A+ for Abortion Art

Amanda Marcotte

Yale art student Aliza Schvarts pulled off an astounding stunt -- she exploited the ambiguity anti-choicers created between menstruation and miscarriage to set off alarms all over Wingnut Nation.

Some people are under the misconception that performance art is a new thing, invented in the mid-twentieth century by people with no discernible talents for painting, acting, or music, but some hare-brained ideas, a willingness to be naked in public, and a talent for getting government grants. While it can't be categorically denied that this was a factor in the development of performance art, it's worth noting that another sort of performance art — the hoax — has been around since time immemorial. A good hoax should be funny, make people look like asses, and say something about the larger society beyond, "People are dupes." Which is why I tip my hat to Aliza Shvarts of Yale, whose art-hoax managed to set off alarms all over Wingnut Nation.

Shvarts claimed to have impregnated herself many times over the course of nine months, then self-aborted with herbs, and collected the uterine offal for her project. The project played up to every right wing stereotype imaginable about feminists, and even into the hands of white supremacist groups, who were eager to dismiss Shvarts with the blood libel, suggesting that she is a "murdering Jewess" who kills babies for fun. Some feminist bloggers (including me) immediately saw the problem with this story, which is that it's not possible. If abortion was a matter of just sucking down some oregano and waiting in the bathtub, it wouldn't be a political struggle, because it would be hidden from prying eyes, anti-choice protesters, and government authority. The coat hanger is the symbol of the abortion rights movement because self-abortion is a dirty, dangerous task that requires shoving sharp objects into your uterus. Even medication abortion, RU-486, is a long, painful process. If you kept going back to the doctor to get it, red flags would fly.

Within hours of the story hitting the internet, Yale issued a press release, indicating what people who approached this with a skeptical mind realized, which is that it was a hoax. Shvarts, like a good hoaxer, is not backing down, but she has explained her "abortions" in more detail. She injected herself with some (probably old, dead sperm), swallowed some herbs right before her period, and then video-taped her period and suggested that it might be a "miscarriage." But no, it's not likely she was ever pregnant, because if she was, she'd probably have to get a real abortion. In an artist's statement, she indicated that she knew that she probably hadn't been pregnant, but was exploring the grey areas between social and biological definitions of pregnancy.

And by exploring definitions of pregnancy, she pushed a hot button for anti-choicers. Anti-choicers, in an attempt to ban the birth control pill, are working hard to redefining pregnancy as beginning at fertilization, while medical science defines it as beginning at implantation. By combining one lie (about when pregnancy begins) with another (the evidence-free assertion that the pill and emergency contraception work by preventing implantation, when they actually work by preventing ovulation), they hope to create the groundwork for banning birth control. Since any random menstruation from a sexually active woman has the theoretical chance of having a fertilized egg in it, anti-choice rhetoric has collapsed the distinction between getting your period and having an abortion.

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It's clear that the parameters of Shvarts' piece extend far beyond a bucket of menstrual blood that is visually indistinguishable from an early-term abortion to include the angry reactions. In other words, Shvarts knew she was playing anti-choicers. She writes,

"For me, the most poignant aspect of this representation — the part most meaningful in terms of its political agenda (and, incidentally, the aspect that has not been discussed thus far) — is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood. Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether the there was ever a fertilized ovum or not. The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading."

The fact that this art project wasn't physically possible didn't stop any anti-choicers from believing it, because it spoke to so many of the issues that set them off — none of which are a deep concern for the sanctity of human life:

  • Willful ignorance and hostility to science. A quick reference to the medical facts about abortion would have made anyone realize this was a hoax, but god forbid an anti-choice nut touch dirty secular science-based materials.
  • Hostility to women's access to public spaces and power. One hot button that made this an inevitable viral story is that Shvarts is a Yalie and an artist. he story confirmed a lot of anti-feminist suspicions about what happens when you untie women from the stove and teach them to read — which is that they go nuts. For all the supposed belief that abortion is bad because of "life," there was a lot of effort wasted in being angry about the fact that Shvarts is a woman who knows big words and apparently spends some time reading books.
  • A sense of ownership over women's bodies. The idea that a woman has a right to play with sperm and collect her own menstruation and stick objects in her vagina and put it all on tape, and you, the random anti-choice nut, can't do anything to stop her without being thrown in jail for trespassing has to be maddening. The fact that she's young and unmarried and no one can stop her from having men hand her vials of semen probably makes things even worse.
  • The belief that women are subhuman. Rod Dreher called Shvarts a "monster". Mighty Favog likened her to a devil, invoking a history of belief that women need to be second class citizens because Satan has more sway.

At the end of the day, Shvarts pulled an amazing stunt. Essentially, by menstruating into a cup and drawing attention to it, she got the anti-choice movement to play right into her hands. Given the opportunity to have a hate-in against an educated, sexually liberated woman, anti-choice nuts didn't stop to consider that what was riling them up so badly was physically unlikely to outright impossible. She managed to demonstrate the logic that drives things like blood libels and witch hunts, where a group believes the impossible because it confirms their irrational hatred for a person they've turned into The Other.

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Commentary Abortion

It’s Time for an Abortion Renaissance

Charlotte Taft

We’ve been under attack and hanging by a thread for so long, it’s been almost impossible to create and carry out our highest vision of abortion care.

My life’s work has been to transform the conversation about abortion, so I am overcome with joy at the Supreme Court ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Abortion providers have been living under a very dark cloud since the 2010 elections, and this ruling represents a new day.

Abortion providers can finally begin to turn our attention from the idiocy and frustration of dealing with legislation whose only intention is to prevent all legal abortion. We can apply our energy and creativity fully to the work we love and the people we serve.

My work has been with independent providers who have always proudly delivered most of the abortion care in our country. It is thrilling that the Court recognized their unique contribution. In his opinion, after taking note of the $26 million facility that Planned Parenthood built in Houston, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote:

More fundamentally, in the face of no threat to women’s health, Texas seeks to force women to travel long distances to get abortions in crammed-to-capacity superfacilities. Patients seeking these services are less likely to get the kind of individualized attention, serious conversation, and emotional support that doctors at less taxed facilities may have offered.

This is a critical time to build on the burgeoning recognition that independent clinics are essential and, at their best, create a sanctuary for women. And it’s also a critical time for independent providers as a field to share, learn from, and adopt each other’s best practices while inventing bold new strategies to meet these new times. New generations expect and demand a more open and just society. Access to all kinds of health care for all people, including excellent, affordable, and state-of-the-art abortion care is an essential part of this.

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We’ve been under attack and hanging by a thread for so long—with our financial, emotional, and psychic energies drained by relentless, unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation—it’s been almost impossible to create and carry out our highest vision of abortion care.

Now that the Supreme Court has made it clear that abortion regulations must be supported by medical proof that they improve health, and that even with proof, the burdens can’t outweigh the benefits, it is time to say goodbye to the many politically motivated regulations that have been passed. These include waiting periods, medically inaccurate state-mandated counseling, bans on telemedicine, and mandated ultrasounds, along with the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements declared unconstitutional by the Court.

Clearly 20-week bans don’t pass the undue burden test, imposed by the Court under Planned Parenthood v. Casey, because they take place before viability and abortion at 20 weeks is safer than childbirth. The federal Hyde Amendment, a restriction on Medicaid coverage of abortion, obviously represents an undue burden because it places additional risk on poor women who can’t access care as early as women with resources. Whatever the benefit was to late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) it can’t possibly outweigh that burden.

Some of these have already been rejected by the Court and, in Alabama’s case, an attorney general, in the wake of the Whole Woman’s Health ruling. Others will require the kind of bold action already planned by the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations. The Renaissance involves raising an even more powerful voice against these regulations, and being firm in our unwillingness to spend taxpayer dollars harming women.

I’d like to entertain the idea that we simply ignore regulations like these that impose burdens and do not improve health and safety. Of course I know that this wouldn’t be possible in many places because abortion providers don’t have much political leverage. This may just be the part of me that wants reproductive rights to warrant the many risks of civil disobedience. In my mind is the man who stood in front of moving tanks in Tiananmen Square. I am yearning for all the ways to stand in front of those tanks, both legal and extralegal.

Early abortion is a community public health service, and a Renaissance goal could be to have early abortion care accessible within one hour of every woman in the country. There are more than 3,000 fake clinics in this country, many of them supported by tax dollars. Surely we can find a way to make actual services as widely available to people who need them. Of course many areas couldn’t support a clinic, but we can find ways to create satellite or even mobile clinics using telemedicine to serve women in rural areas. We can use technology to check in with patients during medication abortions, and we can provide ways to simplify after-care and empower women to be partners with us in their care. Later abortion would be available in larger cities, just as more complex medical procedures are.

In this brave new world, we can invent new ways to involve the families and partners of our patients in abortion care when it is appropriate. This is likely to improve health outcomes and also general satisfaction. And it can increase the number of people who are grateful for and support independent abortion care providers and who are able to talk openly about abortion.

We can tailor our services to learn which women may benefit from additional time or counseling and give them what they need. And we can provide abortion services for women who own their choices. When a woman tells us that she doesn’t believe in abortion, or that it is “murder” but she has to have one, we can see that as a need for deeper counseling. If the conflict is not resolved, we may decide that it doesn’t benefit the patient, the clinic, or our society to perform an abortion on a woman who is asking the clinic to do something she doesn’t believe in.

I am aware that this last idea may be controversial. But I have spent 40 years counseling with representatives of the very small, but real, percentage of women who are in emotional turmoil after their abortions. My experience with these women and reading online “testimonies” from women who say they regret their abortions and see themselves as victimized, including the ones cited by Justice Kennedy in the Casey decision, have reinforced my belief that when a woman doesn’t own her abortion decision she will suffer and find someone to blame for it.

We can transform the conversation about abortion. As an abortion counselor I know that love is at the base of women’s choices—love for the children they already have; love for their partners; love for the potential child; and even sometimes love for themselves. It is this that the anti-abortion movement will never understand because they believe women are essentially irresponsible whores. These are the accusations protesters scream at women day after day outside abortion clinics.

Of course there are obstacles to our brave new world.

The most obvious obstacles are political. As long as more than 20 states are run by Republican supermajorities, legislatures will continue to find new ways to undermine access to abortion. The Republican Party has become an arm of the militant anti-choice movement. As with any fundamentalist sect, they constantly attack women’s rights and dignity starting with the most intimate aspects of their lives. A society’s view of abortion is closely linked to and mirrors its regard for women, so it is time to boldly assert the full humanity of women.

Anti-choice LifeNews.com contends that there have been approximately 58,586,256 abortions in this country since 1973. That means that 58,586,256 men have been personally involved in abortion, and the friends and family members of at least 58,586,256 people having abortions have been too. So more than 180 million Americans have had a personal experience with abortion. There is no way a small cadre of bitter men with gory signs could stand up to all of them. So they have, very successfully so far, imposed and reinforced shame and stigma to keep many of that 180 million silent. Yet in the time leading up to the Whole Woman’s Health case we have seen a new opening of conversation—with thousands of women telling their personal stories—and the recognition that safe abortion is an essential and normal part of health care. If we can build on that and continue to talk openly and honestly about the most uncomfortable aspects of pregnancy and abortion, we can heal the shame and stigma that have been the most successful weapons of anti-abortion zealots.

A second obstacle is money. There are many extraordinary organizations dedicated to raising funds to assist poor women who have been betrayed by the Hyde Amendment. They can never raise enough to make up for the abandonment of the government, and that has to be fixed. However most people don’t realize that many clinics are themselves in financial distress. Most abortion providers have kept their fees ridiculously and perilously low in order to be within reach of their patients.

Consider this: In 1975 when I had my first job as an abortion counselor, an abortion within the first 12 weeks cost $150. Today an average price for the same abortion is around $550. That is an increase of less than $10 a year! Even in the 15 states that provide funding for abortion, the reimbursement to clinics is so low that providers could go out of business serving those in most need of care.

Over the years a higher percent of the women seeking abortion care are poor women, women of color, and immigrant and undocumented women largely due to the gap in sexual health education and resources. That means that a clinic can’t subsidize care through larger fees for those with more resources. While Hyde must be repealed, perhaps it is also time to invent some new approaches to funding abortion so that the fees can be sustainable.

Women are often very much on their own to find the funds needed for an abortion, and as the time goes by both the costs and the risk to them increases. Since patients bear 100 percent of the medical risk and physical experience of pregnancy, and the lioness’ share of the emotional experience, it makes sense to me that the partner involved be responsible for 100 percent of the cost of an abortion. And why not codify this into law, just as paternal responsibilities have been? Perhaps such laws, coupled with new technology to make DNA testing as quick and inexpensive as pregnancy testing, would shift the balance of responsibility so that men would be responsible for paying abortion fees, and exercise care as to when and where they release their sperm!

In spite of the millions of women who have chosen abortion through the ages, many women still feel alone. I wonder if it could make a difference if women having abortions, including those who received assistance from abortion funds, were asked to “pay it forward”—to give something in the future if they can, to help another woman? What if they also wrote a letter—not a bread-and-butter “thank you” note—but a letter of love and support to a woman connected to them by the web of this individual, intimate, yet universal experience? This certainly wouldn’t solve the economic crisis, but it could help transform some women’s experience of isolation and shame.

One in three women will have an abortion, yet many are still afraid to talk about it. Now that there is safe medication for abortion, more and more women will be accessing abortion through the internet in some DIY fashion. What if we could teach everyone how to be excellent abortion counselors—give them accurate information; teach them to listen with nonjudgmental compassion, and to help women look deeper into their own feelings and beliefs so that they can come to a sense of confidence and resolution about their decision before they have an abortion?

There are so many brilliant, caring, and amazing people who provide abortion care—and room for many more to establish new clinics where they are needed. When we turn our sights to what can be, there is no limit to what we can create.

Being frustrated and helpless is exhausting and can burn us out. So here’s a glass of champagne to being able to dream again, and to dreaming big. From my own past clinic work:

At this clinic we do sacred work
That honors women
And the circle of life and death.

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.