Shifting the Blame onto Victims

Deepali Gaur Singh

Latest reports by India's National Crime Records Bureau found a seven-fold increase in rape cases between 1971 and 2006. But the agencies that should ensure safe environments for women make excuses for perpetrators and resort to moral policing rather than finding ways to make women safer.

Rape is perhaps the only crime that carries with it immense social implications for the victim — making even the process of seeking justice an arduous fight not just against the aggressor but against the entire system and the society within which the judicial system functions. The concepts of feminine virtue and honor have turned entrenched beliefs into unwritten codes of conduct. It takes an extremely brave woman not just to fight for justice in the face of threats from the rapist but also go against what are believed to be the basic tenets of a woman's existence. Here in India, it is not uncommon to hear that "[a woman's] virtue once lost can never be retrieved." So the underlying caution is that even if rape is a crime, it is foolishness for women to report it and expose themselves again.

According to the latest report by India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) — the body responsible for maintaining these records post-independence — based on the statistics available in 2006, between 1971 and 2006 rape cases have shown a seven-fold increase. During the same time frame, murder incidents had just doubled, and other violent crimes, like dacoity and rioting, had actually declined by almost 16% during the period.

What makes the situation even thornier is that seventy-five percent of the aggressors in the rapes were known to the victims. And with a quarter of the victims being minors, the trend clearly points to an extremely dangerous situation that continues to remain unaddressed. Just last year, of the 581 rape cases registered in 2007, a shocking 98.28 per cent were committed by persons known to the victims.

While some may argue that this huge increase could be due to the expanded reach of the media and its reporting capabilities, the increase in the number of reported instances of rape and the reality that until recently marital rape was not considered a crime against women, we can't forget that there are still many cases of rape that continue to go unaccounted for. Crimes against minors or victims from modest socio-economic backgrounds and crimes perpetrated by the state itself or by relatives of the victim still tend to be invisible crimes. Marital rape even today continues to go unreported because of the manner in which marriage defines the social duties and consequent demands that can be made of a wife — making refusal of sex grounds for violence against the wife for not performing her primary job in the marriage.

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Recently, a young British girl was raped and murdered in the rave beach of Goa, causing a storm in both the countries involved. While the Indian authorities were blamed for trying to hush up the case in the narcotics-rich beach city, in London the public crucified the mother for her irresponsible behavior. But does bad parenting justify a rape and murder? Despite the cultural divide, the argument is strikingly similar to one oft used in the Indian context: that women, dress "inappropriately," call for unwanted attention, which turns into teasing, molestation, sexual harassment or assault.

And the comments have come from no less than the Chief Justice of Karnataka, who blamed the "immodest dressing" of women as the reason behind the increasing crimes against women. The police in the national capital had come up with an equally bizarre handbook on "dos" and "don'ts" for women living in Delhi in the aftermath of sexual assaults on them. Again, the major concern revolved around the way the women were attired. Instead of providing a safer environment for women, it is the very agencies responsible for women's protection that resort to moral policing, shifting the onus of women's own safety onto themselves, and make excuses for the violators instead of finding ways to secure the environment and punish the perpetrators.

According to NCRB's statistics, every hour 18 women become victims of a crime, of which at least two are victims of a rape. Evidently, as rape statistics have shown a rise, so have other crimes against women with even cases of dowry — the "gifting" of money and other household items by the bride's family to the bridegroom's — and dowry-related deaths and suicides recording a rise each year and spreading to states that once did not have the practice. Not only is the demand for dowry not seen as a crime (despite existing legislation forbidding it) but the groom's value also increases exponentially depending upon the family's assets and the groom's educational qualifications and professional background.

While it's true that the lack of convictions in most of these crimes is also responsible for the impunity with which the crimes are committed, the deeply entrenched perceptions of women as property with no sexual autonomy also work to institutionalize the manner in which women are treated. Little boys learn to use expletives focused on women of the household as the initiation in to manhood, reflecting how central the sexual morality of women is in these cultural set-ups. While violence against women is also rooted in women's economic position — considering that seventy percent of the global poor are actually women — if mindset and perceptions need to change, then policies must emphatically support women's empowerment and should engage men and their attitudes as much as women.

Culture & Conversation Violence

Breaking Through the Fear: How One Woman Investigated the Life of Her Rapist

Ilana Masad

Ignorance is caused by fear, reporter Joanna Connors writes, and it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped, she begins the process of trying to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.”

She was fine. That’s what she told everyone, including herself. After filing a report with the Cleveland police and getting her rapist locked up, she was fine. Fine, fine, fine. Except she wasn’t.

In I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her, reporter Joanna Connors realizes that she is most assuredly not fine during a college campus visit with her daughter.

Ignorance is caused by fear, Connors writes. And it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped—she immediately reported her rape to the police, and her rapist was caught the next day—she begins the process of breaking through the fear to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.” She had thought she was over it, but it wasn’t until breaking down during that college tour that she realized she was still afraid of her rapist and still terrified he would find her.

When Connors was 30, she went to a Case Western Reserve University theater where a rehearsal of a play that she was covering for her newspaper, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, was taking place.

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A man inside the empty theater—the actors had left by the time Connors arrived—beckoned her inside, saying that he was working on the lights. Then, brandishing a sharpened pair of scissors, he threatened to kill her if she didn’t do what he said and spent more than an hour raping her.

The chapter detailing her rape is chilling, as she describes the various acts performed, the way she went along with what her rapist told her to do, coaxing him on, hoping to make the ordeal end more quickly. By describing specifics of her rape, Connors is confronting and stripping away the shame she experienced by showing the reader the cold, hard facts of what a rape can be like.

Her words demonstrate how a person who was raped becomes a survivor. Even in her dissociative state, she didn’t want to die there at the hands of a man she didn’t know. She managed to convince him to stop and leave, and he kissed her goodbye outside, as if what had just happened was completely, utterly normal. Maybe, for him, a man whom she says was smoking menthols and who had a tattoo on his arm with his own name on it—”DAVE”—it was.

Connors found an eerie irony in that she was raped on a college campus before such rapes were more widely discussed. In recent years, there has been a rise in awareness regarding the frequency of rapes at institutions of higher learning. There are now websites dedicated to explaining the statistics as well as documentaries like The Hunting Ground, which explores the sexual violence that happens on U.S. college campuses and how students are pushing back against institutional cover-ups and injustices. Since Connors’ experience, society has begun to more broadly understand the terms “rape” and “sexual assault,” and there has been more discussion about the rapes and sexual assaults that happen within existing relationships; eight out of ten rapes occur between people who know one another.

It’s perhaps less common these days to find discussions of the other kind of rape: the kind that we’re warned about when we’re young and told not to take candy from strangers, the kind that makes us automatically cross the street when a group of men we find threatening happens to be walking toward us, the kind that happens when a complete stranger attacks us. This was Connors’ experience.

I Will Find You takes the reader through two distinct processes. The first is Connors’ discovery that her rapist may have been a sexual-violence survivor in his own right. The second, which carries the narrative, is how Connors came to terms with how being raped by David Francis, the “DAVE”-tattooed man, separated her life into a “before” and an “after.”

Before the rape, she was a reporter who lived largely without fear. Connors explains that she went into the theater, where her rapist, a young Black man, was beckoning her, for one reason: “I could not allow myself to be the white woman who fears black men.”

But after, she writes, “this new fear of black men shamed me more than the rape.” Connors explains she didn’t want to be the stereotypical white woman of privilege, who clutches her purse and crosses the street when she sees a Black man walking her way. As a woman aware of her socioeconomic and racial privilege, she didn’t want to participate in oppression.

But it wasn’t just Black men that she feared—it was everything:

I turned my life into performance art. I acted normal, or as normal as I could manage, all the while living on my secret island of fear. As time went on, the list of my fears continued to grow. I was afraid of flying. Afraid of driving. Afraid of riding in a car while someone else drove. Afraid of driving over bridges. Afraid of elevators. Afraid of enclosed spaces. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of going into crowds. Afraid of being alone. Afraid, most of all, to let my children out of my sight.

From the outside, my performance worked. I looked and acted like most other mothers. Only I knew that my entire body vibrated with dread, poised to flee when necessary.

Years after her rape, Connors tells her children about it—both were born after the living nightmare in the theater and are college-aged by then—and begins to confront the fact that she has never “gotten over” it, even though she’s told countless therapists that she has. It is then, despite her husband’s protests and her own fears, that she decides that she must also confront her ignorance regarding her rapist and find him, just as he once threatened that he would find her.

Connors’ investigation is difficult, as she finds out almost at once that her rapist died in a prison hospital some years before. This, however, doesn’t stop her: She begins to investigate his family, trying to find anyone who may have known him and could explain, perhaps, why he did what he did.

Connors regards what she finds out about her rapist with empathy. Connors doesn’t forgive and forget—rather, she forgives, in a sense, by remembering, by finding others who remember, by dredging up a past that is as unpleasant for her interviewees as it is for her.

She eventually gets support from her newspaper to research and write her own story. At every one of the interviews, she expresses discomfort with what she’s doing and almost backs off. Pushed on by her photographer co-worker—and her own need to know—she continues on what has become a journalistic mission. Connors knows she is intruding into people’s lives and realizes she’s coming from a place of privilege, but ends up relating to so much of their stories that she finds her rage toward her rapist fizzling.

It’s with great care, too, that Connors treats the racial tensions that arise during her investigation. Connors talks to women of color who, in 2007 when she conducted her interviews, had never reported their rapes: “I know about rape,” one of Francis’ relatives says. “I was raped myself. Three times. But I asked for it because I was on drugs and I was prostituting.” Connors tells the woman that she didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but the woman tells her the story of how one of her rapes happened and concludes with: “And besides that […] he was a white guy.” This woman felt that nothing would be done about it, even if she did report it.

Connors also writes that in her case, she served as the “perfect witness”; she explains that her rape “isn’t [hers] at all. It’s the state’s, as in The State of Ohio v. David Francis.” The prosecutor tells her: “You’re the ideal witness,” because she is “a journalist, trained to observe details and remember them.” She adds:

I know what he really means. To him, I’m the perfect victim because I happen to fulfill just about all the requirements of a woman accusing a man of rape, going back before the Civil War. I am white, educated, and middle-class. I resisted, and I have a cut on my neck, bruises still healing on my spine, and a torn and blood-stained blouse to prove it. I immediately ran to report the rape.

Needless to say, David Francis is the perfect defendant: black, poor, and uneducated, with a criminal record.

In fact, as she finds out during her investigation, her assailant was both Black and Native American, and spent his youth in and out of juvenile detention, starting at age 12. Connors looks at the racial disparity in prisons, at the rate of poverty in the areas of Cleveland that she visits, at the way socioeconomic status and race are interwoven, how violence and drug abuse feed into those factors as well, and how sexual assault and abusive environments are so often passed down through generations. Connors discovered fellow survivors in her rapist’s family—his sister Laura, with whom Connors is still in touch, described her mother’s boyfriend raping her in a church. His entire family, she discovers, have been survivors of one kind or another.

Connors believes that her rapist was likely raped himself. During her assault, she had a clear feeling that Francis was re-enacting something done to him. And after learning that rape was common at the juvenile detention center where Francis did many stints, she assumes that he had been abused there and during his time spent locked up as an adult.

What is most striking about Connors’ book is not its bravery—though it is brave—or its shock value, which exists. The book is valuable because Connors recognizes and conveys to readers the cyclical nature of abuse, its pathological nature, and one of its sources: in David Francis’ case, perhaps learning by example.

Analysis Human Rights

Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Daily Struggle for Muslim Women

Kanya D’Almeida

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.

Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.

In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”

When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.

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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.

Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions.

Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.

A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.

Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures

Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:

Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.

While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.

As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]

In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.

In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.

According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.

Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.

In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.

March wrote in the Times:

As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.

March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.

Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.

Because cases based on material support statutes tend to paint the accused as extremely dangerous persons, they are often accompanied by harsh conditions of confinement, both pretrial and following a conviction.

From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.

Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.

He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Times article that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.

Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.

Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.

“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.

At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.

Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.

From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence

Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.

In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.

Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.

It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.

Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.

At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.

Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.

Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.

In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.

“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.

“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”

They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.

The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.

“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”

They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”

CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”

Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.

This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.

Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.

CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.

“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.

CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.

“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.

“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.

In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.

In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.

“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.

The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement

The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.

Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.

“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”

Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.

“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.

His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.

Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.

“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”

Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.

In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.

Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:

My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?

“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”

Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.

“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.