First Published on Verso Blog 7th March 2018 for the International Women’s Strike.
The Women’s Strike rejects the decades of economic inequality, criminalisation and policing, racial and sexual violence, and endless global war and terrorism. To this end, one central component of this strike must be to address the intensifying violence against and criminalization of rising numbers of Muslim women and children in the name of a fight against terror. The anti-racist and anti-imperialist feminism that we mobilise must recognize the significance of islamophobia for hardening and extending the disciplinary practices of the state.
In October 2016, Mark Rowley, the former head of counterterrorism policing, reported that up to 50 Muslim families were facing care proceedings – proceedings in family court – in relation to suspected radicalisation within the home. In June 2017, it was reported that senior family court judges were overseeing a number of such cases, and evidence from the family high court indicate multiple such cases continue. This increasing use of family courts for counterterrorism policing coincides with rising numbers of arrests of Muslim women for terrorism-related offences, and it is no coincidence. The majority of these women, though not all, are in their late teens or in their twenties. The basis of these arrests range but charges more often than not, like the majority of terrorism-related arrests, concern non-violent acts such as dissemination of material classified as being of a ‘terrorist’ nature, sharing ‘terrorist propaganda’, or encouraging others to engage in acts of terrorism, which typically means criminalisation is based on the association of these women with male family members or partners.
And so the latest turn in counterterrorism policing turns to family court for policing mothers. This is the latest in a pattern. Counterterrorism policing has consistently evaded any need to provide credible evidence to support accusations of threat, usually by taking terrorism cases through immigration and other administrative courts. And as in immigration court, in family court suspicion provides sufficient basis for a judge to rule in support of social services’ applications for care orders. The national security element that comes to be associated with ‘radicalisation’ cases has allowed for the use of secret evidence in family proceedings too. The basis of police evidence used by social services does not need to be open to scrutiny. Typically omitted from such proceedings is the ongoing harassment by MI5 who, as in too many of these cases, make clear that with complicity and agreement to work with the intelligence services, the woman’s hardships will be removed and her children returned.
This twist to the invasive criminalisation of Muslim women follows well-documented police calls for them to act as points of surveillance within their own families and communities, to report to the police any suspicious behaviour of their men folk. Perhaps it is the lack of success of this policy that ramped up the stakes, perhaps it is linked to the crisis of what to do with returning disgruntled male fighters. It is no doubt part of the reinvigorated reconstruction of Muslim women as weaponised and foreboding, as the breeders and reproducers of the terrorist threat.
For women whose families are already under surveillance their children, already routinely criminalised through Prevent, become the bargaining chip, the pressure point for compliance and the route to subjugation. In the Eyes of Aliyah, a film, directed by Ken Fero and made as part of the Deport Deprive Extradite Project, we document the story of a woman arrested at an airport. She was not charged with any criminal offence, but the information obtained by police during questioning was passed onto social services so that the same material not worthy of obtaining a prosecution in open criminal court was used in family court. Her children were taken into care and her visitation rights limited to a couple of hours per week under the watchful gaze of a social worker who would record her interactions with her children. The care order against her applies not only to her current children but to any future children she may bear. When things were looking up and contact time was to be extended, another raid on her home by counterterrorism officers saw to the suspension of contact altogether. Through her efforts to challenge this, contact was eventually resumed and she, like others, is now mobilising to regain full custody of her children.
In other cases, the moment of intervention varies; it is when a woman whose partner is under surveillance is stopped by the police for speeding that a referral is made to social services; or when there are ongoing interactions or contact with an ex-partner as she attempts to flee an abusive relationship. And then care proceedings begin. Perhaps after four months of foster care and repeated cries by the children that separation from mum feels ‘frightening’, and after the court decides the children are sufficiently ‘integrated’ with non-Muslims in their school and community, the order will be dropped. The children can return. Other times, the intervention is more immediate and drastic. For the mother fleeing an abusive partner, and also accused of radicalising her children, there is not only the domestic violence to contend with; there is the police violence against herself and her ex-partner, and the ultimate whammy by social services who offer her baby up for adoption and her toddler to foster carers. The structural nature of violence and oppression in the domestic sphere which critical feminists have long told of, that domestic violence will always be disproportionately experienced by women whose communities and men folk are targets of the most excessive and hard end of police brutality is worth reflecting on. The state interventions that continually work to produce, reinforce and advance such assaults are an equally imperative part of the story.
With this holistic approach to counterterrorism policing – where interventions are made by social services either because children themselves are criminalised or because they are deemed to be at risk of ‘radicalisation’ because of their family – we begin to grasp something of the totalising and pervasive nature of the state’s hand in marginalising, disciplining and ultimately damaging an entire community of people. In the worst-case scenarios mothers are imprisoned and separated from their children, and/or children are taken into care, and the full extent of collaboration between social services and the police comes to light. The way in which counterterrorism policing has infiltrated the interventions of social services – already often brutal when it comes to policing working-class families – has quite particular, sinister effects; simultaneously advancing the reach of counterterrorism for Muslims and further hardening the disciplinary aspects of social services.
Noteworthy is the way the pre-emptive nature of counterterrorism policing has merged with the more widespread practices of social services, who in response to high profile cases of child abuse and neglect take as routine a preventative approach to dealing with children identified to be ‘at risk’. In this sense, the guidance on dealing with children at risk of radicalisation has slotted easily into the regular assessment models for dealing with ‘at risk’ (mostly working class) families. In this ‘at risk’ model, emphasis is placed on preventative interventions that have over the last decade increasingly involved use of its hard-end disciplinary functions, comprising taking children into care, and a move away from supportive measures that might help to ease the pressures placing strains on mums juggling multiple demands and trying to make ends meet. It is worth noting here the range of interventions made against mothers – from those whose children have been removed because they were made homeless, to those whose caring abilities have come under the scrutiny via the Prevent agenda for participating in anti-fracking protests. Just as guidance for policing working-class mothers advises that sometimes difficult questions need to be asked even if it means offending, so in radicalisation cases staff are trained to accept that sometimes islamophobic interrogation is necessary and acceptable in the interests of the child.
But what then for the mothers who are criminalised for radicalising their children? What for the mothers where there is a genuine issue of domestic violence in the home? What happens to the already marginal space to name and address this and what role does preemptive policing play in the mobilisation towards militarisation in the first place?
The result is systemic. Its shut down requires a critical feminist response to securitisation; calling for an end to the criminalisation of Muslim, refugee, migrant and black women, their children and communities; calling for an end to the violent disciplinary systems which only serve to reproduce more violence; calling for an end to Prevent. And so we strike.