Today a broad coalition of progressive organizations are unifying to address the inequities in health insurance, through health care reform. The Women’s Day of Action includes a 12 hour vigil on Dupont Circle in Washington DC where women will read their personal health care stories. But there are rallies, events, house parties and other actions happening around the country. In a statement released today, The National Women’s Law Center’s Marcia Greenburger says,
"We want women to know that health care reform isn’t something that shoudl be debated only in Washington – because it affects women everywhere…That’s why we’re
taking our campaign outside the Beltway and bringing it to the women and
families whose lives are affected the most. Women need to make their voices
heard and speak out to demand health care reform that works for women.”
Lucinda Marshall of the Feminist Peace Network says the conversation needs to be about health as a human right,
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The conversation we need to be having right now is not about how to ‘reform’ health care but about reclaiming our health as a human right.
Marshall writes passionately about the benefit, not just to women, but to society overall when we deal with the disrimination against women in health care,
When a woman decides to have a child, it should be the standard of society that she receive the best prenatal care possible so that she and her baby are healthy. When she goes to a hospital to deliver the baby, there should never be a question of whether she has enough money to do so. If a rape or domestic assault victim seeks medical care, she should never be penalized for doing so. And if she or her children are sick, she should be able to stay home from work without fear of losing her job. And women should NEVER be charged more than men for access to health care as many are now. The benefits of such a re-statement of health and care as a right would be significant.
Some of the organizations involved in this national day of action include Momsrising.org, Americans for Democratic Action, Raising Women’s Voices, Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, and PHI Health Care for Health Care Workers.
And here’s more information on the day of action and the NWLC’s "I Am Not A Pre-Existing Condition" campaign.
The Great American Abortion Access Stall in Health Care Reform
As Rachel Maddow repeatedly reminded us last night, President Obama has said over and over and over again that Americans would see final health care reform bills before Congress’ August recess. Of course that didn’t happen. And, as Maddow reported, yesterday, "Just moments after announcing that the Republican strategy with health care reform was to delay, Senator Reid announced – yes – further delays. He says he doesn’t even know if they will pass reform this year. ‘We won’t be bound by any time lines.’"
Maddow goes on to say, "That sound you hear in the distance is Republican cheering."
And, of course, one of the biggest obstacles in the House, it seems, is anti-choice opposition to including legal abortion access in the bill.
Anti-choice Democrat, Bart Stupak, is doing eveything he can to rally Democrats to fight even private insurance coverage of abortion in the House health bill. It certainly may not be what he’s saying outright but how else to interpret his leadership on this issue? Stupak’s struggle to ensure that those Americans who, under health care reform, maintain a combination of private insurance and public assistance, are barred from abortion access is a fight to roll back abortion rights, plain and simple.
Pro-choice legislators want to include an amendment called The Capps Amendment in the House health care bill. The amendment would ensure that, according to the Christian Science Monitor, "private healthcare plans included in a new
insurance marketplace…would cover abortion, as long as the funds were
segregated. In other words, an individual’s private funds would be used
for abortion coverage, not federal monies."
The Hyde Amendment bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortions. It’s been in place for almost 40 years, since 1976. Private insurance companies, for the most part, cover abortion services because abortion is legal. So, what is the problem?
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.
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 Timesarticle 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.
There is a bullet-pocked shelter. There are colorful baubles hanging on a wall. A lamp on a rickety table in the corner. And an Oscar-winning actress under a dirty plastic tub in the middle of the stage.
A devastatingly simple set, subtle touches of everydayness, and a powerful ensemble cast are just a few of the elements that combine to make Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, now on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, an absolute sensation. While the play shines with moments of resilience and sisterhood, it is at its core about the brutal choices women are forced to make in wartime: how to make it through another day, how to salvage a scrap of dignity when all sense of decency is gone from the world.
The play opens with the seemingly unremarkable act of one woman braiding another’s hair, but we quickly learn that their ragged clothes and shabby surroundings are not just marks of poverty but of conflict: the tail end of Liberia’s second civil war (1999-2003). The women on stage are the “wives” of the ubiquitous but never-seen “C.O,” the commanding officer of a rebel army who routinely rapes his captives. “Number 1” (Saycon Sengbloh) and “Number 3” (Pascale Armand) are sheltering a young girl (Lupita Nyong’o) who has escaped a marauding band of rebels in the hopes that she will not become “Number 4.”This hope is quickly dashed when the girl is raped one night as she ventures outside of the bunker to “do wet.” With that, she is initiated into life in “the compound,” as they call it, which the characters believe is a safer place for a girl than the lawless world “out there,” where she might be raped by multiple soldiers—instead of just one.
It is this vicious logic, and the illusion of choice, that carries the audience through an exploration of survival tactics women are forced to adopt in wartime, such as speaking in a coded language that dulls the sting of reality. The “wives” never use the word “rape”—instead they talk of “laying with the C.O.” They don’t use real names—either an attempt to avoid memories of life before confinement, or a mark of internalized dehumanization—referring to one another throughout as Number 1, Number 3, and Number 4. They develop a degree of intimacy that is perhaps crucial to sharing a small space and daily horrors: They use the same sodden rag to wipe themselves down after each ordeal. And they bicker, as sisters might, over chores, clothes, and the pecking order in their little world.
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Each time it ventures too close to an impossibly dark abyss, the play rescues itself with moments of lightness and biting comedy—a testament both to Gurira’s skillful script-writing and Liesl Tommy’s direction. The trio’s discovery of a romance novel (which turns out to be a biography of Bill Clinton) brings frequent reprieve from the fog of war, especially their penchant for referring to Monica Lewinsky as Clinton’s “Number 2” wife. And even Number 3’s unwanted pregnancy—the result of one of her many forced encounters with the C.O.—offers moments of humor as her belligerence grows along with her belly and her increasingly frantic attempts to style her hair. But we are never allowed to forget. Just as the banter begins to lull the audience into the illusion of comfort, the lights dim and the women scramble to stand to attention, hands behind their backs, facing the wings where, presumably, the C.O. is deliberating whom to spend the night with. Silently, one or the other points a finger at her chest to verify that she is the chosen one, and walks off stage toward the commander’s quarters.
The mood changes with the arrival of the elusive wife Number 2 (Zainab Jah), a gun-toting, jeans-wearing firecracker of a character—based on the Liberian freedom fighter Black Diamond—who has escaped the compound by joining a rebel faction. She comes bearing gifts (cassava, clothing), which Number 1, as the ruler of the roost, rejects on account that they are the spoils of war acquired by stealing from, or perhaps killing, their former owners. The recalcitrant Number 2, who has chosen the nom de guerre Disgruntled, is unfazed by Number 1’s hostility and succeeds in luring Number 4, who in the script is simply named “The Girl,” away from the compound and onto the front lines of war with promises of freedom and power.
While The Girl and Disgruntled take the audience through the terrible motions of raiding villages believed to be loyal to “the monkey Charles Taylor” (the then-president of Liberia whose ouster became the stated goal of two rebel groups), we are introduced to Rita (Akosua Busia), a peace activist dressed in blinding white garments ushering in news that the conflict’s end is near. Her character appears to be a composite of the Liberian women who campaigned for an end to the fighting and played a key role in stemming the 14-year conflict that claimed some 200,000 lives in the West African nation. Nicknamed Mama Peace, Rita heralds change—the entire set rotates with her arrival—and attempts to prepare the women for the coming ceasefire. It is through her efforts to do so that we learn how attached the women have grown to the war: Number 1 to her place at the top of a miserable pyramid; Number 3 to the C.O.—“he’s the father of my baby”; and Disgruntled to her gun and the glamour of armed militancy.
At one point, when she is ordered to leave the compound, Number 1 remarks while bundling up her scarce belongings: “I don’ know what GO means.” It is one of the most powerful lines in the play, symbolizing both the entrenchment of captivity and the enduring impact of trauma, from which there is seldom any escape, in the play as in real life.
The war grinds to an end in a crescendo of fighting in Act II. Wesee it through The Girl’s eyes as she stands alone on the stage reciting the Lord’s Prayer, omitting the word “heaven” from her supplication, as though she has forgotten the word exists (or isperhaps unable to invoke it in such hellish circumstances). She then delivers a shattering monologue about witnessing a fatal gang-rape and personally tossing the dead girl’s body in a river. It is the climax of one of the play’s major themes, the severing and re-forging of bonds between mothers and their children: We see it in The Girl adopting the name “Mother’s Blessing” as her combat title, even though her actions as a rebel make her wonder if she is cursed, rather than blessed. We see it in Mama Peace’s search for her own daughter under the guise of campaigning for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. And perhaps, most poignantly, we see it in Number 3’s early motherhood: “I never felt a love like [this] before,” she tells The Girl toward the end of the play, while rocking her newborn close to her chest. “I kill and curse for her.”
Just as the play opens with the notion of choice—with Number 1 and Number 2 deciding to offer The Girl protection—so too does its conclusion mirror this theme. For Disgruntled, even as she is rounding up young girls as sex slaves for soldiers, the choice is simple: Feed the hunters, rather than be eaten. For the “wives” in the compound, starvation and routine sexual abuse represent a better option than being “out in the bush” at the mercy of Liberia’s notorious rebels. By the final scene we have learned the names of all but one of the “wives” (Number 1 is Helena, Number 2 is Maima, and Number 3 is Bessie) and—for the time being, at least—the paths they have chosen. Helena throws in her lot with the peace activists, hoping to start fresh in a new camp; Maima remains convinced that only weapons and ruthlessness can save her; and Bessie will stay with the C.O., her tormentor and now the father of her child. Only Number 4—The Girl, Mother’s Blessing—is torn. Nameless and choiceless, she is the last face we see as the lights dim and she stands suspended at a crossroads, a gun in one hand and a book in the other.
Now that it is here—on a limited Broadway run through June 19—Eclipsed is making room for itself by transcending all historical, political, and gendered boxes and presenting a deeply empathetic and even universal tale of resilience. Asked by the Times back in 2009 whether her play was a political one or a feminist one, Gurira reportedly declined to choose. “In very many ways, my focus as an artist is about getting African women’s voices out there,” she said. “If that ends up having a label attached, I don’t mind, but that’s not how I approach my work.”