Muslim women are stigmatized on two fronts: they face the severe lack of female representation in media and news, and they also combat the overall harmful stereotyping of people who practice Islam. With statistics showing the majority of coverage on Muslims as negative (as seen in an alarming study done on Muslims roles in British media), not only do Muslim women have to battle with every-day prejudices of religious discrimination and the inequalities that come with being a woman, but they also have to work to re-shape their already suppressed media identities into one that is more than just “victims” of patriarchal conditioning.
As participants in a media dependent culture, media dictates how we think, feel, and act. This is why, as a media saturated culture, it is vital to revolutionize the mainstream negative perception of Muslim women.
This important infographic by The Representation Project articulates the multitude of problems Muslim women face in media:
As the chart displays, Muslim women are very selectivity shown in the media, and when occasionally given a chance to inhabit these platforms, they are often perceived as voiceless and passive. This idea, that Muslim women in media are displayed as either tightly veiled, Arab/Middle Eastern, submissive to men, and/or seen as a victim, was illustrated in the work of Samina Ali, activist, writer, and curator of Muslima, Muslim Women’s Art and Voices, an online exhibition on the International Museum of Women. This narrow stereotyping needs to stop. Not only is the portrayal hastily one-sided, but it also can distract from many of the actual challenges these women may face beyond their image or religion.
In order to change the portrayal and realize the deeply embedded inequities, we need to listen to Muslim women’s voices around the world instead of dictating the conversations ourselves. As a recent interview with Amani Al-Khatahtbeh in conversation with Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani on HuffPost live put it:
“It’s very rare for us to be given a platform like this one on HuffPost Live in mainstream media, where we can all share our own opinions and people can listen to us and regard them. But we just keep getting spoken over by the public and people trying to tell us what our religion means for us and that we’re oppressed by our religion as if we can’t think for ourselves or we’re not aware what we’re practicing. And I think that’s where the problem lies.”
It is time as a culture to listen to and address these problems by changing the way in which we view Muslim women and girls in media by adopting a new understanding that is empowering, positive, and inclusive.
The first step of fostering systemic change is becoming aware of the problem. As The Representation Project’s graph and a wealth of other studies support, the constructs surrounding Muslim women in media are suppressive and deceitful. Further, once these structural issues are internalized, we need to be attuned to and to fully respect the voices of Muslim women.
From my observations of Western culture, often women who wear the hijab, niqab, or the burqa are automatically deemed as submissive or objectified by their male counterparts. However, many Muslim women wear the headscarf as a virtue of modesty, and it is imperative that we respect women’s choices instead of automatically imposing our ideals. Before jumping to conclusions, it is integral to engage in a meaningful dialogue and a grasp of media literacy. We need to grant them the independence humans universally deserve.
Muslim women should be allowed to play multi-dimensional characters. As we continually are seeing gradual strides of other marginalized groups, shattering traditional stereotypes in television and film, this multi-faceted portrayal of Muslim women somehow seems to be glued in place. We need to encourage, diverse, positive, and powerful depictions of Muslim women and allow them to stand up for what they believe in and support their choices with the utmost dignity.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.