Commentary Sexual Health

Easing Penis Anxiety in the Age of Bing and Google

Martha Kempner

A New York Times writer recently found that users identifying as men asked more questions of search engines about their penises than about their lungs, livers, feet, ears, noses, throats, and brains combined.

In a recent piece for the New York Timeseconomist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz argues that relying on classic research methods like surveys to determine humans’ typical sexual behavior may be inaccurate—because people lie in order to look good, even to scientists. Instead, he suggests a new place for us to look for insights on what people are really thinking, feeling, and maybe even doing: search engines, where people are far less likely to fib in their search for help. Of course, as Stephens-Davidowitz acknowledges, Google data is a small sample of what people are thinking, and it is suggestive rather than definitive. Still, his findings offer an unmistakable window into Americans’ psyche around sexuality.

Unfortunately, one thing is especially clear. People are still really worried about their own and their partners’ bodies—mostly, what constitutes “normal” in a world full of misinformation and unrealistic media portrayals. In this two-part series, we’ll remind readers that there’s no need to turn to Bing or Google; genitalia come in lots of different shapes, sizes, and scents that fall into the category of “perfectly normal.”

Part One will focus on typical penis size and girth, evidently the biggest concern many individuals seem to have when it comes to sex and their bodies. In fact, Stephens-Davidowitz found that users identifying as men asked more questions about their penises than about their lungs, livers, feet, ears, noses, throats, and brains combined.

Most Aren’t That Big

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As we said, men want to know how big penises typically are and how to make them bigger. Oddly, some individuals asked Google how big their own penis was, which Stephens-Davidowitz notes is a question better asked of a ruler. We can’t replace a ruler either, but we can tell you what the research says about most penises.

The most recent study comes from researchers at Indiana University who surveyed 1,661 men and asked each to measure both the length and girth (which can also be thought of as the width or circumference) of his penis when erect. As Rewire reported when the study was released in 2013, “The largest penis in the survey measured in at 10.2 inches long, while the smallest was 1.6 inches. Most fell firmly in between, with the average penis measuring 5.6 inches in length and 4.8 inches in girth.”

This is similar to the results of prior research. A 1996 study, for example, found that the mean length of flaccid penises was about 3.5 inches; the average erect penis was about 5.1 inches long. And, just like in the Indiana study, the mean circumference of the erect penis was 4.8 inches. Two-thirds of the men studied were within one inch of these measurements. Interestingly, this study found no correlation between the relative sizes of the flaccid and erect states, which means catching a glimpse of someone in the bathroom or locker room tells you nothing about what they look like in the bedroom.

Characteristics such as race or sexual orientation are also not good predictors of penis size. You know what else isn’t a good predictor? The size of someone’s feet—turns out that’s just an old wives’ tale. A study of 104 men in London found no statistically significant correlation between penis length and shoe size.

There is a correlation between height and penis size. A few studies have found that taller people tend to have longer penises. And here’s a really odd one: At least two studies have found a relationship between the length of someone’s index finger and penis.

But Men Are Worried

Surveys suggest that men who are shorter and heavier tend to think they have smaller penises (regardless of actual size), while those who are taller and thinner give their member a higher estimation. There’s even one study among men who have sex with men that suggests those who perceive their penises to be smaller than average have poorer sexual health outcomes, which could be a result of riskier sexual behaviors. Such results suggest that perception of penis size is part of a man’s overall body image—that the pressure to conform to a certain “ideal” of height and weight extends to genitalia size as well, possibly as a result of a porn culture that overwhelmingly shows large penises.

And Stephens-Davidowitz points out that Google searches show men think about these issues more than we as a society might realize. He writes: “We do not often talk about male body insecurity. And while it is true that overall interest in personal appearance skews female, it is not as lopsided as stereotypes would suggest.” In fact, his analysis of Google AdWords found that interest in “beauty and fitness” is 42 percent male; “weight loss” is 33 percent male; and “cosmetic surgery” is 39 percent male. Obviously, some of these searches could have been done for a wife or girlfriend, but probably not all of them. For example, 20 percent of “how-to” searches related to breasts asked, “How to get rid of man breasts.”  

Speaking of surgery, it’s worth noting that surgery is the only way to actually increase penis size, no matter what late-night commercials and tubes of cream might say. Penile implants, however, require serious surgery, which cuts the suspensory ligament and is followed by weeks of traction that includes hanging weights on the penis. This results in added length, but only in the flaccid state. And attempts to add girth have even more problems, often resulting in uneven distribution of the added fat tissue, which can have an overall lumpy effect. One study found that most men who have the procedure are not happy with the results.

Bigger Does Not Equal Better

The real question that Stephens-Davidowitz’s research should make us ask—maybe not Google, but definitely ourselves—is “why do we care so much about size?” That bigger penises are synonymous with better penises isn’t all that surprising, given Americans’ overall preference for more, in everything from French fries to McMansions to enormous SUVs. But in reality, size has nothing to do with sexual pleasure, at least not where straight women are concerned.

The issue of how heterosexual women feel about their partner’s penis size has been studied since scientists started studying sex at all. Masters and Johnson, the pioneers of sex research, concluded after watching hundreds of couples have sex that size was irrelevant or a minor factor in women’s sexual pleasure. They reasoned that since the vagina stretches only as much as it needs to, it shapes to the size of the penis inserted within it rather than having a specific requirement.

More recent research suggests that most heterosexual women (85 percent) are happy with their partner’s penis size and attributes, and only 14 percent wanted something bigger. Other studies have shown that when women do want something larger, it is usually additional girth they are looking for, not length.

That said, Stephens-Davidowitz’s research shows we may have it all backwards—more than 40 percent of complaints about partners’ penis size on Google was that it was too big, not too small. This makes sense as a large penis can stretch a vagina to the point of discomfort, and can also bump against the cervix.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research as to whether, or to what extent, the size of a partner’s penis matters among men who have sex with men.

Easing Anxiety

Overall, it’s just important to remember that penises tend to be smaller than we think, or at least smaller than the porn industry would have us believe. And that’s OK. We can also remind individuals that the penis they have is very likely the only penis they’re ever going to have, and that regardless of whether it’s an inch longer or three-quarters of an inch narrower than most, they should really try to enjoy it. Finally, we would suggest that anyone who has a male partner or male partners should recognize how pervasive penis anxiety really is, and try to treat them with empathy and sympathy on the matter.

Analysis Law and Policy

What Monday’s Supreme Court Decision Means in the Fight for Abortion Rights

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Monday's decision striking two provisions of Texas' HB 2 doesn't just threaten similar laws nationwide; it could be the basis for finally stemming the onslaught of anti-science abortion restrictions in the states.

Read more of our coverage of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt here.

Abortion rights advocates have insisted, since the beginning of the fight over targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, that despite anti-choice lawmakers’ claims to the contrary, the evidence proved these restrictions harmed rather than advanced patient safety. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court finally listened.

Monday’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedtwhich struck as unconstitutional Texas’ requirements in HB 2 that all doctors performing abortions in the state have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and that all clinics meet the same requirements as stand-alone surgical centers—is not just a win for advocates and patients in Texas. It produced an opinion that has the potential to turn back the seemingly endless wave of restrictions from the states and to reinforce abortion as a fundamental right.

First things first. Whole Woman’s Health is a data-heavy opinion, and there is probably no better justice to pen one than Justice Stephen Breyer. The man seems to live for statistical analysis. He may offer up rambling hypotheticals during oral arguments, but his written opinions are more often than not grounded in data.

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The reason this matters is that both the conservatives on the Roberts Court and their supporters in the Fifth Circuit have tried their damnedest for years to sidestep piles and piles of facts. Such as the fact that in 2013, the year Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed HB 2 into law, the number of Texans who traveled out of state to have an abortion increased to 681, a jump Rewire reported as amounting to more than the previous four years combined. Conservatives also tried to explain away the fact that prior to the implementation of HB 2, there were 41 facilities providing abortion services in the state; by the end of 2013, 16 of those facilities had either stopped providing abortion services or closed altogether. And they tried to manipulate the legal standard governing how courts review abortion restrictions to do so. Justice Breyer, his liberal colleagues, and even noted abortion rights skeptic Justice Anthony Kennedy finally put a stop to all that nonsense. Here’s how.

When upholding the Texas abortion restrictions, the Fifth Circuit relied heavily on a line of reasoning in Gonzales v. Carhartthe 2007 Supreme Court case that upheld the so-called federal partial-birth abortion act. As part of that decision, the Court ruled that when there is a question of scientific or medical uncertainty, legislators could essentially pick a side they agree with and draft laws accordingly. We’ve all witnessed what happened next. Anti-choice lawmakers in the states went bananas concocting abortion restrictions with not much more than a hand-wave that those restrictions were grounded in science and designed to advance patient safety. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals took that ruling one step further in the fight over HB 2 and ruled that once legislators announce their justification for an abortion restriction, there was little, if anything, the federal courts could do to second-guess that reasoning.

Not so, the Court ruled Monday. “The statement [by the Fifth Circuit] that legislatures, and not courts, must resolve questions of medical uncertainty is also inconsistent with this Court’s case law,” Breyer wrote. “Instead, the Court, when determining the constitutionality of laws regulating abortion procedures, has placed considerable weight upon evidence and argument presented in judicial proceedings” holding that the “Court retains an independent constitutional duty to review factual findings where constitutional rights are at stake.”

Justice Breyer put that last part in italics just to drive home that yes, when it comes to the fundamental right to abortion, the federal courts are not simply rubber stamps for state lawmakers.

With that point made clear, Breyer then laid out—basically in a listicle—the number of places the Fifth Circuit got its review of the data wrong as to the effect of admitting privileges on the availability of reproductive care. It’s an impressive list that goes on for pages and includes “[a] collection of at least five peer-reviewed studies on abortion complications in the first trimester, showing that the highest rate of major complications including those complications requiring hospital admission—was less than one-quarter of 1%” as “[e]xpert testimony to the effect that complications rarely require hospital admission, much less immediate transfer to a hospital from an outpatient clinic.”

There’s more, but Breyer summed it up nicely: “In our view, the record contains sufficient evidence that the admitting-privileges requirement led to the closure of half of Texas’ clinics, or thereabouts. Those closures meant fewer doctors, longer waiting times, and increased crowding.”

Moving on to those claims made by attorneys for the State of Texas that the ACS provisions in particular advanced patient safety, Justice Breyer dropped some more data bombs. “Nationwide, childbirth is 14 times more likely than abortion to result in death, but Texas law allows a midwife to oversee childbirth in the patient’s own home,” Breyer wrote.

Colonoscopy, a procedure that typically takes place outside a hospital (or surgical center) setting, has a mortality rate 10 times higher than an abortion. The mortality rate for liposuction, another outpatient procedure, is 28 times higher than the mortality rate for abortion. Medical treatment after an incomplete miscarriage often involves a procedure identical to that involved in a nonmedical abortion, but it often takes place outside a hospital or surgical center. And Texas partly or wholly grandfathers (or waives in whole or in part the surgical-center requirement for) about two-thirds of the facilities to which the surgical-center standards apply. But it neither grandfathers nor provides waivers for any of the facilities that perform abortions.

How good does it feel to hear the Supreme Court call shenanigans on lawmakers who insist the best way to protect the health and safety of patients is by making comprehensive reproductive health care impossible to access? Probably as good as it feels to hear the Supreme Court shut down in the same opinion all the nonsense from abortion rights opponents claiming rogue provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell is proof positive that all abortion providers are dangerous predators that require the kind of regulation advanced in HB 2. “Gosnell’s behavior was terribly wrong. But there is no reason to believe that an extra layer of regulation would have affected that behavior,” Breyer wrote. “Determined wrongdoers, already ignoring existing statutes and safety measures, are unlikely to be convinced to adopt safe practices by a new overlay of regulations. Regardless, Gosnell’s deplorable crimes could escape detection only because his facility went uninspected for more than 15 years.”

Breyer went on: “Pre-existing Texas law already contained numerous detailed regulations covering abortion facilities, including a requirement that facilities be inspected at least annually. The record contains nothing to suggest that H. B. 2 would be more effective than pre-existing Texas law at deterring wrongdoers like Gosnell from criminal behavior.”

And: scene.

Immediately, Monday’s decision means that similar TRAP restrictions in other Fifth Circuit states like Louisiana are likely to be found unconstitutional. In states like Missouri or Kansas, it’s too soon to tell how the decision will affect those kinds of laws, but advocates are no doubt looking into that issue right now given the opening Monday’s decision creates.

And importantly, it makes it much more difficult for anti-abortion lawmakers to advance additional restrictions like “dismemberment bans” without being able to scientifically prove those laws actually advance patient care. These are laws that would effectively criminalize surgical abortions pre-viabilty, and are anti-abortion lawmakers’ latest attempts to cut off access to abortion while claiming to advance patient safety.

This is why Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt has the potential to reach far beyond TRAP laws in the fight for comprehensive reproductive health care. Finally, we’ve got a Supreme Court decision that demands facts over rhetoric and data over belief, and doesn’t fall into the “difficult decision that people disagree on” false equivalence. Monday’s decision is a clear, data-driven defense of the importance of access to comprehensive reproductive health care and an affirmation of abortion as a fundamental right. And that kind of defense has been a long time coming.

Analysis Human Rights

Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Decade of Resistance

Kanya D’Almeida

This small women-led movement has taken on the impossible challenge of fighting extreme religious intolerance with interfaith unity.

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

In the early hours of May 21, 2009, Alicia McWilliams was woken by a frantic phone call from her sister, saying that the FBI had just raided their other sister Elizabeth’s home. In an interview with Rewire, McWilliams says she couldn’t decipher her sister’s hysterical words, and so switched on the local news, which was blowing up with the alleged ”Bronx Terror Plot,” flashing scenes of her nephew, David Williams—Elizabeth’s son—being led away in handcuffs on terrorism charges.

McWilliams says she knew right away that there was something wrong with that picture, suspicions that only deepened as she learned the details of how an FBI informant had befriended her nephew and three other low-income Black Muslim men and involved them in a convoluted scheme that would include attacking synagogues in New York City and an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York.

She tells Rewire on the phone her first thought was that the entire plot smacked of the days of COINTELPRO—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s counterintelligence program that spied on and infiltrated various political groups throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Ushered into existence in 1956 to squash the Communist Party, the program quickly turned its attention to groups like the Black Panther Party in order to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the Black Liberation Movement.

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Feeling a sense of déjà vu during the early days of her nephew’s arrest, she watched as the government and the media spun a narrative of four violent extremists plotting to blow up Jewish houses of worship in the name of jihad, obscuring the vulnerability and desperation of the men involved and the active role played by the informant.

The plot was so outrageous that even Judge Colleen McMahon, who presided over the Newburgh Four trial and ultimately sentenced them to decades in prison after a jury returned a guilty verdict, concluded:

Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie [one of the defendants in the case], whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope … I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.

But for McWilliams, who was “scared to death” at the time, simply acknowledging the injustice of the government’s counterterrorism tactics was not enough. She felt compelled to fight back. The two-month-long trial surrounding the “Bronx Terror Plot” saw her either sitting in the courtroom or standing on the steps of the federal courthouse in White Plains, New York, protesting the war on terror in both its domestic and foreign manifestations.

She talked to the press. She marched in the streets. Even after the trial ended in a guilty verdict, she did not let up: Every waking moment was spent fighting with her sister Elizabeth on David’s behalf.

Before long, she connected with other advocates and began speaking on panels alongside the family members of hundreds of Muslims who have been incarcerated on terrorism charges since 9/11.

She remembers a time when she was the only Black woman and non-Muslim in those organizing spaces. “It was new for me,” she tells Rewire. “I was different: I’m very outspoken, I cuss a lot. But they accepted me as a sister. Because I was saying and doing what they all wanted to—I was standing up and cussing out the government for taking our boys away.”

In the third part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we talk to some of the families and activists who have spent the past decade and a half fighting to expose religiously biased federal policies that have fanned the flames of Islamophobia and torn hundreds of American families apart.

At the heart of their struggle is a campaign called No Separate Justice, a nationwide effort to unite groups fighting on multiple fronts and across various marginalized populations to highlight the criminalization of Muslims in the United States.

Humble Beginnings

This past January Zurata Duka, an ethnic Albanian immigrant whose story Rewire reported on previously, entered a Philadelphia prison where three of her four sons were being held pending a court hearing. There, for the first time in eight years, she held them in her arms.

Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir Duka had been arrested in 2007, in connection with an alleged plot to attack the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey. The plot turned out to be manufactured by the FBI with the help of confidential informants, who worked for months to try and record evidence of the Dukas’ involvement in the plan.

Though the prosecution was unable to establish proof that the brothers had agreed to the plot, and despite the fact that the FBI’s own informant testified that the brothers were ignorant of the plan, a jury found them guilty and sentenced all three to life in prison, with an additional 30-year sentence for the youngest, Eljvir.

Imprisoned far from home—in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Colorado—the three brothers almost never see their parents, siblings, or the children that both Dritan and Eljvir left behind. For years they were even cut off from physical contact with their family as the government shuffled them between multiple high-security federal detention centers, where they were held for long periods in isolation. To this day Eljvir remains in solitary confinement.

The fact that Zurata Duka was able to embrace her sons after nearly a decade was thanks in large part to a coalition of individuals and organizations who have worked for years to keep alive the case of the Fort Dix Five, as the Duka brothers and their two co-defendants came to be known in the media.

Under legal and social pressure, New Jersey District Judge Robert B. Kugler—the same man who presided over the original trial and sentenced the brothers back in 2009—agreed in 2015 to hear a motion for retrial, based on the contention that the brothers had received ineffective counsel. At the time of writing, he had yet to issue a ruling.

A few months ahead of that hearing, a woman named Lynne Jackson drove down to the Camden courthouse in New Jersey along with several other activists and unfurled a huge banner that read ”Free the Fort Dix 5.”

It was a freezing November day, she tells Rewire in a phone interview, but the members of the Fort Dix Five Family Support Committee clustered together, passing out leaflets about the Duka brothers’ case, which had captured national headlines back in 2009.

At one point, Jackson says, two courthouse officials came outside to ask what the protesters were doing.

“I think they were surprised that people hadn’t forgotten about the Dukas, that two months before they were scheduled to appear their supporters were standing around in the freezing cold behind a massive banner,” Jackson says. “How could we forget such an injustice? It keeps me awake at night. So this is what we do: We try to keep these cases alive.”

Jackson’s support for Muslim Americans’ rights dates back to 2007, when she and several other concerned citizens came together around the cases of Yassin Aref, an Iraqi Kurdish refugee, and Mohammed M. Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant, who were convicted in 2006 on terrorism charges.

Both men were residents of Albany, New York. Aref had been a well-known imam, and Hossain the owner of a struggling local pizzeria, when an undercover FBI informant named Shahed Hussain showed up in the community with gifts, promises of cash loans, and stories of his involvement with a Pakistani terrorist group, according to court testimony, the New York Times reported.

For months the informant attempted to engage Hossain in discussions about terrorist activity. One such conversation, which was caught on tape and subsequently played at trial, the Times reported, involves the informant claiming that the $50,000 loan he had promised to the pizzeria owner came from the sale of a missile launcher that would eventually be used to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York.

Ultimately, the defendants were tried and convicted on charges of providing material support to a terrorist network.

As Rewire has reported previously, the federal government has used material support statutes to incarcerate hundreds of Muslims since 9/11. Legal scholars contend that while the laws originally sought to prohibit citizens from providing fiscal support, weapons, or intelligence to designated terrorist groups, courts have interpreted the statutes far more broadly in the decade since September 11, convicting individuals whose faith or ideology supposedly “predispose” them to violence.

According to the complaint filed against the two Albany men, Hossain’s only “crime” was to accept a loan from the FBI informant, while Aref did nothing but witness that loan in his capacity as an imam, as per Islamic custom—actions that the prosecution charged amounted to money laundering in the service of a terrorist organization.

Shocked by the extent to which the government had gone to infiltrate their community and ensnare two Muslim men in a bogus scheme, residents like Jackson began to mobilize. She joined the Muslim Solidarity Committee, which had sprung up in 2006 as a kind of hub for supporters of Aref and Hossain.

Activists quickly realized that, far from being an aberration unfolding in their town, the Aref and Hossain case represented a pattern in which federal law enforcement practices were eviscerating the rights and liberties of many Muslim residents, Jackson tells Rewire. Faced with what was clearly a nationwide trend, the committee folded into a larger effort known as Project SALAM (Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims), becoming just one of several chapters around the country.

Project SALAM now falls under an even broader umbrella group, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF). The coalition’s legal director, Kathy Manley, tells Rewire in a phone interview: “We work with rights groups and families to defend Muslim residents who are being—or might be—prosecuted, not for something they did, but because of what the government fears they might do.”

She referred to this legal strategy of prosecuting individuals who have not committed a crime as preemptive prosecution. It is a term that neatly sums up the FBI’s post-9/11 counterterrorism program, whose most controversial feature has been the widespread use of confidential informants to involve Muslim residents in government-manufactured terrorist plots.

As of 2014, counterterrorism operations accounted for 40 percent of the bureau’s $3.3 billion operating budget, according to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch. Informants likely account for a significant portion of those funds: as of 2007 the FBI had about 15,000 confidential informants on its payroll, up from 1,500 in the 1970s.

Families and organizers with the No Separate Justice campaign are all too familiar with this tactic and—in some cases—with the informants themselves.

The Newburgh Four: Sowing the Seeds of Solidarity

In the spring of 2008, Shahed Hussain, the same informant who targeted Aref and Hossain in Albany, showed up in the economically depressed town of Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City.

Over several months, he set about infiltrating eateries and houses of worship, including the Masjid Al-Ikhlas, whose congregation counted many Black American Muslims.

As the mosque’s imam, Salahuddin Muhammad, noted in the 2014 HBO documentary The Newburgh Sting, most of the congregation was put off by Hussain’s extremist views, including his conservative attitude toward women and his talk of jihad. But one man, James Cromitie, was taken in by Hussain’s flashy car and promises of money, and the two struck up a friendship.

Over time, Hussain convinced Cromitie and three other men to participate in a plan that involved attacking synagogues in the Bronx and firing missiles at a U.S. air base in Newburgh. Hussain offered the men $250,000 for their efforts. One of the men lured by this extravagant promise was Alicia McWilliams’ nephew, David Williams, a young Black Muslim convert who’d grown up in Brooklyn but had returned to Newburgh in 2009 to help care for his young brother Lord. According to reports, Lord had recently been diagnosed with a terminal liver disease.

As Anjali Kamat reported for Democracy Now! in 2010, Lord needed a liver transplant in order to survive, a medical procedure the Williams family could not afford. In fact, all of the men ensnared in Hussain’s plan were struggling financially. They had also served time in prison, and one of them, a Haitian-born immigrant named Laguerre Payen, was a paranoid schizophrenic.

Kamat added, “[Payen] lived in a one-room occupancy in Newburgh’s crack alley. When he was arrested, there were open containers of urine [in] his room, because he was too afraid to walk down the hall to use the restroom. This man, we’re supposed to believe, is a terrorist.”

On May 20, 2009, as they attempted to carry out the fake operation, all four men were apprehended and three of them, including Cromitie and Williams, were subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States. At least two of the defendants maintain that they had planned to foil the plot all along.

After receiving that fateful call from her sister following the arrest, Alicia McWilliams began connecting with advocates from Project SALAM and NCPCF and speaking out against the policies put into place since 9/11 that were explicitly targeting Muslim Americans.

But organizing around domestic terror cases is no easy task. Family members have told Rewire that the stigma of the word alone has pitched them into poverty and isolation, as relatives, religious communities, and prospective employers disappear from their lives, fearing guilt by association.

McWilliams says that back in 2009 many of the women she met—women who are now at the forefront of the No Separate Justice movement—were still in the shadows, silent for fear of being retaliated against.

“I told them, ‘You gotta come out and let people know you won’t be quiet,’” she tells Rewire.

Two women in particular were deeply affected by McWilliams’ words: Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has reported on previously.

In multiple interviews with Rewire, Parveen explains that McWilliams often gave her the courage to speak out in public—something she had never done prior to her son, Matin, being targeted by an informant and sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of providing material support to terrorism. Parveen says she and McWilliams have sat by each other during the most challenging times. A devout Muslim, Parveen once even accompanied McWilliams to church.

“Now Mama Shahina is out there doing her thing,” McWilliams says, referring to the monthly vigils that the No Separate Justice campaign hosts outside the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan, where Parveen can often be heard advocating on behalf of Muslim prisoners.

McWilliams lives too far away to attend the vigils, but she says she remains connected to her “sisters.”

“These are beautiful women,” McWilliams tells Rewire, “And we love each other unconditionally.”

Fighting on Multiple Fronts

McWilliams, who often refers to her nephew’s case as “COINTELPRO all over again,” was not the only person Rewire interviewed for this series to draw parallels between the current counterterrorism effort and the counterintelligence operations of old.

Laura Whitehorn, a former political prisoner who was incarcerated for 15 years in connection with the Resistance Conspiracy—actions undertaken by white anti-imperialists in 1985—recalls speaking about the history of COINTELPRO at one of the earliest conferences of families affected by terrorism prosecutions, back in October of 2011.

“I talked about the number of incarcerated Black Panthers who are still in jail, about the murder of Fred Hampton [a member of the Panther Party], which was engineered by the FBI and carried out by the Chicago police, and about how COINTELPRO framed, arrested, and assassinated so many people who were part of militant movements in the ’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” Whitehorn tells Rewire. “Afterwards some of the women, the mothers who had not yet become as active in the movement, came up to me with tears in their eyes, two of them speaking to me through a translator, and said, ‘We never knew that your government did this.’”

She says the No Separate Justice vigils have provided a space for unity between populations that have historically been incarcerated for so-called radicalism—including Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, and white anti-imperial activists—and the Muslims who are now being targeted by the federal government.

The monthly gatherings outside the MCC draw an eclectic crowd, with each case attracting activists from across the political spectrum. Vigils held in honor of the Holy Land Five, for instance—a group of Palestinian men whose charitable contributions to local Palestinian communities was deemed a form of “material support” for Hamas, the governing authority of the Gaza Strip—drew scores of Palestinian rights groups and anti-Zionist Jewish activists, including members of Adalah-NY and Al-Awda NY.

When Shahina Parveen or other South Asian immigrants have been in the spotlight, members of the youth and worker-led Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) have turned out in large numbers.

Meanwhile, cases like that of Shifa Sadequee, a Bangladeshi American who was convicted on terrorism charges in 2009 and whose story Rewire covered at length earlier in this series, has drawn support from queer activists and groups organizing around political prisoners. According to Shifa’s sister Sonali, supporters of U.S. political prisoners were among the few people who stood by the Sadequee family when Shifa was arrested back in 2006.

“Large parts of the immigrant Muslim community in Atlanta [where the family lived at the time] were completely hands off,” Sonali tells Rewire in a phone interview. “It was heartbreaking: No one wanted to deal with the issue, they didn’t even want to touch it, to come close to it.”

Their support came instead from Black activists, including those involved with the Jericho Movement, a nationwide effort to free political prisoners in the United States. Both sisters had rallied with folks from Jericho, particularly around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black journalist and author who has spent over 30 years in prison, almost all of them on death row. While ostensibly convicted for the 1981 shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer, advocates believe that Abu-Jamal was incarcerated for his radical views on Black liberation and his outspokenness as a reporter and radio personality.

The sisters had also participated in efforts to free imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, when he was chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A resident of Atlanta, Georgia, Al-Amin has been a “target of the government due to his radical beliefs,” according to reports. His supporters claim he was framed for the shooting deaths of two sheriff’s deputies in 2000.

“There was a powerful Black Muslim community already in place that understood the issues we were dealing with, that took up Shifa’s case and basically gave us whatever support we needed,” says Sonali. As Shifa’s case unfolded, it became clear to his family and his supporters that he, like many Black activists, had been targeted largely for his political views. His sisters say the prosecution relied heavily on Shifa’s religious teachings, his political opinions and his work as a translator of Arabic texts when pressing their case to the jury. The framework within which movements for political prisoners have organized for years became a crucial one for understanding Shifa’s situation, they say.

Activists from Atlanta’s queer community, as well local groups like Project South, also stood behind the family from day one—even when members of their own Bangladeshi Muslim community shunned them.

“It was such a blessing, such a relief, to have this politically conscious community in place,” Sonali tells Rewire. “They kept us going.”

And yet, while echoes of COINTELPRO shimmer in the current landscape, some say the situation Muslim residents face today is unique.

“Back then the FBI mostly targeted political activity,” Whitehorn tells Rewire. “Now they seem more interested in building a fake narrative that citizens of the United States are at risk of, or endangered by, Muslims—even those without political leanings.”

She points to politicians like Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, whose inflammatory rhetoric—including his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States—appears to have fanned Islamophobic sentiment. Since the 2016 presidential election campaigns began, there has been a documented uptick in anti-Muslim violence, from 154 reported incidents between January and December of 2014, to 174 by the end of 2015.

But while families and advocates are alarmed by right-wing rhetoric, they are quick to highlight prevailing policies that have, over the past 15 years, pitched hundreds of families and whole communities into fear and despair.

“If Trump becomes the definition of what Islamophobia looks like, more ‘polite’ or legalized forms of injustice might be made more acceptable in the process ” Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ movement, tells Rewire, pointing to controversial counterterrorism tactics that have unfolded, unchecked, under the Obama administration.

“I am heartened by the rising movements pushing back against Trump and Islamophobia but I worry about the ways in which our attention to Republican candidates’ extremism gives a pass to what has already happened, and continues to happen, to many Muslim families in this country,” she says.

In the last two years alone, which saw the November 2015 Paris attacks and the December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California, 85 individuals in the United States have been arrested on charges relating to involvement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to an April 2016 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. The average age of those arrested is 26, and 54 percent of the cases involved an informant or undercover agent.

So the national security apparatus grinds on. The only thing standing between it and scores of Muslim American families under surveillance is this small women-led movement that has taken on the impossible challenge of fighting extreme religious intolerance with interfaith unity.

As Alicia McWilliams says to Rewire: “We’re making some progress but we gotta do more. People need to start showing up for us, speaking out for us. My Muslim sisters and I, we’re fighting—but we can’t do this alone.”