Of all of us, it was Najia who focused most on the suffering of the World Trade Center's victims. She couldn't bear to watch TV most of the time. Her name was becoming public currency: This was particularly hard to bear for such a private person. Najia is perhaps the most discreet of all my children. She doesn't display her emotions easily, but I could see she was stricken.
The terrible irony was that we identified, and grieved, with the victims, while the outside world saw us as aggressors. We were trapped in a Kafkaesque situationparticularly Wafah. After four years of law school, Wafah's life was in New York. Her apartment was just blocks from the World Trade Center. She talked night and day about her friends there; she felt she had to be in New York, and wanted to fly back immediately.
Then one newspaper reported that Wafah had been tipped off: She had, they said, fled New York just days before the attack. This was untrue. Wafah had been with me, in Switzerland, since June. But other papers picked up the story. They said Wafah had known in advance about the attack, and had done nothing to protect the people and the home that she loved.
A friend who was staying in Wafah's New York apartment called: She had begun receiving death threats. It was an understandable reactionhow could strangers distinguish one Bin Laden from another?
I felt I had no choice. I alone could defend my daughters. I issued a statement saying that my three girls and I had had no connection whatsoever with this evil, barbaric attack on America, a country we loved and whose values we shared and admired. I went on TV. I wrote to the newspapers to express our sorrow. My long battle to free myself and my children from the ideals of Saudi Arabia was all the evidence I could offer for our innocence: that, and our goodwill, and the pain we felt for Osama's victims.
I had so longed for an end to my bitter fight against the Bin Ladens and their country. But now I faced a whole new struggle. I would have to shepherd my children through the anguish they felt as their name became synonymous with evil, infamy, and death.
My private life had become a public story.
IRONICALLY, IT WAS ONLY AFTER SEPTEMBER 11 THAT my fourteen-year fight for freedom from Saudi Arabia made sense to the people around me. Before that, I think no one truly understood what was at stakenot the courts, not the judge, not even my friends. Even in my own country, Switzerland, I was perceived, more or less, as just another woman embroiled in a nasty international divorce.
But I always knew that my fight went far deeper than that. I was fighting to gain freedom from one of the most powerful societies and families in the worldto salvage my daughters from a merciless culture that denied their most basic rights. In Saudi Arabia they could not even walk alone in the street, let alone choose the path of their own lives. I fought to free them from the hard-core fundamentalist values of Saudi Arabian society, and its contempt for the tolerance and liberty of the West, which I have learned to value deeply.
I am afraid that even today, the West does not fully understand Saudi Arabia and its rigid value system. For nine years, I lived inside the powerful Bin Laden clan, with its close and complex links to the royal family. My daughters went to Saudi schools. I lived, to a great extent, the life of a Saudi woman. And over time, I learned and analyzed the mechanisms of that opaque society, and the harsh and bitter rules that it enforces on its daughters.
I could not stand quietly by while my little girls' bright minds were extinguished. I could not teach them to submit to the values of Saudi Arabia. I could not watch them be branded as rebels because of the Western values that I taught themdespite all the punishment that might ensue. And were they to comply with Saudi society, I could not face the prospect that my daughters might grow up to become like the faceless, voiceless women I lived among.
Copyright © 2004 by Carmen Bin Ladin.
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