The birth doula movement has certainly grown over the past few years, and innovative and radical projects have expanded care for pregnant people who might otherwise not receive it, such as young mothers and women in prison. During this time, The Doula Project has been building on a new model of doula care: one that supports pregnant people having abortions and choosing adoption.
This article is the first in a series on reproductive justice issues developed in partnership between RH RealityCheck and the Pro-Choice Education Project.
Three years ago I became a doula. Early in my training, I
became part of a conversation that focused on providing doula support for all
of a pregnant person’s choices, including abortion. Since that time, I have
served more than 100 pregnant people as part of The Doula Project in New York
City. The project was founded on the idea that pregnancy is a spectrum and that
as female-bodied people we may experience any and all of the possibilities that
spectrum contains in a lifetime. Within that, we should also have access to
doula care for each of our pregnancies.
The Doula Project has served over 500 pregnant people since
the fall of 2008, guided by the mission of providing free compassionate care
and emotional, physical and informational support to people facing birth,
abortion, fetal anomaly, or miscarriage. The foundation of our project is built
on meeting pregnant people where they are, something I’ve taken with me from
working four years in the reproductive justice movement. This connects to our
belief that pregnant people should be trusted to make the choices that are best
for them and that their experiences and the memories of those experiences
should be honored.
Doulas hold a unique position in health care as non-medical
lay people who are there solely for the pregnant person. The birth doula
movement has certainly grown over the past few years, and innovative and
radical projects have expanded care for pregnant people who might otherwise not
receive it, such as young mothers and women in prison. During this time, The
Doula Project has been building on a new model of doula care: one that supports
pregnant people having abortions and choosing adoption.
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Compassionate care and emotional support are not new to the practice of
abortion. Counselors and patient advocates have been serving as ‘doulas’ for
years, providing a hand to hold and an ear to listen during procedures.
However, many clinics do not have the resources to provide this intensive
one-on-one care. The Doula Project began its services with this in mind, as a
way to support not only pregnant people seeking abortions, but the clinics
Many components contribute to the well-being of a pregnant
person terminating a pregnancy and different medical staff supply different
components of care. The doula’s primary role is to serve as a continuous
uninterrupted presence before, during and after each client’s abortion, and to
provide various emotional, informational, and physical comfort measures. This
can include massage, hand holding, reassurance, providing clarity around
procedures and birth control methods, or engaging them in conversation. Each of
the support measures we offer and how pregnant people react to them vary from day
to day and depending on the procedure taking place. I can highlight the diversity
by giving an account of my most recent day in the clinic with four patients who
were having 2nd trimester abortions.
Since patients are normally under general anesthesia during
this procedure, doulas spend the majority of our time with them before they
enter the operating room. The first woman I supported that morning was in her
early 30s, Spanish-speaking, religious, and scared. I spent my time with her
holding her hand, wiping her tears, and telling her it was going to be ok and
that she would be safe, in my own broken Spanish. My next client was having
strong cramps from measures that were taken to dilate her cervix, and so I gave
her a lower back rub and massaged a pressure point on her hand. After her
procedure, at her request, I went to the waiting room to tell her husband and
sister that she was fine and would be discharged in a couple of hours. The next
woman I met mostly wanted to be alone, so I checked in with her every few
minutes to see if she needed anything and pulled the curtain closed around her
bed. My final patient was a gregarious, talkative young mother. I brought a
warm blanket and a hot water bottle for her cramps, and spent the next 30
minutes with her talking about her future job prospects, different kinds of
birth control she might like, and just joking around.
From my experience, this is a pretty average day in the life
of an abortion doula, with varying levels of intensity. Meaning, pregnant
people need us for different things, sometimes to provide real physical comfort
relief or answer a question about their procedure, sometimes to tell a good
joke or listen to them talk about something that’s going on in their lives, and
sometimes just as a person who doesn’t forget that they are there, who checks
in on them. To be clear, some of our clients don’t know what doulas are when they
meet us.They can be hesitant to
engage with us, especially in a public hospital like the one our project is
located in where a patient is likely to talk to 15 different people in a matter
of hours. However, we have not yet had a pregnant person opt out of our doula
service. We attribute this to the ability of doulas to build trust quickly and
meaningfully with clients and to engage with them on their terms.
After serving as an abortion doula, talking to other
abortion doulas, providers, health professionals, and the pregnant people we
serve, it is clear there are many benefits doulas bring to providers and to
people having abortions. Providers have shared that with doula support,
procedures can be less complicated and therefore quicker, due to the patient’s
relaxed state. In addition, they have mentioned that it can be easier to
communicate with a patient and check in on their well-being during a procedure
since the doula is so connected to the patient’s needs. Pregnant people we have
served have told us that we help them feel more physically comfortable, safer,
and more informed and in control of their experiences.
Doulas in Adoption Care
I met Marci Lieber, a Community Outreach & Advocacy Coordinator
at Spence-Chapin Children and Family Services, when The Doula Project was still
known as the Abortion Doula Project, and we were mostly focused on providing
doula care in an abortion context. Spence-Chapin is a pro-choice and pro-birth
mother adoption agency in New York City, and within a few minutes, Marci began
to share some of the horrific stories of their birth mothers’ experiences on
Labor and Delivery floors: nurses and doctors not respecting the mothers’ wishes
to have the baby taken out of the room following the birth, or just the
opposite, nurses not letting the mothers hold or breastfeed their newborns
since they were choosing not to parent, as well as doctors and nurses
inflicting unnecessary medical interventions on them. Among these accounts, the
hardest part of all was to hear that these mothers were completely alone during
Most people face similar issues in giving birth, such as
where they are going to deliver, how they will deliver, and with whom. For
those choosing adoption, these issues can be even more complex and barriers in
their lives can make them nearly impossible to resolve. For example, most of
the mothers we’ve worked with don’t shop for doctors, midwives, or hospitals.
They go to the one closest to where they live, the one that takes Medicaid, and
they aren’t given any information outside of what their doctor tells them. Thus,
they are pretty much at the mercy of wherever they happen to end up. I asked
Marci, “Does Spence-Chapin have doulas?” Marci said they didn’t but that she
was committed to making it happen. Within 2 months, The Doula Project had
formed a partnership with Spence-Chapin, and we were at our first birth with a
young Tibetan woman choosing adoption.
Incidents that occurred during this woman’s birth spoke to
all of my worst-held fears going into the experience. Namely, that some
doctors, midwives, and nurses don’t trust a laboring woman who is choosing
adoption. To begin on a positive note, this birth mother ultimately had a
vaginal delivery of a strong and healthy boy. I had the opportunity to meet his
adoptive parents and speak to them about the strength of their new child’s
birth mother and the grace with which she delivered. What I left out of this
conversation was the heinous treatment she was subjected to within the
hospital’s doors. She experienced the cascade of interventions, which is not
uncommon to many women’s birth stories: pitocin (which theoretically helps
speed up labor) leads to epidural leads to c-section. What was different for
this particular woman was not only a complete language barrier but, perhaps
even more significantly, a complete cultural barrier. She was terrified of having
a c-section – it was the one thing she told me could absolutely not happen. Her
understanding of a c-section was that it meant either she or the baby would
die. When the doctor told her she must get one (with little explanation as to
why) and she refused, she was branded a murderer. Hospital administration was
called into her delivery room and they told her that they were going to force a
court-ordered c-section on her. This was after hours of being denied a medical
interpreter and 40+hours into her labor. The statement that most reflects the
medical professionals’ attitude toward her that night was by a nurse who said,
"Just because you don’t want the baby doesn’t mean he should
I don’t want to give the impression that mothers choosing
adoption have the same doomed experiences as the one I’ve shared. Many mothers choosing
adoption do, in fact, have the support of their family and friends and positive
birth experiences. Our doulas work with those who need extra support and feel
otherwise isolated in their pregnancies. And it is their experiences that I
intend to raise awareness about. I also want to emphasize that mothers choosing
adoption are not helpless victims of the medical system. The Tibetan woman ultimately
had the vaginal delivery she wanted because she was a strong advocate for
herself.Even though many of the
mothers we work with claim to not know the first thing about childbirth, they
do come to us with a birth plan, if only in their heads. Our job is to help
them articulate what they feel is best for them, give them further information
about the process, and serve as a silent but strong advocate for them in the
Connecting to the Doula Model of Care
One of the first things we discuss with new volunteers is
what a privilege it is to be in these rooms. To bear witness to such important
moments in people’s lives and to be the one person they might remember among
the sea of faces is really gratifying. Doula Project Co-Founder and
Co-Coordinator, Lauren Mitchell is often blown away by the power of a doula’s
quiet presence. "You can’t speak for your client, even if what’s going on
is the opposite of what she wanted – you’re not in control of the room. But you
are in control of what you are giving your client, and that is an informed ally
and a deeply empathetic presence. When you’re a doula you have to acknowledge
how to be ‘human’ even when you want to be more than that. What keeps me going
is the feedback from the clients that the space that I’ve created for them is
unique and extremely important."
continued relationships with several of our clients: some we go to the movies
with, some are interested in joining the project or getting trained to be birth
doulas, and some even speak on behalf of our organization. Ultimately, we believe
that providing pregnant people with the resources, tools and the support they
need can lead to empowering birth and abortion experiences that can affect the
rest of their lives and even have a positive effect on their communities. One
of the most common things I hear, other than “Thank you for being here.” is “You
have such a cool job, I want to be a doula.” When people feel taken care of,
when they know what it’s like to be treated well, they want others to feel that
way. It’s a model of care that people feel deeply connected to and one which
they have the personal resources to provide to someone else.
you are interested in connecting with The Doula Project you can visit our
website at www.doulaproject.org.
Abortion Eve used the stories of fictional girls and women to help real ones understand their options and the law. At the same time the comic explained how to access abortion, it also asserted that abortion was crucial to women's health and liberation.
“Can you picture a comic book on abortion on the stands next to Superman?”
In June 1973, Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli wrote to the National Organization for Women in Chicago, asking this question of their “dear sisters” and pushing them to envision a world where women’s experiences could be considered as valiant as the superhero’s adventures. They enclosed a copy of their new comic book, Abortion Eve.
Published mere months after the Supreme Court’s January 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, Abortion Eve was intended to be a cheap, effective way to inform women about the realities of abortion. Like the fewother contemporaneous comic books dealing with abortion, Abortion Eve‘s primary purpose was to educate. But for a comic dominated by technical information about surgical procedures and state laws, Abortion Eve nonetheless manages to be radical. Though abortion had so recently been illegal—and the stigma remained—the comic portrays abortion as a valid personal decision and women as moral agents fully capable of making that decision.
The comic follows five women, all named variations of “Eve,” as counselor Mary Multipary shepherds them through the process of obtaining abortions. Evelyn is an older white college professor, Eva a white dope-smoking hippie, Evie a white teenage Catholic, Eve a working Black woman, and Evita a Latina woman. Evelyn, Eve, and Evita are all married and mothers already.
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Their motivations for getting an abortion differ, too. Evita and Eve, for instance, wish to protect themselves and their loved ones by keeping their families smaller. Sixteen-year-old Evie is the poster child for sexual naiveté. Pregnant after her first time having sex, she spends most of the comic wrestling with guilt. “It’s all so ugly!” she exclaims. “I thought sex was supposed to be beautiful!”
Nonplussed, the older Eves talk her through her choices. As Eve reminds her, “Like it or not, you are a woman now, and you are going to have to decide.”
In an interview with Rewire, Farmer said that the plot of Abortion Eve was a direct outgrowth of her and Chevli’s experiences in the nascent women’s health movement. Both women had started working as birth control and “problem pregnancy” counselors at the Free Clinic in Laguna Beach, California, soon after it opened in 1970. Archival documents at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute show that Chevli and Farmer visited Los Angeles abortion providers in December 1972, on a business trip for the Free Clinic. According to Farmer, one of the doctors they met approached the pair with the idea of doing a comic about abortion to publicize his clinic.
Earlier that year, the women had produced one of the first U.S. comic books written, drawn, and published by women, Tits & Clits alpha(the “alpha” distinguished the comic from subsequent issues). So they took the doctor’s idea and ran with it. They decided to use their newly founded comics publishing company, Nanny Goat Productions, to educate women, particularly teenagers, about abortion.
At the Free Clinic, Chevli and Farmer had seen all kinds of women in all kinds of situations, and Abortion Eve attempts to reflect this diversity. As Farmer noted in an interview, she and Chevli made sure that the Eves were all different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to demonstrate that all kinds of women get abortions.
Farmer had made the choice to get an abortion herself, when her IUD failed in 1970. The mother—of a 12-year-old son—who wasputting herself through college at the University of California at Irvine, she decided that she couldn’t afford another child.
California had liberalized its abortion laws with the Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, but the law was still far from truly liberal. Before Roe, California women seeking abortions needed doctors (a gynecologist and two “specialists in the field”) to submit recommendations on their behalf to the hospital where the abortion would take place. Then, a committee of physicians approved or denied the application. Only women who could pay for therapeutic abortions—those needed for medical reasons—could get them.
For Farmer, as for so many others, the process was onerous. After an hour, the psychiatrist who had interviewed her announced that she would not be eligible, as she was mentally fit to be a mother. Stunned, Farmer told the doctor that if he denied her an abortion, she would do it herself. Taking this as a suicide threat, her doctor quickly changed his mind. She wrote later that this experience began her political radicalization: “I was astounded that I had to prove to the state that I was suicidal, when all I wanted was an abortion, clean and safe.”
Farmer and Chevli began work on Abortion Eve before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal in many states. After the Supreme Court’s decision, they added a page for “more info” on the ruling. Yet even as they celebrated Roe, the women weren’t yet sure what would come of it.
The comic reflects a general confusion regarding abortion rights post-Roe, as well as women’s righteous anger over the fight to gain those rights. On the day of her abortion, for example, Evita tells Eve that, at five months pregnant, she just “slipped in” the gestational limits during which women could have abortions.
Eve explains that women now have the right to an abortion during the first three to six months of a pregnancy, but that the matter is far from settled in the courts. After all, Roe v. Wade said that states did have some interest in regulating abortion, particularly in the third trimester.
“I get mad when they control my body by their laws!” Eve says. “Bring in a woman, an’ if the problem is below her belly button and it ain’t her appendix, man—you got judges an’ lawyers an’ priests an’ assorted greybeards sniffin’ an’ fussin’ an’ tellin’ that woman what she gonna do an’ how she gonna do it!”
Abortion Eve confrontsthe reality that abortion is a necessity if women are to live full sexual lives. Writing to the underground sex magazine Screw in September 1973 to advertise the comic, Chevli noted, “Surely if [your readers] screw as much as we hope, they must have need for an occasional abortion—and our book tells all about it.”
Six months after they published the comic, in December 1973, Chevli and Farmer traveled to an Anaheim rally in support of Roe outside the American Medical Association conference. They were met by a much larger group of abortion opponents. Chevli described the scene in a letter to a friend:
300 to 8. We weren’t ready, but we were there. Bodies … acquiescing, vulnerable females, wanting to show our signs, wanting to be there, ready to learn. Oh, Christ. Did we learn. It was exhausting. It was exciting. We were enervated, draged [sic] around, brung up, made to feel like goddesses, depressed, enlightened … bunches of intangible things. I have rarely experienced HATE to such a massive extent.
That wasn’t the last feedback that Chevli and Farmer received about their views on abortion. In fact, during the course of Nanny Goat’s publishing stint, the majority of complaints that the independent press received had to do with Abortion Eve. Several self-identified Catholics objected to the “blasphemous” back cover, which featured MAD Magazine‘s Alfred E. Neuman as a visibly pregnant Virgin Mary with the caption: “What me worry?”
As archival documents at the Kinsey Institute show, other critics castigated Chevli and Farmer for setting a bad example for young women, failing to teach them right from wrong. One woman wrote them a letter in 1978, saying “You have not only wasted your paper, time, money, but you’ve probably aided in the decision of young impressionable girls and women who went and aborted their babies.”
Farmer and Chevli responded to such charges by first thanking their critics and then explaining their reasons for creating Abortion Eve. In another response, also in the Kinsey archives, Chevli wrote, “Whether abortion is right or wrong is not our concern because we do not want to dictate moral values to others. What we do want to do is educate others to the fact that abortion is legal, safe, and presents women with a choice which they can make.”
Today, abortion opponents like Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson (R) frame abortion as the “dismemberment” of unborn children, suggesting that women who seek abortions are, in essence, murderers. With Abortion Eve, Chevli and Farmer dared to suggest that abortion was and is an integral part of women’s social and sexual liberation. Abortion Eve is unapologetic in asserting that view. The idea that abortion could be a woman’s decision alone, made in consultation with herself, for the good of herself and of her loved ones, is as radical an idea today as it was in the 1970s.
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.