by: zaghra savahl
The way Muslim Women are represented in the media differs from country to country. Factors that influence the type of representation range from the number of Muslims in a certain area, ideologies and laws of the country, true understanding of Islam and the overall social attitude towards Muslim women.
What narrative and point-of-view is the media trying to communicate to their audience?
Media is a means of communication to an audience. This can be in the form of television, radio, newspapers, and the internet. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction, there is always a message of intent to the specific target audience the media is trying to reach. The intention is important in determining the type of narrative or point-of-view that is being presented.
Western media dominates global headlines and is a powerful influence in determining perception. In 2020, Investopedia published a list of the World’s Top Media companies based on market capital. These top media companies are involved in advertising, broadcasting, news, print publication, digital media, and motion pictures. These include Netflix, Disney, Comcast and AT&T (ATT). Many Western countries, including the US, have a long history of wars, political tension and opposing ideologies with many Muslim-majority countries and this is often reflected in the media. This leads to many misconceptions about Islam in general and Muslim Women in particular, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority.
Below are a few common misconceptions portrayed in the media, as well as what the reality is:
1) Misconception: Islam forces Muslim women to observe the Hijab or Niqab
Through this perception of compulsion, it gives rise to the belief that Islam does not allow Muslim Women to have freedom of choice and they are therefore believed to be oppressed. How often do media cover stories related to Islam and create a lense that focus on the dress code of Muslim women, rather than on the women she is? In countries where there are laws on dress code, the media angles the story from the perspective of the laws society enforces rather than women’s rights to practice their religious beliefs freely. Not only is this patronizing to Muslim women by reducing her to an outer appearance, but it also limits the understanding to what Hijab and Niqab truly mean to women who choose to observe it. One of our previously published articles discusses a journey with Hijab. Read here: SFM Article - "that thing on your head"
Reality: Islam condemns force or compulsion by one human over another. Muslim Women observe Hijab and Niqab to attain closeness to Allah (SWT). It is done as an Act of Worship. Although majority of scholars in Islam view Hijab as mandatory, it is ultimately the choice of the individual Muslim woman to observe or not. No one has the right to force her to do anything as this goes against the principles of Islam. The Islamic journey is between her and Allah (SWT).
2) Misconception: Muslim women being viewed as inferior to Muslim men
There are often two views associated with this misconception being portrayed in the media.(1) Muslim men being misogynistic and imposing their beliefs on Muslim women while (2) Muslim women being viewed as obliging unwillingly and falling victim to oppression. The problem with confining an entire Muslim population (approximately 1.9 billion) into this extremely narrow and negative viewpoint is that it strips the ability to do any sort of honest analysis of gender equality and separating the true meaning of the Islamic stance on this subject from actual societal issues that have its basis in oppressive systems that were created by oppressive people.
Reality: Islam promotes equality between men and women
There are verses of the Qur’an and Hadith that asserts the belief of equality between men and women. Deeds are judged equally for both. An example is
if any do deeds of righteousness be they male or female and have faith they will enter heaven and not the least injustice will be done to them (Surah An-Nisa, Ayah 124)
Gender inequality is often a result of traditions that have its roots with people promoting beliefs that suit them, rather than following the principles of Islam.
3) Misconception: Muslim women viewed as a group who think and behave the same way (mainly in serious political storylines as victims of oppression)
While there has been an increase in media attention given to diverse Muslim women in recent years, this has strongly been influenced by social media. Muslim women seized the opportunity to share their voice on platforms that are much more accessible and over which they have more control over. Although there has been strides, Muslim women featured in media such as news coverage and film and television are still overwhelmingly portrayed in political roles where they are viewed as victims of oppression. How many times do Western Media news feature Muslim women in Hijab or Niqab in such a way that she needs “to be saved?”
When it comes to film and television, the USA is an economic powerhouse. With Islam being the third largest religion in the USA, with over 3 million adherents, there are severely limited positive portrayals of Muslims in film and television, with even less being attributed to Muslim women, especially characters observing Hijab or Niqab. Storylines that do feature Muslim women observing Hijab or Niqab, again, has a focus on the dress code and not on the Muslim women herself. Her motive is related to her dress code, and the focus is on her relationship with her religion, often in the form of a negative stereotype.
Tired tropes of extremes rehash themselves in different forms with the end result of her being “empowered” for going against her religious practices (often with a symbolic scene of removing her headscarf). It gives the perception that people who identify as Muslim are synonymous with Islam as a Faith. If a Muslim women is viewed as oppressed because of her surroundings, it is equal to Islam being an oppressive religion.
On the opposite spectrum is the attempt to make Muslim women more appealing to Western audiences. In film and television and on social media, religious practices being compromised are not overtly apparent, but the need to appeal to a wider Western audience can slowly start blurring the boundaries of Islamic practices through the creation of characters in film and television and on social media.
With Muslim women and their portrayal in media, its mostly in the extremes, with religion being at the centre. Either that she herself is oppressed by it, or the need to show audiences that Islam is not oppressive. How many storylines centre around women that happen to be Muslim? Where no one will judge her religious beliefs, but rather focus on her story.
Muslim women characters don’t have the freedom to be diverse – to have a human centred story. A story where being Muslim adds depth to her character in terms of who she is, rather than it being a plot line.
Reality: When it comes to Muslim women, the journey with Islam is between her and the Almighty (SAW). Each journey and relationship is unique and sacred. This journey and sacred relationship does not limit her in participating in society and the gifts that life offers. In fact, the Qur’an and Hadith both encourage making the most of the life given to us, within the prescribed guidelines. We can practice Dawah by leading by example with what is prescribed in the Qur’an and Sunnah. However, the way in which each Muslim woman decides to live her life is completely her choice, as nobody knows what the Almighty Allah (SWT) decides with each of our fate.
Media is a form of storytelling of which the global audience is increasingly becoming more connected. Continuous work needs to be done for Muslim women to be portrayed in all forms of media in a more authentic way that presents a human portrayal instead of backward stereotypes. When a perception is created with the intention to be more authentic, the connection with the audience creates more empathy and understanding, which is something the world sorely needs more of.