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ACLU President Issues Keynote for Symposium on "The Gender Dimensions of Terror"

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March 30, 2009

On March 6, 2009, ACLU President Susan N. Herman gave the keynote address at Rutgers University School of Law’s Symposium, “Gendered Dimensions of Terrorism,” sponsored by the Women’s Rights Law Reporter. In her address, Herman posited that the lack of gendered narratives in contemporary discussions of terrorism and counterterrorism is emblematic of society’s difficulty in understanding terrorism itself. The failure to recognize women’s involvement in terrorism, both as affirmative actors and casualties only furthers a masculinizing conflict in which, in Herman’s words,

We conceptualize war as a transaction among men. Women’s involvement is viewed as collateral or accidental, rather than as an intentional or inherent consequence of war. Our failure to recognize war and conflict as situations that not only affect women, but involve women, perpetuates decision-making that fails to accurately account for the gendered ramifications of conflict.

Herman also cautioned against defining narratives on women and terrorism only in terms of victims, noting the lessons from over 40 years of experience by the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project (WRP) that discourage relegating women only to a status of victimhood. She, along with the subsequent symposium speakers, emphasized the importance of nuanced gender narratives to further our overall understanding of terrorism as a tactic rather than an ideology.

In her address, Herman highlighted the role of the ACLU in responding to the gendered impact of counterterrorism policies through its ligation and advocacy challenging detrimental policies of the “War on Terror.” She noted several examples where the WRP, the Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and ACLU affiliates have advocated directly on behalf of Muslim women affected by the policies targeting religious dress and practice, including the case of Medina v. County of San Bernardino, involving a woman who was forced to remove her hijab while detained in a county jail, and the case of Muslim women being improperly strip-searched at airports in Chicago. In another case, Webb v. City of Philadelphia, the ACLU sought to enforce the right of Muslim women to wear hijab while working as law enforcement officers. She also discussed the affects of prolonged detention, interrogation, torture, deportation, and rendition of male terrorist suspects on female relatives, as well as noting the often overlooked treatment of female detainees in countries like Iraq.

In conclusion, Herman suggested that incorporating gendered narratives is a critical step to combating the myth-making that plagues our current understanding of violence and conflict, and could serve as an effective means of combating them.

For more on the ACLU’s work on these issues, click here.

Leila Hull is a third-year student at Brooklyn Law School.

CORRECTION: This post has been amended to credit all ACLU projects involved in litigating Medina andWebb.

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