The only freedom I had was the freedom to fight."

Going to war for her country was Mama's jihad, her inner struggle to be true to herself. In Islam, the simple meaning of jihad is to strive and prevail over one's ego, or nafs. Listening to my mother's stories, I believed that she needed to fight to feel alive, to break free of all conventional rules, and to stand for a universal spirituality that welcomes women into God's kingdom. In a country beset with political disputes, endless power struggles, and religious clashes, Mama believed she could help Pakistan win the war.

Mama was caught up in patriotic fervor. Unlike most women of her time, she supported soldiers by wanting to go to battle. She was not the type of woman who would sew needed items or make bandages, though she did receive basic medical training. Mama reminded me of women I would read about as a teenager — the courageous women of the American Civil War, who defied society's expectations and bravely chose to take on more dangerous, unconventional roles. As a child, I revered this part of my mother: the young woman in long braided hair who dared to speak for women in a country ruled by men. Mama disguised her role as a female soldier in training. She hid her military uniform in her school bag from her teachers and told her family that she was staying after school at a friend's house.

"I did that for weeks," she said, until the war was over.

Mama shared the army's will to claim a land she had never visited. Her national identity as a Pakistani was linked intricately to Kashmir, a remote valley that my mother had learned about in childhood from her mother's stories. "I am from Kashmir," she said, but shied away from saying "I am a Kashmiri." Mama held on to Kashmir as if it were a timeless picture in a vintage frame. She had romanticized the valley. It is Jannat, or Paradise, a term coined by the late Mughal emperor Jahangir. He wrote, "If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here in Kashmir." For Mama, the valley had old-world charm. She saw it through iconic photographs: sun-kissed images of shikaras, small canoes, gliding along Dal Lake; blue-green mountains; and worshippers at sacred places bobbing their heads like sparrows.

From Mama's hometown in Lahore, Pakistan-held Kashmir is at least a six-hour car ride — a drive she's never taken.

After the 1965 war, Mama became a loyalist for the newly created Pakistan People's Party, led by the socialist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom my mother worshipped. "When I saw this handsome man speak, I was hooked. I made my decision to help him win the election," she said.

Mama went door to door with her one-line slogan: "Let your women vote." She told me, "I wanted our women to come out of their homes. I had to convince the men that the women had a right to vote ... everything in Pakistan begins with men. They control the country, and men often control the lives of women."

On December 7, 1970, Bhutto won by a landslide. It was a historic day for the country. Many years later, memories of the 1970 election lie in a faded black-and-white photograph of my mother on the front page of the Imroz ("Today") newspaper, which is no longer published. In the picture, Mama sports a white cotton shirt and baggy pants, her long hair braided. With one hand in the air, clenched in a fist, she looks like a fighter. She has the aura of a young woman on the verge of achieving her dreams.

She was my first woman warrior.

As her daughter, I'm often amazed at how unwounded my mother is. She would readily admit that war changes everything and everyone. It changed the ways in which women behaved: how they planned their day and how they interacted with one another, and carefully choosing how they communicated with outsiders. War could leave deep wounds that would never heal, but somehow it didn't mark my mother, or at least there were no visible injuries. Her only melancholic moments come when remembering her mother. "She sacrificed so much. For most of her life, she was alone and bitter, always wanting more than her country could give her."

I remember my grandmother, whom I affectionately called Nano, as a woman with a sickness, nausea, and longing that I had at times felt when I looked at the past. We spent nights together in Lahore. In her nineties, she had long, thin gray hair; steel-gray eyes; and hands that felt like leather. She slept with dangling gold and emerald earrings, and as she aged, her voice cracked when she spoke. She lived alone in the old quarter of Krishnagar. Nano's house once belonged to a Hindu family before Pakistan was a country. In the late 1940s, the family migrated to India when it became an independent state. Even after the freedom movement, the neighborhood retained its Hindu name — Krishna is a revered god in Hinduism.

Though Pakistan became her home, Nano's family was once rooted in Kashmir before the valley and the entire Indian subcontinent became unevenly split by the Partition Plan, drafted by Britain's Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never set foot in the region. In five weeks, the Radcliffe Line, or the border formally recognized by England and Indian nationalists, divided millions of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. When the British government withdrew, it transferred power from all of its 584 princely states to the newly created countries of India and Pakistan.

All except Kashmir.

Nano's house generated many stories: The story of moving into a space previously owned by Hindus before India and Pakistan declared their independence. The story of everyone living together, even after marriage, as one big family. And the story of grandchildren playing on the flat rooftop of the house while Nano, their caretaker, watched with joy. For decades, the house was the center of Nano's life, complete with history and family fables. As her family structure changed, when children and grandchildren moved out, the house she once cherished for the infectious love it contained rearranged itself into empty spaces. All that was left were memories of a time and place retold as fragments of her imagination. "We had apple trees in Kashmir," she would say of a place she could never forget.

During my visits to Pakistan, I spent a few nights with Nano. Most of my days were spent traveling through Pakistan to interview and research victims of violence, speak to scholars about terrorism trends, and meet with government officials to understand the rising terrorist threat in the country. Over a span of thirty years, the Pakistan I came to know was unfamiliar and unrelated to Mama's experiences as a child and a young adult. After my parents purchased their first and only home in Texas, Mama made it clear that she could never return to a country obsessed with its own survival from political chaos, corruption, crime, and calculated terrorist attacks. "Who can live in a place where random violence is the norm?" she lamented.

The stories of a distant time and Mama's training as a soldier that I had heard as a child forced me to question the role of women in war. I had to know more about what motivated a woman to fight for a cause she believed in. In my mind, I came up with questions I might someday ask women living in or exposed to conflict: Have you ever come into contact with cases of family violence or experienced violence yourself? Have you been a victim of a traumatic incident? How do you perceive conflicts in the Muslim world? What is your practice of Islam? And so on. Behind such clumsy questions was an impatient attempt to get to the most direct question of all: Who are you?

At the heart of these questions was an attempt to piece together the identity of Muslim girls and women in order to understand their experiences and choices. As a young Muslim girl in America, I carried the burden of adapting to a mainstream society while belonging to a distinct and decidedly fixed culture at home. Although I was not raised in conflict or exposed to a constant stream of violent action, I had a different conflict, which has been described as a clash of cultures. I wrote poetry to heal, expressing the realities and dangers of an honor-and-shame culture that could entrap a Muslim girl in a Western country, if she was exposed, over time, to severe adverse life events, such as trauma, childhood victimization, neglect, abuse, depression, anxiety, or family instability. I firmly believed in the principle that a person is the product of his or her environment. Thus, I felt, Muslim girls and women made different choices depending on where they were in life. Often, it seemed, these choices were driven by a belief in dreams and the hopeless illusion that Islam would prevail with violent action.

The more I learned, the more I understood how conflicts could drive some women and girls to take up arms and sacrifice everything for the greater good, which is one part in the ongoing story of females looking to belong to a cause, country, or creed. When I became a young adult, I learned about the power and ubiquitousness of stories. My longtime professor friend Eric Selbin said of revolutionary stories, "Memories of oppression, sagas of occupation and struggle, tales of opposition, myths of once and future glory, words of mystery and symbolism, are appropriated from the pantheon of the history of resistance and rebellion common to almost every culture ... and provide a picture of the world as it was, as it is, and as it could and should be."

I see Mama, now in her sixties, in her revolutionary imagination, wondering what life might have been, had she stayed in Pakistan instead of coming to America as a young wife with me in her arms.

"I could have been a great politician," she said.

* * *

In seventh-century Arabia, the Archangel Gabriel revealed God's message to the Prophet Muhammad. Believers in Islam, the world's fastest-growing religion, with over a billion Muslims and a rising rate of conversion, see the life-altering gift of faith as their guide in this world and their path to Paradise, which is the ultimate goal. Muslims learn about the human condition from past prophets and saintly men and women, whose stories are preserved and transmitted by historians, intellectuals, and deeply thoughtful students who understand the past with passionate hearts.

At home, religion was described to me as an event in history. Islam was something that happened — a moment of truth that came to be, which was both singular and magical but existed in a fixed time period. Daddy constantly criticized Muslims for their backwardness, corruption, and religious rioting. He condemned faith-based rituals and lived by a stubborn logic he called the cause-and-effect principle, which meant that faith alone was not the answer to ignorance and inexperience. Faith could not save us from ourselves.

Mama disagreed. She believed in the Promised Land and rarely let life discourage her. Her abiding faith in God reminded me of the Christian preacher Joel Olsteen, who said, "You may face problems and setbacks, but remember, God is still leading the way." My mother's approach was relaxed and confident. She made faith both accessible and ultramodern, allowing me to discover it for myself later in life. I've always thought that was one of the beauties in her practice — she lifted the pressures over hijab and sexuality and allowed her daughters to come into their own. "Because you are a Muslim girl, you have to be strong," she said repeatedly.

Mama taught me to memorize a few verses in Arabic from the holy book, the Quran, and recited a popular oral tradition: "Paradise lies at the feet of mothers." Early on, I knew I couldn't talk back to the woman who determined if I entered Heaven or Hell.

As a child, I had mixed images of Mama. I watched her dance with her Indian and American friends in our home. Daddy turned our home into a disco. Photographs show a strobe light hanging from the ceiling of the living room. With the furniture shoved aside, men and women of different faiths and ethnic background twirled to the music. Some drank. In her red dress, Mama danced the night away sober.

As an immigrant child, I was confused about many things, among them the role of religion in family, society, and the larger world. While I didn't learn the history, doctrine, or principles of Islam at home, my parents did teach me the fundamentals of success: be kind to everyone, show up on time, and work hard. However, I needed to know more about Islam and believed in the spiritual depth of rituals and the circle of life, as described by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth: "The circle represents totality. Everything within the circle is one thing, which is encircled, enframed. That would be the spatial aspect. But the temporal aspect of the circle is that you leave, go somewhere, and always come back. God is the alpha and the omega, the source and the end. The circle suggests immediately a completed totality, whether in time or in space." Though Campbell wrote about mythology and the hero's journey, his concept that "the whole world is a circle" helped me embrace the "circle of faith" idea.

In my lectures, I say that Muslims believe that Islam completes the circle of all monotheistic religions, and therefore Islam is not a new but a "borrowed" religion, building on the tenets of Judaism and Christianity, led by a prophet from Arabia sent by God to remind people of His Oneness and His Greatness. In that spirit, a Muslim is "one who submits" to the will of God; and in submission, or worship of the one God, a Muslim enters the Afterlife. (Oddly, the goal for pious, practicing Muslims is the same for Muslim extremists, who use violence and any means necessary to attain a place in Paradise.)


Excerpted from "Invisible Martyrs"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Farhana Qazi.
Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Foreword, xi,
Author's Note, xiii,
Preface, xv,
INTRODUCTION: Awakening, 1,
1. Destiny, 15,
2. Going Solo, 29,
3. Deception, 43,
4. The Stranger, 63,
5. Where the Girls Are, 75,
6. Misguided, 89,
7. Love of God, 107,
8. Wired, 123,
9. Soul Sick, 143,
CONCLUSION: Paradise, 155,
Notes, 169,
Acknowledgments, 175,
Index, 177,
About the Author, 187,

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