The XX Factor

Why Do We Assume Osama Bin Laden’s Wife Has No Agency?

In wartime, we tend to sacrifice facts for the sake of a good story. We do this even though we know we’re prone to it, even when understanding the contradictory nature of our enemy makes us smarter and him more vulnerable. We may also know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that acknowledging our adversary’s complexity yields a richer, truer story. But in war, this is not the story we want.

So it has been in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s killing. You’re right, Noreen , that the account of Bin Laden using his wife as a human shield was alluring because it made him seem all the more an embodiment of evil. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have been true , nor is Bin Laden evil incarnate. He’s responsible for many deaths, great suffering and destruction, but none of that makes him an unmitigated monster. As the book you cite points out, he was also a man: shy and vain, fond of zucchini, a husband and father who could be punishing with his sons and who taught his daughters to shoot in case they ever needed to protect themselves.

Among the things Americans understand least about the people they’re fighting among and against in what used to be called the War on Terror is the way these mainly Muslim people feel about women. In a decade of reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan, I’ve seen men and women whose relationships run the gamut from oppressive and abusive to loving, respectful, and indulgent. It may be painful to acknowledge that real love can exist in places where half the population is routinely denied opportunities the other half enjoys, but it’s true. The structural and the personal are not congruent or interchangeable in their cultures or in ours. The detail about Bin Laden using his wife as a human shield never rang true. Bin Laden didn’t have to force anyone to stand in front of him. We may disagree with him, we may hate him, we may wish him dead, but he stood at the center of a powerful personality cult, and there have been and continue to be plenty of people willing to take a bullet for him. If the last 10 years have taught us nothing else, they should have taught us that. We say that we respect women’s agency. Why, then, are we so quick to believe that a woman living in Bin Laden’s house is always or only a slave? We would be wise to see her more clearly.