Jihad sheilas or media martyrs?
- Published: 15 March 2010
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Muslim women are both highly visible members of one of the most marginalised groups in Western society and the most vulnerable to vilification and media stereotyping, suffering the ‘triple-whammy’ effect of sexism, racism and religious bigotry, writes Julie Posetti.
Ubiquitously portrayed as veiled, Muslim women are concurrently represented as oppressed and radical non-conformists, as threatened and threatening, as passive sex slaves and exotic, erotic beings.
Symbolised generically by the distinctive religious clothing some choose to wear, Muslim women of all cultures have become the most recognisable, visible targets of racism on the streets, yet at the same time they are almost invisible and voiceless in news coverage.
Negative stereotyping and reactionary reporting have historically typified Western media coverage of Islam and Muslims, and Muslim women are no exception.
The traditional religious dress adopted by some Muslim women has provided powerful media discourses that reinforce these stereotypes—particularly the notions of oppression, threat and alienation.
Depictions of Muslim women in the news
Alison Donnell, quoted in Myra Mcdonald’s Feminist Studies paper Muslim Women and the Veil, argues that the September 11 terrorist attacks supplanted media representations of ‘veiling’ as “an object of mystique, exoticism and eroticism” with a “xenophobic, more specifically Islamophobic, gaze through which the veil, or headscarf, is seen as a highly visible sign of a despised difference”.
But Neil Macmaster and Toni Lewis, authors of the Journal of European Studies paper Orientalism: From Unveiling to Hyperveiling, identified this trend three years before the US attacks, noting the juxtaposition of representations of Muslim women as both oppressed and threatening.
Canadian researchers made similar observations in the early 1990s, arguing that the Canadian media’s focus on women as oppressed figures in far-off lands served to downplay the oppression of all women in Canada.
They suggest the focus on the hijab, for example, stems from the development of a “new Cold War” in which Islamic fundamentalism replaced communism as a rallying point for opponents of Western society.
Whether in the guise of the exotic Oriental beauty, the veiled and oppressed victim, or the scarf-wearing, gun-toting fundamentalist fanatic, this constant linkage of Muslim women to hijab, and hijab to oppression/violence, reinforces the Orientalist paradigm of Muslims as un-Canadian.
However, the September 11 attacks did expose Muslim women to greater media attention as journalists sought alternative perspectives on the very newsworthy theme of Islam.
But according to Macdonald, “The opportunity this offered for diversity of opinion was repeatedly undermined by the continuing obsession with veiling/unveiling.”
She argues that the veil was reconstructed as “a form of resistance to Western ideology and secularism, as a fashion accessory, or as evidence of Muslim women’s agency and freedom of choice. Incorporated within discourses of Western-style freedoms and lifestyle choices, it was resurrected as feminist—and consumer-friendly accoutrement—by the media.
The act of Muslim women unveiling and conforming to Western models of post-feminist beauty was also manipulated by the media as a potent, colonial symbol of ‘liberation’ and ‘rescue’ in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Shahira Fahmy’s content analysis of the Associated Press photo archive covering the periods immediately before and after the ‘liberation’ of Kabul found the media excessively focused on the rate of unveiling to the detriment of reportage on underlying problems surrounding women’s employment, education and abuse.
Sexism, feminism, racism and religious bigotry intersect in this debate and, as Judith Ezekiel points out, in France, where the hijab was banned in public institutions in 2004, in addition to polarising French society and the Muslim community, the issue has had a divisive impact on feminism.
On one side of the debate are those who demanded veils be banned from French streets as they encourage the harassment of unveiled women.
But on the other side, feminists who advocate a Muslim woman’s right to choose to wear, or not to wear, a hijab aligned themselves with fundamentalist Islamic leaders, who argued that it is a Muslim woman’s obligation to wear a hijab.
Whichever way the debate is represented by the media, Muslim women’s identities remain inextricably linked to the hijab.
Similarly, the Australian media’s coverage of Muslims is overwhelmingly negative in tone, prone to stereotyping while frequently conflating Islam and crime, both on television and in print.
However, Muslim women are virtually invisible in mainstream news. And when they are reported they are almost exclusively cast as the outsider—alien to Australian culture and social experience with an almost inescapable requirement to speak, when they are asked, about veiling.
Australian Muslim feminist academic and writer Shakira Hussein has been the victim of such veil-obsessed media stereotyping herself:
“The woman in hijab also represents the ‘money-shot’, the vital ingredient, for Islam-related stories. While no Muslim has ever explicitly suggested that I should immediately don a hijab, several journalists and editors in search of the ‘hijabi money-shot’ have done so, and on one occasion even suggested that I veil my computer as a novelty shot,” she says.
As the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria declares: “The absence of Muslim women in the coverage of Islam and Muslims is as striking as it is unjust. The capacity and role of Muslim women exceeds comments on the hijab or issues of gender oppression. It is crucial that women’s expertise be recognised in all matters relating to Islam and their contribution should be sought beyond the ‘women’s perspective’ approach. Until the role of women is acknowledged, it will not be possible to understand Muslims or Islam.”
But Hussein says Muslim women have effectively been silenced by what she describes as the ‘double-bind effect’ of media coverage that vilifies Muslim men as racists, terrorists and religious fanatics.
This effect, she says, catches women between patriarchy and racism: “[It] robs us of the space we need to speak out. Rather than providing a platform from which Muslim women can express their frustrations, fears and hopes for the future, a large proportion of the media coverage has had a silencing effect on Muslim women.
“The silencing comes about because Muslim women know that any legitimate concerns that they have about gender norms within their communities will be folded into a sensationalist media tirade designed to prove that Islam is a primitive and misogynist religion.
“Rather than contribute to this, many women remain silent or try to express their concerns internally.”
This is an edited extract from ‘Jihad sheilas or media martyrs?: Muslim women and the Australian media’ by Julie Posetti, in Islam and the Australian News Media, edited by Halim Rane, Jacqui Ewart and Mohamad Abdalla. Published by Melbourne University Publishing and available through the MUP e-store as either an e-book or Print On Demand paperback.
Julie Posetti is a journalist and journalism academic from Canberra, Australia. From the 1980s to 2003 she worked as a news reporter and regional news editor with Australian public broadcaster the ABC in both TV and radio. Her reporting focus was on social justice issues including Aboriginal affairs and ethnic communities. She is currently undertaking a PhD on the way the media portray Muslim women, while continuing research into multicultural journalism and public broadcasting. You can follow Julie on Twitter @julie_posetti.