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The Torture Report's Missing Victims

Did the United States Abuse Female Terrorist Suspects?

Most of the recent Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11 is gruesomely detailed. But one thing is missing. In the report, it seems that all of the detainees subject to torture were men.

There are several possible explanations. The CIA might not torture women, although we know from the photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison that women have certainly been perpetrators. Or maybe the report reveals a selective reading of the CIA documents reviewed. As Amanda Gutterman, an editor at the Huffington Post, noted, the word “she” appeared fewer than 20 times in the extensive document. And these references were largely to female senators or to the former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. 

Another explanation is that, perhaps, as fears mount about a backlash in the Islamic world to the report’s release, the omission of women was a calculated decision. In areas of ongoing conflict, particularly in culturally conservative societies, attacks on women are often seen as a deeper symbolic wound.

It could also be part of a general trend of overlooking women in torture reporting. A Danish group, Dignity, found that in the past six years only a quarter of the reporting on torture and detention made any reference to women.

Although the number of women in torture chambers is likely to be much lower than the number of men, we know that there were female suspects in U.S. custody. These women had similar profiles to the men who were on the receiving end of inhumane degradation. Human rights groups monitored the New York trial of one U.S.-educated woman, Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national, who was believed to be held in secret custody, possibly in one of the infamous black sites. In March 2004, she was placed on the U.S. attorney general’s most wanted list for suspected terrorist activity in Afghanistan, but she was formally charged for attacking an interrogating soldier. She was missing for years. It is hard to believe that she would have been held in secret if the CIA didn’t intend to use “information gathering techniques” on her.

Although direct U.S. involvement in the torture of women is difficult to prove (it may be very well hidden), American ties to countries that do routinely torture women are much easier to trace. In a recently published report, the Open Society Institute draws on credible evidence to outline the secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs adopted after 2001, finding that “torture was a hallmark of both” programs. Among the 54 countries that supported the United States in the capture, detention, interrogation, and torture of suspects were Libya, Jordan, and Sri Lanka. These countries are known for (and have been criticized by the United States for) torturing women in detention.

For example, in 2004, the CIA and British intelligence rendered a 12-year-old girl, Khadija al Saadi, to Gaddafi’s spy chief in Libya because of her father’s political beliefs. On the plane to Libya, she says, “All we could hear was our mother crying, saying that we were being taken back to Libya to be executed by Colonel Gaddafi. When we landed, I was told to go and say goodbye to my father, who was bound up and had a needle in his arm. I fainted, because I was sure we were going to be killed.” Another Gaddafi opponent details the role of the United States in his own torture and testifies that his wife was detained in several centers during their transit back to Libya. His wife finds the experiences too difficult to talk about.

UN and human rights reports highlight the regular transfer of prisoners by the CIA from Pakistan and elsewhere to Jordan’s General Intelligence Department. One human rights researcher examining the conditions of detention centers was told to stay away from one woman kept in isolation, arrested on charges of terrorism. The extreme silence about this woman raised suspicions of torture. In Sri Lanka, a young female student was taken in by the Central Intelligence Department after her brother joined a political movement. She testifies that the interrogators “tied my hands and say they have got evidence and everything, then they fill pipes with sand and hit my knees. They bang my head against the wall many times.”

Beyond the dark alliances that the United States has built with nations in its rendition network, the U.S. stamp is on these cases of torture in other ways. At a policy level, the Patriot Act has been replicated or very closely mimicked in several of these countries, including Sri Lanka. It has also collaborated on training for counterterrorism and methods of dealing with suspected terrorists.  More directly, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, human rights researchers recall the presence of U.S. forces and CIA officials in interrogation rooms, even when local intelligence officers were conducting the interrogation. According to human rights reports, these rooms were very often filled with women. At best, the United States has implicitly offered its seal of approval for the torture of terrorist suspects, including women. At worst, it is an integral link in the chain of command that ends in waterboarding.

As calls to prosecute those named in the U.S. Senate report grow louder, there are those still living with the scars of the United States’ heavy hand. Male returnees from Guantanamo Bay report a perpetual fear that they are being watched, and are unable to re-integrate into communities that fear any association with them. Although it is difficult to confirm rumors of female inmates in Guantanamo, one released detainee reports, “I was subjected to the sounds of a woman screaming, I was led to believe that my wife was being tortured.” Torture, as a process of dehumanization, inflicts a distinctive permanent pain on its victims—of both genders. Although the Committee on Torture has recognized that to some degree (it called for separate jail facilities for women), it has paid less attention to specifically gendered forms of violence and the subsequent impact on women’s mental and physical beings.

It is time to throw light on the women hidden in isolation, detained and tortured in secret intelligence facilities around the world. A U.S. government officer who worked on a 2006 domestic program to end homegrown radicalization told me that, at the time of the program, “We weren’t looking at women as anything more than sources to provide ‘pattern of life’ information on male suspects. I think that may be shifting now.” From the stabbing of an American teacher in an Abu Dhabi mall by a veiled woman to the Women of ISIS, women have entered the public consciousness, and intelligence files, as a threat to American lives. This is a problem. But as with the men before them, dealing with the problem by torturing suspects is unlikely to help and very likely to breed radicalization.

In the end, it is likely that the Senate torture report’s focus on male victims comes from the fact that a large majority of those in the detention facilities that we are aware of, such as Guantanamo Bay, are male. Further, for many societies (and, having interviewed women who have been tortured and women who bear witness to the torture of men, for me) there is something uniquely disturbing about tales of women being defiled, beaten, and debased. Washington may thus fear that any acknowledgement that it condones, or commands, these acts could cause irreparable damage to the United States’ image in the world and to its internal sense of self.

Women’s rights have always been a cornerstone of the United States’ moral authority in the world. In fact, the War on Terror began with a military intervention into Afghanistan that was frequently justified as a way to protect the country’s women. A thorough examination of the United States’ role in the torture of women in that war, and all of the wars on terror, cannot be delayed. 

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