(AP/Chris Carlson)

Yes, Tashfeen Malik was a mother — but obsessing over how she could "leave a 6-month-old" to kill is absurd

Female mass shooters are rare, but we don't define male murderers almost solely by their fatherhood


Mary Elizabeth Williams
December 5, 2015 2:18AM (UTC)

That America suffered yet another mass shooting this week has not been much of a surprise. Our nation is, after all, averaging about one per day. What made Wednesday's massacre in San Bernardino so unusual was that for once, the violence wasn't the doing of a lone male. From the moment 27 year-old Tashfeen Malik was identified as one of the killers, the news watching public has been struggling to understand how a woman could do such a thing. And so far it appears that even in an act of terrible infamy, a woman will still always be defined by her motherhood.

Very little is still known about Tashfeen Malik. She was born in Pakistan and spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia. She reportedly studied pharmacy at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan. She first met Syed Rizwan Farook online, and then they met face to face when he visited Saudi Arabia soon after. She came into the U.S. as his fiancée, though some reports say they married in Saudi Arabia prior to their departure. The couple had a wedding celebration in Riverside California in August of 2014. Malik and Farook had a six month old baby girl. A neighbor told the LA Times this week that she covered her face and that "If you asked me how she looked, I couldn’t tell you." On Wednesday, she and her husband left their daughter with the child's grandmother, committed an act of mass murder a holiday party and died in a shootout with police. Officials say before she died, she had posted a message of praise for the leader of the Islamic State group on Facebook.

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The shooting is currently being investigated as an act of terrorism. But acts of terrorism so rarely involve women with children that speculation over what drove Malik has been inevitable. And so far the theories have ranged from "Motherhood should have stopped her" to "Motherhood made her do it."

On Thursday, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein pondered to reporters, "You and I know that women — we wouldn’t leave a 6-month-old, our baby, to do this, to don tactical gear to go in and kill a bunch of people. It’s not something a woman would easily do. So it’s going to be very interesting for me to see what her background was, what level of animus she had, because she had to have had a considerable level. A woman is a woman. And her child has to be of maximum importance to her."

I'm not saying there isn't a signifiant gender gap in who commits more mass murders — but I would like to suggest that being a woman and a mother does not, unfortunately, make one immune to being a violent person — as anyone who's ever read or watched the news would know. Perhaps that's why on the same day, CNN’s Erin Burnett, speaking with former FBI profiler Jim Clemente, wondered, "I just have to ask you, could there be something else, anything else that could explain her involvement — something like a postpartum psychosis?"

Malik — like her husband, was, along with being a murderer, a parent. Yet she alone is now being referred to by sources like NBC as "Tashfeen Malik, Mother in San Bernardino Massacre." It's interesting how accused killer in the Planned Parenthood shooting Robert Dear has yet to appear in any headlines I've seen as "Father of four Robert Dear."

Here's the truth of the matter, one that I realize is frustrating for some in our 24/7 HOT TAKE cycle. Tashfeen Malik is an enigma. Who she was and why she did what she did on December 2 is not known. It may never be. And until, if ever, it is, to project a narrative of "But how could a mother do this?" is as pointless as asking if motherhood drove her mad.

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FBI Investigating California Massacre as 'Act of Terrorism'


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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