Saturday, December 05, 2015

On The Coverage of the Killings of San Bernardino. A Housewife Turned A Murderer.

Mass murders are now too frequent for me give them the attention their victims deserve.  The most recent one, in San Bernardino, plucked fourteen lives prematurely and left those who loved the newly dead with torn-edged gaping holes for the rest of their lives.  Twenty-one additional people were hurt, some very seriously.

Most media now report that the butchers of San Bernardino, a young married couple, were motivated by extreme religio-political beliefs, the kind which motivates, say, ISIS.

The woman in the killing couple,  Tashfeen Malik,  appears to have pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS right before the slaughter.  The man in the killing couple, Syed Rizwan Farook, is described as a very pious or devout* man who didn't let other men (or even his brothers) see his wife's face and who may have been in contact with some lower-level people on FBI's terrorism watch list.

I wish all those who lost someone they love peace.

The rest of this post covers the way the US media has contrasted Malik's stay-at-home status with her status as a murderer and possibly a self-motivated terrorist.  The media has tried to grapple with the seeming paradox:   That a veiled and very "traditional" Muslim wife might also have been a more extreme Islamic terrorist than her husband.

These are some of the takes on that:  NBC News headlines a story about the revelation like this:

From Housewife to Killer: The Mystery of San Bernardino Shooter Tashfeen Malik

The Los Angeles Times does something very similar with its headline**:

San Bernardino attacker was 'typical housewife,' lawyer says

That article contains the following snippet:

A second attorney, Mohammad Abuershaid, described Farook and Malik’s home life as a “traditional” Muslim household.
“The women would sit with the women, men with the men. Men did not interact with her,” Abuershaid said. “Brothers have never seen her face. She was totally covered. They just knew her as ‘Syed’s wife.' "
Malik was a “typical housewife” taking care of the couple’s 6-month old daughter while Farook worked, Chesley said. She spoke broken English and fluent Urdu, he said.
“She did maintain certain traditions. Fasting and prayer. She chose not to drive voluntarily. But these are all benign;, these are things that many Muslims do and it doesn’t mean anything necessarily,” Chesley said.
I guess one's definition of a "typical" housewife could depend on the culture and the country one lives in?

But the contents of that quote isn't what I want to write about.  Rather, it is the clear juxtaposition of "being a housewife" against "being a terrorist", as if the two are obviously and naturally mutually exclusive, as if we should all be shocked to find that Malik stayed at home with her baby, that she preferred not to drive, that she wore the niqab (or face veil), and that she then went out and killed at least some of the fourteen people who died.

That Malik's life and death fall exactly into the pattern ISIS demands of its female members seems to have gone unnoticed by many journalists***.  It could have gone unnoticed by me, too, had I not done research into women and ISIS.

The proper role for women in that rabid end-time version of Wahhabism is to stay at home and not to work for money, to always cover one's face from men, to only get educated in basic childcare, the making of clothes, and Wahhabist beliefs, and to avoid leaving the house except for religious reasons or to wage jihad when enough men cannot be found to do that.  From that angle Malik's behavior is exactly as expected of a female terrorist.****


*  In this particular context being pious or devout isn't necessarily a good sign.  For it to be interpreted, we need to know what one is pious or devout about.

** Other sources also use the "typical housewife" assertion.  Mashable begins its article with:

Before Wednesday, Tashfeen Malik was known as a "caring housewife." Now she's the woman who helped carry out one of America's deadliest mass shootings. 

 Another NBC News article has this headline:

Tashfeen Malik, Mother in San Bernardino Massacre, Pledged Allegiance to ISIS Leader.

It took me a few moments to understand that the story was not about Farook's or Malik's mother but about Malik herself, because she had a six-month-old baby daughter.  But then Farook had that daughter, too.

*** Alternatively, the treatment could be a consequence of benevolent sexism, the idea that women who stay at home are innocent creatures, the angels of the home but not expected to do anything newsworthy in the public sphere, or simply linked to the obvious scarcity of female mass murderers:  Because women are much less likely to commit mass murders, those who do get extra attention and often gendered attention.

*** It's very important to stress that the reverse is NOT generally true.  A woman wearing niqab, avoiding driving etc. is very unlikely to be a terrorist.  We must avoid false generalizations to the innocents, even if the terrorists are guilty of the very same false generalizations when they kill large numbers of innocent people.  I'd like to think that we are better than that.