International: Bin Laden's wife and the stereotyping of Muslim women

Publication Date: 
May 13, 2011
The Guardian
'I could relate Amal Ahmed al-Sadah to the general context of Muslim women, but this risks essentialising her' Photo: Guardian

We should focus on events in Bin Laden's home, but not sensationalise the details of Amal Ahmed al-Sadah's life. Women played an interesting role in the account of the final hours of Osama Bin Laden's life. Three wives, as well as nine of his children,  where he was killed, along with the families of two Pakistani brothers. Initially, it was  that Bin Laden had used one of his wives as a human shield.

However, as we began to learn more about the compound in Abbottabad and the events that made it so famous, one of the most discussed members of Bin Laden's family quickly became . In spite of the considerable number of people living in the compound, Bin Laden's youngest wife has garnered a huge amount of attention.

A bride at the age of 17, Sadah moved to Afghanistan, and then to Pakistan with her new husband. While some articles speak of her being "gifted" to Bin Laden, this is contradicted by other reports that she "dutifully accepted" the proposal arranged by an aide of Bin Laden in Yemen. While  recently provided some details of her life with Bin Laden, they have not seen her since her marriage in 2000, so there is still very little concrete information about the realities of her life in the compound.

According to Sadah, she "never left" the upper floors of the three-storey compound during the five years that she was there. But it is difficult to know whether or not this was a result of Bin Laden's extreme religious views or of life on the run, much like testimony from the .

Either way, the construction of Sadah as the pitiful child bride of Bin Laden reminds me of the language used in relation to Muslim women in Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11. Such images risk provoking the problematic question of whether or not certain Muslim women . For me, this takes away from one of the most important victories of the Arab spring – the shift in perspective regarding the coverage of Arab and Muslim women. Rather than focusing on stereotypes, media images of women playing an active role in creating social change have begun to paint a much more nuanced picture of the diverse struggles faced by women in the Arab world. This considered, I believe it is imperative to focus on the realities of the lives of women attached to religious fundamentalism, such as Sadah, as opposed to turning them into sensationalistic soundbites and images.

The fixation on Bin Laden's personal life is significant for a number of reasons. In the past 10 years, what Bin Laden represented, and thus the image that was constructed of him, was almost as significant as the actual pursuit of him. Since his death, many people have wondered how the son of a wealthy and seemingly cosmopolitan family could become the face of the "war on terror". The actual roles and agencies of family members in Bin Laden's work and life are therefore crucial to identify, not least as US officials attempt to determine what should be done with those currently in custody.

However, it is my belief that the focus should be on what actually occurred in the home of Bin Laden, rather than sensationalising the details of life on the compound or generalising from them. I am wary, for example, of comparing the relationship between Bin Laden and his wife with that of other Muslim marriages in Pakistan: for in Pakistan, the relationship between gender and religion is complex and varied, and I would not want to perpetuate the essentialising of Muslim women.

Furthermore, I think it is hard to relate Sadah to the wider context of Pakistan because of the different cultures that are involved. Since she is Yemeni and Bin Laden is Saudi, it is difficult to persuasively tie them or their actions to Pakistan, or even understand their relationship to it beyond a hideout. I could relate Sadah to the general context of Muslim women, but once again, I think this risks essentialising her and Muslim women in general.

Like many American Muslims, I am hopeful that Bin Laden's death will be the closing of a chapter. Not just one of a violent ideology – but also of a sensationalistic and oversimplistic approach to discussing such incredibly important world issues.

Author: Sara Yasin