How mainstream media misrepresents Muslim women

Women join a demonstration organised by "Stand up to Racism" outside the French Embassy in London on August 26, 2016 against the Burkini ban on French beaches [Getty Images]
8 min read
12 October, 2021
In the aftermath of 9/11, Muslim women have been at the brunt of systematic 'othering' by mainstream Western media. This treatment has been counterintuitive, both for Western policymakers and for Muslim women, who are ostracised from society.

‘’I am impressed to see how empowered you are as a Muslim woman,’’ someone said to me at an event where I was speaking. I am sure she said it with good intent and her tone even hinted at genuine admiration, but referring to my faith while noting my empowerment made me uncomfortable.

I really don’t blame her.

Television, newspapers, magazines, and every other form of media bombards the world with faith stereotyping that is shaping societal expectations – images of Muslim women that perpetuate unrealistic, banal and limiting perceptions are the norm.

Most Muslim women are often victims of a presumptive but widely prevalent depiction that views them as subservient, subjugated or in need of rescue, which in turn leads to a gloomy narrative regarding their agency.

As a practising Muslim woman who is proud of her identity, these naive and clichéd narratives are as galling as they are wearisome.

"The ‘us and them’ narrative was used throughout the colonial era, where Muslim women in the Middle East and South Asia were ‘othered’ by Westerners"

I can’t believe the number of times I have had to reiterate that men in my family haven’t held me back nor has my religion. Usually, I follow up by emphasising that Islam was historically the first religion to grant revolutionary rights to women 1,400 years ago. I also identify powerful Muslim women and reassure others that education is considered a fundamental right of all Muslims irrespective of gender

Frequently, Muslim women find themselves defending their faith and reinforcing an accurate representation and perspective which they believe is critically important in helping others understand Islam and change harmful misconceptions.  

In the report The Mainstream Misrepresentation of Muslim Women in the Media, author Megan A. Mastro highlights the unilateral Western view of Muslim women in American society, wherein Muslim women are “portrayed and viewed with a relatively singular set of heuristics.” Mastro attributes this to Westerners’ lack of awareness and direct interactions or relationships with women who practice Islam and thereby lacking context and sensitivity. 

She reaffirms that the popular Western discourse which claims Muslim women need ‘correction’ or ‘saving’ conforms to ‘traditional Western liberalism.’  This, she believes, eventually confines a Muslim woman’s ability to express herself authentically, wherein "she is caught between her identity as a feminist woman and a Muslim woman. In order to be taken seriously in either sphere (as a feminist or as a Muslim), many in Western audiences require that she reject one of the two as unjust."

At disproportionate rates, Muslim women are all too often portrayed by Western media outlets as needing to be "saved". Any agency is lost in the fog of cultural ignorance and apathy [Getty Images]
Muslim women are all too often portrayed by Western media outlets as needing to be 'saved'. Any agency that Muslim women do show is conveniently lost in the fog of cultural ignorance [Getty Images]

Mastro further reveals that in the wake of the September 11 attacks, a plethora of publications and networks noted the unfair oppression of Middle Eastern women, feeding into a confirmation bias that most Americans already possess – post-September 11, the Western world was vulnerable and looking for answers and such stereotypical portrayals, one-sided narratives and stories only served to strengthen that bias.

Portraying Muslim women as an oppressed group is also evident within an ‘influx of stories on honour killings and honour violence’ in recent years.

In the same vein, it is apparent that Muslim interviews often serve as clickbait given the often divisive, disparaging and offensive questioning tactics interviewers employ.

Some journalists seem to be “showboating” while they lack awareness, research and insights; they are almost desperate to extract answers or cherry-pick responses and angles that feed into a pigeon-holed narrative of the interviewee's faith.

The Centre for Media Monitoring (CFMM) was established in 2018 to promote fair, accurate and responsible reporting of Muslims and Islam. After analysing more than 10,000 articles about Muslims and Islam during Q4 2018, the group’s research revealed a serious issue in how British media reports on both. Professor Paul Baker, one of the leading corpus linguist experts in the country, verified the study’s methodology and presented the findings to Parliament.

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Rizwana Hamid, Director of the Centre for Media Monitoring, has an extensive background in journalism as a television producer/director for the BBC, C4 and other international broadcasters.  She confirms that in the course of CFMM’s monitoring, they have found ample evidence of media bias towards Muslim women.

The perpetuation of stereotypes is pronounced – Muslim women are portrayed as ‘oppressed by men’ or wrongly assigned the terrorist label commonly associated with Muslims around the world.

This was apparent in the BBC drama Bodyguard. Rizwana further notes: “There is a widespread use of tropes such as equating the hijab with 'conservative/fundamentalist' Islam, versus those not wearing the hijab with 'moderate/liberal' Islam.”

Another alarming CFMM discovery is how frequently the British media uses the imagery of Muslim women wearing a niqab in pandemic coverage where there is no connection at all. She describes this as “dangerous” and “misleading” since these images can create a link in the readers’ minds between Muslims and the spread of the virus.

"It’s about time the media starts acknowledging responsibility for the role it has played in exacerbating Islamophobic sentiments. Western Muslim communities already suffer from a ‘stereotype threat’ and Muslim women experience double jeopardy wherein they experience both gender and faith discrimination"

Rizwana identifies yet another growing media trend – the persistent use of images of women in niqab when reporting on Muslims in general. She shares that although the percentage of European Muslim women wearing the niqab range between a mere 0.003 percent and 0.01 percent, there is a disproportionate amount of images shown when the niqab is unrelated to the news report.

It’s almost used in a way to ‘other’ Muslims and ‘stir up far-right tropes of Islam being a threat, being incompatible with Western values and taking over Europe.’  

Much like my own experience that kicked off this article, Rizwana shares how "even ‘supposedly positive' stories are often framed as 'Ms X is successful despite her Muslim background' as if one’s religion and identity are an impediment in life as opposed to a source of strength and greatness."

Hafsa Lodhi, a writer, fashion/culture journalist and author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, notes a glaring bias, especially when it comes to conversations about modest fashion which is ‘trending’ in the mainstream industry. She notes: ‘Long hemlines, high necklines and full sleeves are being considered chic and elegant; bandanas and bucket hats are considered cool, yet only on white, Western women. On Muslim women, clothing that offers the same coverage is deemed oppressive and overly conservative, merely because it is linked to culture and skin colour."

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She further points out that Western, female athletes were "hailed as feminists for standing up to sexism in recent months when they eschewed their skimpier performance outfits for clothing that covered more skin – while at the same time, Muslim women face hijab and niqab bans, and are barred from participating in certain sports professionally due to their modesty guidelines.’’

Hafsa argues that while the media has increased after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the bias has been present for more than a century. “The ‘us and them’ narrative was used throughout the colonial era, where Muslim women in the Middle East and South Asia were ‘othered’ by Westerners.” 

In light of the above, it is crucial to call out this bias and combat the damaging narratives that Muslim women are regularly subject to. Both advocates above encourage media to “deviate from stereotypical stock images of burka-clad or hijab-wearing women” and instead use images of Muslim women who are specifically mentioned in an article to ensure relevance.

"To truly promote belongingness, we need to stop featuring Muslim women in the media in ways that single them out, challenge or generalise any aspect of their values and belief system"

Rizwana reinforces the need to platform authentic Muslim women’s voices to speak on issues affecting us, "i.e. don’t speak for us, we have agency.’’ She believes increasing religious literacy of journalists and editors and hiring more Muslim journalists will ensure that mainstream religious practices such as praying, fasting, and wearing the hijab are not perceived as negative, extreme or threatening and will help in “normalising Muslim women as multidimensional beings like any other British citizen.”

Furthermore, she highlights the need to “move away from the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy (aka moderate vs fundamentalist, liberal vs traditional/conservative.”

I highlight these issues in my recent book Her Allies, much as Hafsa reinforces the need for Muslim women to be referred to and spoken of as women with "unique identities and personalities and not a sole, unified group with set rules of concrete beliefs, practices, customs and dress codes." 

She suggests that this bias can also be alleviated by thoroughly researching subjects. And I couldn’t agree more – when talking about allyship, I regularly underline the need to educate one’s self on challenges impacting minority groups and the importance of asking the right questions to acquire culture savviness.

It’s about time the media starts acknowledging responsibility for the role it has played in exacerbating Islamophobic sentiments.

Western Muslim communities already suffer from a 'stereotype threat’ and Muslim women experience double jeopardy wherein they experience both gender and faith discrimination. This situation becomes even more challenging given these multiple forms of discrimination are often experienced simultaneously in ways that make them inextricable from each other.

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Many Muslim women 'cover' facets of their identity to avoid judgment and labelling.  They are uncomfortable openly practising their religion which, in turn, prevents them from showing up authentically. Add to that the apprehension and guilt some Muslims living in the West feel whenever there is a terror attack. In my recent survey of  Muslim professionals, 78 percent admitted they feel anxious at work when there is news of Muslim related terrorism. Many believe it is important that they vocalise their disassociation and/or denounce terrorism lest anyone thinks they are supporters.

To truly promote belongingness, we need to stop featuring Muslim women in the media in ways that single them out, challenge or generalise any aspect of their values and belief system. Otherwise, we will risk fuelling harmful stereotypes which can torpedo self-esteem and performance. The damaging stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals may also negatively influence Muslim women’s career choices and career advancement.

'Emotion-inciting renditions’ of stories and formulaic narratives may lead to more clicks, however, this sensationalism is frustrating millions of Muslim women globally who are proud of their faith – a faith which empowers not oppresses.

Hira Ali is an author, writer, speaker, executive leadership coach & D&I thought leader. She is the Chief Executive Officer at Advancing Your Potential and author of Her Way to the Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceiling. Hira's second companion book, Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead through Advocacy, invites men to join the gender equality movement.

Follow her on Twitter: @advancingyou