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Until December 2, 2015, it was difficult to imagine a Muslim-American woman with a machine gun in her hand. Even though Muslim-American women have often been accused of being guilty by association when it comes to terrorist attacks, few people made direct connections between the women themselves and the crimes. That changed on December 2nd, 2015, when Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, stormed his workplace in San Bernardino, California, and opened fire, killing 14 and injuring 22.
Malik, a 29 year old Pakistani woman, had hidden her plans extremely well. One of her Professors, Dr. Nisar Hussain, claims Malik was “religious, but a very normal person.” So normal, in fact, that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security failed to find anything in her background checks that would have prevented her from obtaining a K-1 (“fiancé”) visa. In fact, how “religious” she was is in doubt too, as one of Malik’s former classmates notes Malik “didn’t even pray five times a day” when she was in school.
From these two pieces of information, we gather three disparate images of Malik’s personality. The first is of a pious mother, wife, and student, the second is of a not-so-pious student, and the third is of a religious extremist, a terrorist. These three images could also describe nearly all of the female Muslim-American population. That is not to say that each Muslim-American woman is all three, rather, it is to say that quite a large number of us fit into one of those categories, particularly the first two. Because of this, it is quite easy for the rest of the American population to draw an analogy between the pious-but-nonviolent Muslim women– otherwise known as the majority– and extremist Tashfeen Malik, otherwise known as the minority.
Tafsheen Malik was not the first Muslim woman to commit crimes in the name of religion. Wafa Idris was one of the first female Palestinian suicide bombers. The Shahidka or “Black Widows” of Russia are a group of female bombers who have been active for more than a decade. However, neither Wafa Idris nor the Black Widows operated on American soil.
Colleen LaRose, a.k.a “Jihad Jane” is a Muslim-American convert who is currently serving time in prison for attempting murder, trying to raise funds in order to support terrorist causes, making false statements to the FBI, and attempting identity theft. Although LaRose attempted murder, she was unsuccessful, making the bulk of her crimes nonviolent. Aafia “Lady al-Qaeda” Siddiqui, on the other hand, is a Pakistani woman charged with multiple counts of assault (including assault with a deadly weapon) and attempted murder of U.S. officials. Her alleged crimes are violent, her motives are clear, and she is Muslim. She is also a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a neuroscientist and a professor, and she did not wear the headscarf until later in her life. Evidently, there is no clear picture of a Muslim-American female terrorist.
LaRose and Siddiqui have both escaped being the model against which Muslim-American women are compared. The timing of the attacks carried out by these women is undoubtedly a factor in America’s willingness to forget. They not only occurred in an age when information did not flow as quickly as it does now, but also before the United States became whole-heartedly involved in Iraq, and before the U.S. underwent the economic downturn of 2007, which temporarily muted coverage of terrorism while economic news took center stage. Malik, though, has no such crisis to cover her tracks. PrayForParis hashtags have already faded into the abyss and the impending Christmas season is too routine an occurrence to entirely dilute the hysteria behind the San Bernardino attacks. Thankfully, much of the argument has centered about U.S. gun laws rather than Islamic extremism, but with the combination of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim comments and the mystery surrounding Tafsheen Malik’s entrance into the U.S., Islamophobic tensions are the highest they’ve been since 9/11.
Because it is so difficult to ascertain what a female Muslim-American terrorist looks and acts like, the American public seems to have taken to attacking anyone who might be affiliated with Islam. While there are differing accounts regarding the religious practices of Tafsheen Malik, it is certain that she at least wore a headscarf and at most wore a face veil. Women who also adopt this style of dress, are immediately identified as Muslim and quickly placed into the “terrorist” category. Thanks to Malik, the American public now has a fresh, lasting image of an American Muslim terrorist.
As is the case with most high profile crimes, the San Bernadino attackers’ faces have been plastered all over the news. However, the way attackers – and victims – are represented differs enormously depending on their ethnicity, as was highlighted by the New York Times profile of Colorado attacker Robert Lewis Dear, which described him as a “gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts towards neighbors and women he knew.” The media tends to commit gross indecencies when displaying pictures of non-white attackers and victims. For example, media outlets frequently used the selfies of Tywanza Sanders, a victim of the Charleston shootings, rather than photos of him in suits and graduation robes and media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown show that “images can be selectively picked to tell a one-sided narrative about who Mike Brown was – some of them to suit agendas.”
When white people are the perpetrators of crimes, they are not all labeled as potential school and church shooters, but Muslim people are often lumped into a single category. Therefore media outlets need to have some degree of responsibility in circulating images which can serve to condone racial and religious profiling. Unfortunately, Muslim women are the ones caught in the crosshairs; it may take many years of good behavior and unnecessary apologies before we have finally exonerated ourselves again.