Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, mother of the ‘Boston bombers’, has become a figure of controversy. Yasmin Gunaratnam argues that blaming Zubeidat for her sons’ actions is part of growing resentment against Muslim mothers
The Boston marathon bombings on 15 April came as a shock. What felt so different about these attacks, compared to previous ones, was how news of the events – the images, photographs and witness accounts – produced a strange set of intimacies that drew people in.
As the story unfolded, brothers Tamelan and Dzohkhar Tsarnaev were identified as suspects. With the FBI chasing the brothers, the public was also pulled into the smaller dramas of family life. Tamelan and Dzohkhar’s mother Zubeidat became a source of controversy.
I find the story of Zubeidat and how she comes across in media coverage disturbing. She has never seemed to show much remorse or sympathy for others who have lost their children, or whose lives will be forever marked by the physical and emotional scars of the bombs. At times, she seems to blurt out bold statements without sensitivity or careful thinking.
Yet as a feminist and the mother of a teenage boy with caramel skin and dark hair like the Tsarnaev brothers, I also sympathise with Zubeidat’s grief as a mother going through a gross biographical injustice. No parent should ever have to bury their child.
These mixed feelings and identifications have pushed me to think more deeply about how media stories are shaped to draw out certain emotional responses and stifle others. I have also been thinking about what a feminist response to Zubeidat might be – a response that tussles with the many facets and contexts of the bombings and does not gloss over the difficult questions and bizarre commonalities brought to the surface.
Following his dramatic capture, Dzohkhar Tsarnaev was admitted to the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, a Jewish-Christian foundation, where he received care for gunshot wounds. In the same hospital, doctors fought to save the life of his older brother, Tamerlan (who died from injuries received in police gunfire) and tended to several of those wounded and maimed by the Boston bombs.
Liz Noden’s two sons, Paul and JP, were both injured in the Boston bombings. Noden says that her family’s relief and happiness at Paul’s first signs of recovery in hospital were tainted by the awareness that Tsarnaev was in the same building. “I don’t understand why they would bring him where my son is,” she told NBC News, “I can’t even tell you how devastating it’s been. Those two [the bombers] shattered my world.”
At about the same time, in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva was being pursued by the world’s media for insights into her sons’ lives and motivations. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, a mother caught in chaotic grief, refused at first to believe that Tamerlan was dead or that her boys were responsible for the explosions that killed three people and injured over 250.
In a Channel Four interview on 23 April, Zubeidat was insistent and defensive: “I know my kids would have nothing to do with this. I am mother. I know my kids.” Later, in a telephone interview with CNN, after Zubeidat had seen a photograph of Tamerlan’s dead body, she sounded increasingly distraught, alternating between tears of grief and a defiant, angry fatalism.
Through tears Zubeidat seemed to struggle to convey an Islamic belief that the life of Dzohkhar, and indeed her own fate, are in god’s hands. Her comments, taken out of context, quickly turned into tabloid headlines. “I don’t care if my youngest son is killed! I don’t care if I am killed!” a Daily Mail story quoted her calling it a “bizarre rant”.
Vilification of Zubeidat in the blogosphere has threatened a return to a familiar crude racism that has been directed at migrants over the years, with numerous ‘send them back to where they came from’ comments. But this time Zubeidat as a Muslim mother also draws new attention and speculation.
She was held somehow responsible for her sons’ actions: “She put on a hijab for this interview for the cold purpose of making a political statement. And now we know why her offspring turned out the way they did.”
Research into the portrayal of Muslims in British media has consistently identified a negative bias. In an investigation into print media between 2000 and 2008, Kerry Moore, Paul Mason and Justin Lewis of Cardiff University found few positive descriptions of British Muslims. The most common nouns used were ‘terrorist’, ‘extremist’, ‘Islamist’, ‘suicide bomber’ and ‘militant’.
More recent research by Leeds University academics, Katy Sian, Ian Law, and Bobby S. Sayyid into newspaper reporting in 2011 found that 70% of all news items gathered were hostile towards Muslims and included sensationalist language such as ‘fanatic’, ‘threat’, ‘bearded’ and ‘veiled’.
The demonization of Zubeidat Tsarnaeva as a Muslim mother, seen as implicated in the terrorist acts of her sons, is very much of this moment. The suggestion that Zubeidat is either ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ or both, is not helped by broad-brush and sensationalist stereotypes that fail to recognise differences of history, culture and beliefs amongst Muslim communities. Yet this hostile backlash is not an isolated case. Neither is it restricted to the media or the blogosphere.
On 19 April, a Boston resident of Palestinian descent, Heba Abolaban, reported verbal abuse and physical assault from a passer-by. “He was screaming ‘F___ you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions! F___ you!'” Abolaban said. A survey conducted by Lorraine Sheridan, a psychology lecturer at Leicester University found that Pakistanis who were Muslims experienced an increase in discrimination after the 11 September attacks.
In research on mothers that I was involved with in the East End of London, some Bangladeshi Muslim mothers we interviewed talked about increased public hostility towards them following the 7/7 London bombings. When driving her car and wearing hijab, one mother described how a random stranger took a photograph of the car and its number plate on his mobile phone, another mother was shouted at in a petrol station: “Bloody terrorists. They should all go back.”
As well as the very ordinary concerns that the mothers had about housing, education and crime, they struggled with other dilemmas. The resentment and anger that they faced in their daily lives forced the women to think about how they should prepare their children to live in a world where they might face similar experiences. Should they protect their children from awareness of anti-Muslim racism or should they try and explain what was happening when the incidents occurred? In this way both terrorism and racism had eaten into and changed the fabric of their everyday experiences of mothering.
At times of heightened emotion and a lack of diverse and positive representations of Muslim women in the media and public sphere, we need to think carefully about how we understand the representation of women such as Zubeidat Tsarnaeva. As the world’s media descended upon her in Dagestan, she was put in an impossible position. The press wanted her to be both a witness to, and evidence of, the Tsarnaev brothers’ violent extremism.
From the ancient societies of the Mediterranean and Near East to pre-modern Europe, public mourning has been seen as the domain and responsibility of women. As the story developed, Zubeidat’s behaviour seemed to transgress the associated conventions and expectations of grief. She was more angry and defiant than contrite. Appearing to feel no responsibility or shame, Zubeidat was neither a subservient Muslim woman in the shadow of her husband, nor one grieving quietly at home. There are echoes of this in the treatment of Kate McCann, who has been reviled for being too attractive and seemingly composed when her daughter Madeleine went missing from a holiday resort in Portugal.
As many know, grief can be an existential punch in the guts that does things to perspective and reason. When the death of a child plays out on the stage of global politics and under intense scrutiny, can we expect any mother to provide a coherent, detached account? In Zubeidat’s case, her grief as the mother of an alleged terrorist is not only socially and politically problematic, in many ways it is intolerable. As the feminist philosopher Judith Butler has argued in her book Precarious Life, in the ‘War on Terror’ there is an uneven distribution of human value and loss. Not only are some lives deemed unworthy of grief, grief for such lives becomes unthinkable. “What makes for a grievable life?” Butler asks us.
To discuss the representation and blaming of Zubeidat Tsarnaeva at this moment is to involve ourselves in a bigger conversation. It is inevitably a dialogue about gender equality and multiculturalism, about the rights and responsibilities of mothers as ‘responsible’ citizens, and a dialogue in which the very word ‘Muslim’ is not only homogenised and threatening, but is caught up with moral panics about migration, public security and the battle for ‘hearts and minds’.
In the ‘neo racism’, based upon cultural rather than biological difference, Muslim communities in the West have been portrayed as culturally incompatible with the values of dominant secular cultures. They are also increasingly seen as dangerous and disloyal citizens. What is especially disturbing is that far-right and racist groups are exploiting such views and beliefs.
For example, a cartoon depiction of Muslim mothers used on the right-wing website Extortion for London was captioned ‘The Other Islamic Bomb’. The cartoon was produced by the artist D T Devereaux in response to events surrounding the Danish Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in September 2005.
Devereaux’s image is of a heavily pregnant woman in a niqab (a face covering) and burqa. The distended uterus of the woman is depicted as a bomb with a burning fuse. Her hands, resting on her abundant belly/bomb are without flesh, the bare bones of a skeleton. These depictions of the Muslim mother, work to suggest an eerie doubling of threat – the Muslim mother is both the reproducer of ‘would-be terrorists’ and by close association, she herself becomes an ‘as-if-terrorist’.
At the same time, in social policy debates and media representations of Islamic extremism, attention has been given almost exclusively to men, while Muslim women feature in concerns about women’s rights, the wearing of the hijab and forced marriage.
The terrorist Muslim mother in this incarnation is an emerging figure in the political landscape of terrorism in the West. It is important that as feminists we engage with the demands of this version of mother-blaming.
I have no doubt that we will hear more about and from Zubeidat Tsarnaeva in the coming months. Her situation and experience are clearly complicated. It’s not helped by the attack on critical thinking about social life and matters of inequality. During a news conference last month on an alleged plan to blow up a Via Rail train, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper rebuked the Liberal Justin Trudeau by saying “This is not a time to commit sociology.”
Canadian scholars and activists published an open letter in response to Harper’s attack on critical thinking. They argued that this was exactly the time to ‘commit sociology’ and that “current government practices form part of a broader process of public ‘de-gendering’ that aims at the systematic elimination of gender, racial, and class justice from public policy.”
To think about the entanglement of lives and charged emotions involved in the Tsarnaevs’ case is not to excuse or to exonerate. Under conditions of uncertainty and insecurity, we are forced to question our assumptions. The challenge is to develop a feminist dialogue and critique that ‘commits sociology’ and tries to understand what lies behind the anger and hatred that incites terrorist violence and what effects this has upon different lives.
The African American poet and activist Audre Lorde has written eloquently about the importance of recognising the politics involved in difficult emotions. For Lorde, it was vital that women approached each other as peers to examine their commonalities and their differences and to question and alter distortions and misunderstanding, particularly with regard to racism. This was how emotions such as anger could be used to transform women’s lives. “Women responding to racism means women responding to anger” Lorde writes “the anger of exclusion…of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.”
From this perspective, the issue for me is not so much about whether or how Zubeidat Tsarnaeva is implicated in the brutal violence her sons are alleged to have perpetrated. Rather, it is how we might contribute to reframing the terms of current and emerging narratives that seek causes in individual pathology and not in social structures and complicated histories of inequality.