Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“I don’t want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics,” worried Billie Jo Calderwood, the aunt of Mollie Tibbetts, the Iowa teenager whose body was recovered this past Tuesday. Calderwood’s concerns have been largely futile, as the White House and others have sought to politicize Tibbetts’ death.
The reason this horrific death is useful to the Trump administration and its supporters is obvious: here lies an actualization of just the sort of fear they deploy to galvanize their supporters – a young, white and beautiful girl jogging, allegedly killed at the hands of a cruel and savage foreigner.
Xenophobia and gender are at the heart of the national reaction to the Tibbetts tragedy in multiple ways. The alleged perpetrator, Christhian Bahena Rivera, is an undocumented immigrant, and the victim is a woman last seen out jogging. Rivera told authorities he got out of his car and pursued her, and she threatened to call police if he didn’t stop.
It is a reality that American women are at risk in both situations Mollie Tibbetts reportedly found herself in: running and saying “no” or “leave me alone.” A survey by Runner’s World found 43% of women reported being harassed while running. Women in relationships with men or simply encountering them in the street face the risk of violence any time they rebuff a man’s approach. Mollie Tibbetts’ case brings home for women in the harshest terms the ways in which misogyny hinders their freedom, their very right to exist.
At the same time, the Tibbetts case has laid bare the uncomfortable reality that not all dead girls in America are mourned the same way. Those who do not fit into the narrative of white women in danger of being raped and killed by lurking brown men get comparatively little attention, and consequently little or no portion of the nation’s compassion.
Eleven months before Mollie Tibbetts disappeared, for instance, a Virginia teenager, Nabra Hassanen, was killed, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant who has been charged with capital murder. In that case, initially labeled an incident of road rage by the police, the man kidnapped and raped Hassanen and then dumped her body in a pond near his house. Hassanen, a Muslim wearing a headscarf, had been walking to her Virginia mosque after having the dawn meal at a nearby McDonalds. Neither Donald Trump nor the White House has ever spoken publicly about Hassanen’s murder.
The uproar over Tibbetts’s tragic death dwarfed the reaction to Hassanen’s, exposing a truth rarely considered: the implicit hierarchy of dead women that anoints some as perfect victims entitled to mourning and others as lesser ones with little or no claim at all to mass grieving.
As in American life, so too in death: white women, particularly those whose ends involve the criminal acts of brown or black or Muslim men, deserve national attention. Brown women, particularly those wearing the headscarf, are, per the hierarchy’s crude calculations, either complicit in their own death or deserving only a glib “that’s too bad.”
There are historic underpinnings to the hierarchy; the white female runner killed by the foreign savage plays upon and replenishes existing prejudice. Whether looking at the Jim Crow narratives of white women under threat by black rapists or more recent examples like the Central Park jogger case, parallels persist between the black man’s figure and that of the undocumented immigrant. In those historical cases as well as now, the purported threat was never backed up by actual evidence. Undocumented immigrants are less likely, not more, to commit crimes of any kind.
Unlike in earlier 20th century moments, lynching is illegal and perhaps also unnecessary; a rabid and vast virtual audience exists as a stand-in for the race-baited crowds of old. This new mob is just as angry and feels just as righteous.
Underlying the deaths of both women is not simply the tedious battle of the right versus the left, but a pulsing artery of misogyny that oxygenates the patriarchal machine. In its venal calculus, some dead women are useful, easy to fit in the simple and seductive rubric of “us against them.” Mollie Tibbetts – strong, athletic and ambitious – is reduced by the propaganda machine of misogyny to a victim, the helpless emblem of white femininity under siege.
Nabra Hassanen’s death barely scores anything on the propaganda scale. Here is misogyny at its racist best. Here also is race and religion deployed as a cover for a robust hatred of women, the denigration of their deaths, a continuation of their degradation in life.
Women, brown or white or black, can choose to reject this toxic system. Mollie Tibbetts’ death is a shot in the heart for millions of women who see themselves, their friends and daughters and sisters, in her. She must be mourned and so must all victimized women, including the thousands of white women who die at the hands of white men (who often escape the castigation heaped on black and brown and undocumented others). So too must Nabra Hassanen, also an American girl, pious and hopeful and hardworking.
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The hierarchy of dead women must be dismantled. It is time that American women, particularly American feminists, realize that mourning, too, can be a form of resistance and even an essential ingredient to empowerment.