How do two women – both in their 30s, highly intelligent, and raised as Muslims – develop radically different ideas about militant Islam and its treatment of women?
This was the question journalist Deborah Scroggins set out to answer in Wanted Women, her six-year investigation into the lives of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui and Dutch-Somali politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In “Wanted Women,” Scroggins (who is also the author of the award-winning 2002 “Emma’s War,” about a British relief worker who married a Sudanese warlord), covers events from before the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 up through the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and on to the present. She provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look at the war on terror as seen through the lives of two women who played prominent yet deeply contrasting roles in that war.
Scroggins’s exploration began after reading the headlines about the beheading of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh’s murder was directly linked to a controversial film, “Submission,” which portrayed fictional Muslim women discussing the “rapes, beatings, and incest they have suffered at the hands of Muslim men.” Van Gogh had directed the movie and Hirsi Ali had written it.
Scroggins was already on assignment to investigate the mysterious and brilliant Siddiqui for possible connections to Al Qaeda. Scroggins couldn’t help noticing a “weird symmetry” to the lives of Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali. “They were opposites, yet related,” Scroggins writes. “Like the bikini and the burka....”
Written in alternating chapters (a device that disrupts the continuous flow of each woman’s personal story), Scroggins examines the public and private lives of Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui from birth to near present-day. Although both women grew up in Islamic households, their lives took vastly different routes. Siddiqui was raised “to be a hero of Islam” and did not fail in her promises. Her parents sent her to the United States to receive a doctorate in neuroscience so she might become a “true mujahida” – an educated Muslim woman, following the “model of the Prophet Mohammad’s wives.”
Throughout her years of schooling and after, Siddiqui was more and more drawn to fundamentalist Islam and began working closely with members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in both the US and Pakistan. When she married one of the principal plotters of 9/11, Siddiqui landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. She was finally captured and convicted of murder in 2010.
Meanwhile, Hirsi Ali fled her native Somalia to live in Holland, first as a refugee, then as a member of society with A-list status. The freedom to do as she pleased after 20-plus years of life under the control of others led Hirsi Ali to adopt Western ways of dress and culture. She “had a very clear vision of what she wanted to achieve”: a career, money, and a life involving politics.
Through hard work and a good education, Hirsi Ali rose in the political chain of command in Holland to become a member of parliament. With her position of power, she was able to denounce the extremist Islamic practices that prevented women from being able “to dress as they pleased, to marry whom they chose, and to travel, work, and generally order their lives without male permission.”
“Submission” caused a huge stir in Holland and around the world, bringing Hirsi Ali acclaim in the West and death threats from her fellow Muslims. Likewise, her autobiography, “Infidel,” received rave reviews in the West and deep criticism from some Muslims.
Scroggins herself takes a bleak view of Hirsi Ali’s fierce criticisms of extremist Muslim practices. If Siddiqui consciously provoked religion-based violence, Scroggins implies, Hirsi Ali did so unconsciously, by inciting hatred toward Muslims.
The exhaustive research Scroggins did into the lives of her two subjects adds multiple levels to her narrative. “Wanted Women” reads like a mystery as one event unfolds into another. Lies, death threats, battles over the need for bodyguards, secret marriages, and disappearances that extend for years add to the intrigue. Meanwhile graphic details of female genital mutilation, beheadings, and torture force readers to question the role of Islamic extremism in the lives of women.
Thought-provoking and thorough, Scroggins’s comprehensive book offers a unique perspective on the tensions between Islam and the West as seen through the life stories of two very different and influential women.
Lee E. Cart is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Maine.