The XX Factor

What Did Free Will Mean in Bin Laden Land?

You’re right to point out, Rachael , that the woman believed to have rushed in front of Bin Laden had no choice about marrying him. The notion of giving a woman-or in this case, a girl-to a man is one we find repugnant, and I’m not arguing with that. But I wasn’t saying that Bin Laden’s wife had a normal, loving, romantic relationship with her husband in any way we would recognize. I was saying we don’t know, so why would we assume that her position lacks complexity or nuance? We assume this because it makes the story more palatable and easier to understand. She was given to him as a girl, so she must have no control over her actions. He’s a horrible man, so he must also be a coward who hides behind his wife. These are the patterns of thinking I’m trying to dispel.

You raise the question of free will. Bin Laden was a movement leader whose companions and followers, male and female, viewed him with reverence. The courier and his brother on the lower floors of the Abbottabad house who fought to the death to protect him were never spoken of as human shields, though that’s effectively what they were. True, those men probably had more say in the decision to follow Bin Laden than the women in the house, but for all we know, they might also have been gifted to him as boys. How easy would it have been for a man to leave Bin Laden’s employ? I’d guess about as easy as leaving any cult or organized crime syndicate, which is to say, not very. Rigid structures of patriarchal authority deprive many people of agency, including young men. My point is that particularly when it comes to gender issues in the Muslim world, we’re quick to jump to conclusions that line up with what we already think. While Bin Laden’s wife may have truly loved him, I suspect she had less in common with a besotted Western bride than she did with the guys downstairs: She was raised in a family that venerated him, she lived under his protection, she was loyal to the end.

Photograph by Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images