US Customs and Border Protection / Reuters

The making of a terrorist bride

In casting Tashfeen Malik as a radicalized foreign wife, Americans avoid confronting the reality of homegrown terrorism

December 9, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Dec. 4, investigators revealed that Tashfeen Malik, a 29-year-old mother from Pakistan who, along with her husband, killed 14 people and wounded 21 others in San Bernardino, California, declared allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in an unidentified Facebook post.

Malik’s post was made from an account with another name, and officials provided no confirmation of how they connected it to her, but U.S. media outlets were eager to identify her as the mastermind of the plot.

Within hours of the assault, the assassins’ apartment was thrown open to nearly 100 journalists and curious bystanders. Reporters scrambled to add some sinister flavors to otherwise banal contents of a humdrum household. With cameras in tow, gasping television anchors pilfered through baby toys and kitchen cabinets. They peered through closets where Malik’s clothes still hung and into the crib where her baby once slept. They scanned the toilet and the bathroom counter. “There are a lot of signs of faith,” a CNN anchor declared emphatically, pointing at a Quran lying on a bed at the apartment.

The Washington Post labeled Malik an “enigmatic woman”; Fox News reported there was a “very serious possibility” that she radicalized her American-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook. In the Conservative Review, columnist Daniel Horowitz — who, like presidential candidate Donald Trump, called for a ban on all Islamic immigration — questioned how many Maliks had already been admitted to the United States.

Many in the media remain focused on efforts to pin most of the blame on a terrorist bride who came to the United States under a fiancée visa and then lured her husband into mass killing. The posthumous burning of Malik at the stake before a traumatized nation reiterates that terrorism is something foreign, imported and unrelated to the exclusions and alienations that are being bred at home.

The notion of an ISIL plant as the instigator of grotesque carnage feeds into existing societal misogyny, in which the inexplicably evil is neatly made equal to the Muslim and female. The realities of escalating mass shootings, immigration laws that promote domestic abuse and a nation divided over gun control are too vexing — better ignored or covered up by a seductive story about a scheming terrorist bride who led her impressionable husband to murder.

Malik’s story

It is not possible to take apart a dead murderer’s motivations or her silent sympathies, but it is important to consider the known facts and conditions of her life.

Few details are known of what Malik did in the days before the attack — her doings, her friends or her feelings. None of this is surprising; most South Asian women who arrive in the United States as brides lead solitary lives organized around taking care of the men who brought them here. Malik wore a burqa in public, but all women in Saudi Arabia, where relatives and acquaintances of hers said she was raised, are required to wear a burqa or abaya. So if conservatism equals radicalism, all Saudi women must be rounded up. Several media outlets cited Al-Huda religious school in Pakistan, where Malik took some classes, as a possible inspiration for her radicalism, but the school, while conservative, has no known links to militancy.

Interestingly, the fiancée visa on which Malik came to the United States is difficult to obtain in Pakistan, where increased consular scrutiny often requires legal marriage to take place before validating immigration to the United States. The rules in Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, may be different; if more than $1.25 billion in bombs can be sold to Riyadh, fiancé visas with less stringent processing than other Muslim countries could probably be added to the mix.

Regardless, U.S. rules governing marriage-based immigration support the project of control and confine. Sponsored spouses may obtain work authorization only on the basis of the marriage. And they lose their status as legal permanent residents and could be deported if they do not stay married and cohabitate for at least two years. In lived terms, a wife cannot work without her husband’s permission, and she risks losing her right to stay in the country if the marriage fails.

In casting Malik as a scheming terrorist bride – female, foreign and radicalized – Americans avoid confronting the possibility that this was yet another act of domestic terrorism carried out by an American man.

Given this dynamic, which is enabled by U.S. immigration law, many immigrant women become subject to abuse and isolation. The abuse is so prevalent that a special visa has been created for domestic-abuse victims who arrived in the U.S. as spouses. Sadly, the vast majority of women who face such abuse have no access to legal assistance and never find out about that option. Malik was not only a bride but also a young mother, which would only have added to her isolation.

The clues from her life in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are being added to the incriminating pro-ISIL Facebook post, but the media are stubbornly omitting other details that do not fit the neat and simplistic narrative of a terrorist bride.

None of this is to suggest that militancy or some distant attraction to ISIL could not have lured her; it is, however, necessary to consider the full details of her life before making any judgment. She was born in Punjab, Pakistan. It is believed that she moved to Saudi Arabia 25 years ago after her father, an engineer, who went to work in the kingdom, which imports a significant number of workers. As with many Pakistani citizens in Saudi Arabia, he became conservative, seduced by the austere and literal Islam preached there. It’s all a familiar tale. In the decades since Saudi Arabia’s oil boom in the early 1970s, Pakistan has become a regular labor exporter to the kingdom. The growing religious conservatism in Pakistan, particularly criticism of the country’s syncretic Sufi Islam, is borne on the backs of workers returning from Saudi Arabia, who frown on what they see as a less authentic Islamic practice. Remittances from Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia are estimated at more than $5.6 billion this year, and Saudi conservatism comes with the money.

This may have been true for Malik, who was sent back to Pakistan, where she studied pharmacy. She returned to Saudi Arabia unmarried and later met Farook via a matchmaking website. This method is telling; Pakistani families usually rely on communal connections to arrange marriages. The turn to virtual points not only to Malik’s advancing age but also to the general eroding of family ties after decades of expatriate life. Still, as with other Pakistanis who go online searching for a match, it was likely that Malik’s parents set up her online profiles. In other words, what is being conjured as an online love match of a couple brought together by their affinities for terrorism is probably just another marriage arranged online.

As with many American men who search for wives abroad, it is likely that Farook was insistent on procuring an immigrant wife who, accustomed to the strictures of a conservative father, would acquiesce to his domination as well. Is it difficult to imagine that the son of an allegedly alcoholic and abusive father was similarly overbearing, even violent?

Male oppression is pushed out of this tale of mass carnage because it does not have the cachet of intrigue that gets journalists’ blood pumping and the war drums beating. The details and dynamics of the marriage and the powerlessness imposed by the immigration status of one spouse over the other do not generate much interest.

Malik has a crucial role to play in this deflection, for in casting her as the terrorist bride — female, foreign and radicalized — Americans can avoid confronting the possibility that this was yet another act of domestic terrorism carried out by an American man, bred in a society where violence deserves lesser outrage and merits no action.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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