"Misguided women"

Disparaging terms for burqa-clad women used to be a joke - but not after female students began a cam

The ninjas. The burqa brigade. The women in black. For some years now I've been hearing such terms thrown around with disdain by "burqa-unfriendly" sections of Pakistani society to describe the women who swathe themselves entirely in black. The terms are disparaging, but until recently they were a joke, not invested with the property of fear invoked by the ninjas' male counterparts: the beards, the fundos, the jihadis. In the past few weeks, all that has changed.

The first sign of trouble occurred in January when the female students of Islamabad's Jamia Hafsa madrasa occupied a children's library to protest against the demolition of 80 mosques encroaching on public land. Rather than resorting to its usual brute-force tactics, the government sent in the minister for religious affairs to promise that those mosques already demolished would be rebuilt. Many voices started grumbling about the government's inability to stand up to "a group of girls". But it didn't take much to imagine the PR fallout for Musharraf's government if he sent in baton-wielding police officers after a group of teenaged girls objecting to the razing of mosques in a country where illegal buildings are hardly out of the ordinary.

Then, in March, dozens of girls from Jamia Hafsa kidnapped three women and a baby from a house they claimed was a brothel. Next they kidnapped two policemen. Newspaper front pages were splashed with pictures of the ninjas chasing away plain-clothes policemen while wielding long sticks. They have also taken to patrolling the bazaars, threatening the owners of DVD and CD stores, which they claim spread pornography and vice. Every few days the papers now carry pictures of DVD bonfires.

The girls of Jamia Hafsa have their male counterparts at the adjoining Jamia Fareedia madrasa for men. But "Jamia Fareedia" has not entered Pakistan's vocabulary in the way "Jamia Hafsa" has, and the part that the male students play in their campaign of "virtue" has gone compa ratively unremarked on, though they, too, were present at the kidnappings and are part of the intimidation of video store owners. In fact, the femaleness of the female students seems to be causing almost as much consternation as the decision by the brothers who run the two madrasas to impose a parallel sharia system of justice within their premises and their warnings of suicide attacks if the government doesn't also impose sharia law.

The gendered nature of the commentary about the Jamia Hafsa students cuts across many sections of society - from the radio DJ who, tongue firmly in cheek, declared the theme of his show "girl power - in honour of the ladies of Jamia Hafsa", to the highly respected journalist deploying the phrase "chicks with sticks", to the head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the offshoot of the banned militant party Lashkar-e-Toiba) opposing the students' actions on the grounds that it is un-Islamic for women to take a leadership position, to General Musharraf dismissing the vigilantes as "misguided women" - which seems to suggest that they wouldn't or couldn't behave as they were doing if not for someone else (presumably male) guiding their actions. Musharraf has also used gender as an excuse for not taking action against their flagrant violations of the law. "We respect women," he intoned with great sincerity, put ting aside the fact that women are being harassed and kidnapped by the JH students.

Repent and be forgiven

If Pakistan's outspoken feminists are not rising up in objection to the sexist subtext of all these comments it is because they're far more concerned with the threat that the JH students pose to other women. They have already announced that they know of 30 other "brothels" in Islamabad that they're going to raid, though the male head of the madrasa has generously added that any prostitute who turns herself in and repents will be forgiven (he will set the example of forgiveness by marrying one of them). Not content with threatening alleged prostitutes, the JH students have also declared a fatwa against Pakistan's tourism minister after she was shown on television paragliding and then hugging her French coach. Both actions are deemed to be un-Islamic.

It's easy to think of the paragliding minister and the burqa-clad militant as opposite poles of Pakistan's complex pictures of womanhood. Newspapers have taken to juxtaposing "oppositional" photographs in support of this thesis: a tracksuit-wearing female athlete with a javelin beside stick-wielding women in black; a bare-headed, short-sleeved female protester holding up a sign saying "No to Extremism, Yes to Music" taking the front-page space given the previous day to more stick-wielding women in black (the photographs of the JH students are taken from different angles, in different places, but are ultimately always the same photograph). The more complicated truth is that the real opposites are the women who appear on the front pages and those who don't appear anywhere at all, except in a small column tucked away inside, detailing a story of a woman raped, a woman killed for "honour", a woman stoned alive.

"Obscured" women in Pakistan are a meta phor to a greater extent than they are a literal presence. (Sometimes, as in the case of the JH students, when they are literally obscured, they are also front and centre of the nation's view.) Though Pakistan's women are, in temperament, probably more powerful than its men, they are also almost entirely absent from the structures of power - and on the rare occasions when they do enter those structures, it is often as some man's wife or daughter. Small wonder, then, that when they enter the public sphere with any gesture of defiance - be it progressive or regressive - their femaleness attracts particular attention. Women should stay tucked away in the local news section of newspapers, is the implicit message of all this gendered scru tinising; to behave otherwise is simply not appropriate.

Kamila Shamsie's most recent novel is "Broken Verses" (Bloomsbury, £7.99)

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover