Why the tale of imprisoned Aafia Siddiqui still has such a strong hold over Pakistan

Show caption ‘It is rarely mentioned that she was never charged with terrorism.’ Aafia Siddiqui after graduating from MIT in 1995. Photograph: AP Opinion Why the tale of imprisoned Aafia Siddiqui still has such a strong hold over Pakistan Mohammed Hanif A British hostage-taker in a Texas synagogue demanded the release of a US-held woman whose true story remains a mystery Tue 25 Jan 2022 14.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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There is a photograph that is often pasted on to telegraph poles and hung in city squares during protests across Pakistan. It is of a woman, her hair dishevelled, her lips severely parched, her head at a strange angle. It is also a picture of a very tired woman. In Pakistan, you’ll find hundreds of women who, after a very hard life, giving birth and raising children, and then losing them to state violence, begin to look like that.

The woman is Aafia Siddiqui, a neuroscientist and mother of three who is serving an 86-year sentence in a Texas prison for attempting to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, a British citizen, Malik Faisal Akram, held four people hostage in a Texas synagogue and demanded Siddiqui’s release. Akram was killed in a shootout and the media were once again full of Siddiqui’s story – with her presented variously as victim and terrorist, genius and pawn. So much of her story is unknown or contested that it can be co-opted by all sides to suit their own ends.

In Pakistan, we trot her out when we need to remind ourselves of our failure as a nation. We bemoan the fact that a monster called the United States of America came stomping in, took away our daughter and locked her up for life. Occasionally, noises are made that she should be released in exchange for this prisoner or that hostage, then we forget her again.

According to Pakistan’s rulers, Siddiqui is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the west. A middle-class, very Muslim girl gets a PhD, raises her voice for oppressed Muslims everywhere and is punished. That narrative, of course, never includes the fact that, while the Americans have been accused of kidnapping her, so have our own intelligence agencies. Neither the Pakistani government nor US prosecutors have ever deigned to tell us how exactly she ended up being interrogated by two American soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008 in the first place, after disappearing, along with her three children, in Karachi five years earlier.

There is another picture of Siddiqui, this time often used by western media – her graduation picture, where she is bright-eyed, smiling, full of reckless optimism. Along with that photograph goes the narrative that she was a kind of terrorist genius, buying night-vision goggles, smuggling diamonds to raise funds for al-Qaida, and loitering around a government building in Afghanistan with bomb-making materials and a map of New York landmarks. In this narrative, it is rarely mentioned that, while she appeared on the FBI’s most-wanted list, she was never charged with terrorism.

Siddiqui is often held up as “ransom girl” by the Pakistani government and various jihadi groups. The former prime minister called her the “daughter of the nation”, while Imran Khan, the current premier, proposed that Pakistan might be willing to swap her for Shakil Afridi, who is imprisoned in Pakistan after being accused of helping the CIA track down Osama bin Laden. Aside from the fact that we apparently live in a world where the idea of justice has been reduced to a hostage swap, both prime ministers and many other rightwing parties that brandish Siddiqui’s pictures never seem to raise the question of how and why she left Pakistan, and where she was during those missing years. Is it perhaps because it might lead to another question: who is kidnapping and disappearing our citizens now that the US is not even paying us to do so?

When the US agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan under the Doha agreement in February 2020, as a pre-condition to negotiations the Taliban got thousands of their brothers released from Afghan jails. Siddiqui was a high-profile female jihadist who faced a trial criticised by many international human rights organisations, yet did the Taliban negotiators say “no Siddiqui, no deal”? They forgot to even bring her up as a bargaining chip when they had their enemies on their knees.

What we know for sure is that, after years of disappearance, she turned up in a Ghazni police station in Afghanistan in July 2008 and was interrogated by Americans. She picked up a rifle and was injured in a scuffle. She was charged with assault and attempting to kill the American soldiers, and during her trial she was declared mentally unfit, and then fit again. Witnesses couldn’t agree how many people were in the room when the scuffle happened, and there were no fingerprints on the gun. So much of her story remains a mystery.

Based on the facts we can establish, Siddiqui is no emblem of jihad. Nor is she an emblem for hardworking girls wanting to go to MIT and do PhDs, and have children. Whatever the truth of her story, its murkiness is instead a symbol of everything that is wrong with our justice system and with the delusions of jihadists.

Mohammed Hanif is a Karachi-based author. His latest novel is Red Birds

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