A guest blog by Professor Susan Edwards about the women affected by Guantánamo prison.

International Women’s Day on 8 March is a day to reflect and act on the lives of all women, a day to Embrace Equity and respect all women. It falls on the same day in March this year when the UK Guantánamo Freedom Network hold a monthly silent vigil in Parliament Square, dressed in orange overalls and black hoods, to bear witness in a visible statement of outrage at the continued existence of Guantánamo prison, and the unlawful detention of men untried and unconvicted.

Amplifying the voices of the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of detainees
The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of these men, these ghost families, are absent and non-existent, of whom Marina Warner says “have been buried without trace”. They appear to be of little interest to the public or some Western journalists. Clive Stafford Smith co-founder of Reprieve has helped secure the release of 69 prisoners from Guantánamo (including every British prisoner) and has spoken out about Ahmed Rabbani who was released after twenty years and then met his 19 year old son for the first time. His son’s childhood was marred by isolation, fear and panic.

Victoria Brittain in Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror offers a voice to the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of detainees and restores their dignity, worth and agency through naming and publishing their stories:

  • Farida Ahsan, the mother of Syed Talha Ahsan, who was extradited to the US on terror charges and detained in a maximum high security prison.
  • Sabah, wife of Jamil el Banna (released in 2007), who shielded her children’s identity when they went to school so that they wouldn’t suffer taunts.
  • Zinnira, the wife of Shaker Aamer (released in 2015); she suffered from depression and was on medication for several years.
  • The wife of Mustafa Ait Idir, a co-plaintiff in Boumediene v. Bush 553 US 723,2008 where Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion for the 5–4 majority, holding that the prisoners had a right to the writ of habeas corpus, said “I have to work hard for my children as I receive no financial backing from aid agencies, Arab or Islamic organizations operating in Bosnia because they fear that they could be designated as terrorist due to my husband’s status.”
  • Zaynab, wife of Moazzam Begg (held from 2002-2006); Sabiha the wife and Amna the sister of Barbar Ahmed (detained from 2004-2012) are just some of the many women who suffer from the collateral and residual damage of Guantánamo.
  • Maryem Mint El Wadia, who watched as her son Mohamedou Ould Slahi was arrested and led away. She died whilst he was in detention, never to see him again, or to know the extent of his ordeal and ultimate release.

They have been shunned, isolated, suffered mental breakdowns and systematic social isolation, they have also been bullied and spat on. One woman said: “No one would visit me in case they were arrested, fearful that if they got involved their husbands would also be taken”.

The families have no information, no phone calls, no contact.

Children grow up in a psychological nightmarish vacuum knowing only too well the photographs of torture on the internet and the press descriptions of torture and what the recesses of their minds can imagine. This is collateral damage passed down generations and across families and communities.

Rabbani’s son, in a letter to his father, writes: “Still, I find I lie to others. I know you have been tortured … but I have been too embarrassed to tell my friends about you. I am not able to prove you are innocent if anyone challenges me, though I believe it in my soul.” Rabbani’s daughter asks: “Who will marry me?”

The campaign against the "monstrous failure of justice"
The freedom network is an alliance of UK activists and organisations including Guantánamo Justice Campaign, London Guantánamo Campaign, Close Guantánamo Campaign including the co-founder and investigative journalist Andy Worthington, Freedom from Torture, and Amnesty International. The network is dedicated to closing the prison, securing fair trials or safe release for the detainees and raising awareness of struggles for reparation in life after Guantánamo. 

On 14 January 2023 the network, together with its US counterpart, marked the 21 years of lawlessness of Guantánamo. Men are held without charge or trial and in inhumane conditions of physical and mental torture . The network walked from Parliament to Trafalgar Square to present a letter to the Prime Minister calling for the British government to take action through diplomatic means and other channels to press the Biden administration to close the prison.

During the last two decades politicians, former PM’s, lawyers, judges and human rights defenders have called for an end to this arbitrary detention and punishment in what Philippe Sands KC calls a Lawless World. Lord Steyn has described the military tribunal for trying detainees as a “kangaroo court” and the Twenty-Seventh FA Mann Lecture spoke of Guantánamo Prison as “the legal black hole” and a “monstrous failure of justice”.

Lord Bingham in The Rule of Law lamented the differential treatment of citizens which “runs through the [US] Patriot Act, [and] reserves its most severe measures for non-citizens.”

Lord Goldsmith said the very existence of Guantánamo was “unacceptable.” Lord Phillips in R (Abbasi) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs [2002] EWCA Civ 1598, said that detention without charge or access to a court is “legally objectionable”.

Mr Justice Collins (Sir Andrew Collins) said in 2006 that America's idea of what constitutes torture “is not the same as ours and doesn't appear to coincide with that of most civilised countries.” Lord Justice Thomas, Lord Lloyd Jones when Mr Justice Lloyd Jones and many others echo these sentiments.

Since January 2002, at least 780 men have been detained, among them farmers, bakers, taxi drivers and journalists. Only 16 were ever charged with criminal offences, according to Human Rights Watch. As of February this year, 32 remain in detention, the majority having been cleared for release, some cleared years ago. Many were subjected to torture redefined for use on Muslim detainees in Guantánamo. In the cases of Bagram and Iraq, the word ‘torture’ was deleted from the text and rebranded as ‘coercive interrogation,’ and redefined as ‘extreme’ acts which involved ‘serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or death.’

Standing in solidarity with the women casualties of Guantánamo
The UK Guantánamo network will be standing outside Parliament on International Women’s Day to call for the close of Guantánamo Prison and to draw attention to the suffering of all the women whose lives have been affected by the detention and torture of male family members and friends held in Guantánamo over the past 21 years.

The network stands in solidarity with the wives, partners, mothers, children, sisters, friends and wider family members and the communities of all the detainees whose lives and reputation have been irrevocably shattered.

International Women’s Day is a day to focus on women who are the wider casualties and remember the many forgotten families whose suffering continues. If we are to Embrace Equity then this includes the women casualties of Guantánamo prison, the families, and the communities whose broken lives continue and require a call to action through reparation and inclusion of women in public dialogue.

Professor Susan Edwards is an Associate Tenant at Red Lion Chambers, and Professor Emerita University of Buckingham.