Representations of Muslim Women in Western Media

Representation of Muslim Women in Western Media Feminist Foreign Policy Sara Gill

Laura Navarro argues that one of the most misunderstood areas in Islam is the topic of women. The persistent narrative of Muslim women needing to be liberated from the veil, hijab, and even the entire Islamic religion not only saturates the British media but also filters into national and foreign policy measures.

According to the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) manifesto, a key aim is to ban the wearing of the burqa in public places. The manifesto states, ‘we will not accept these de-humanising symbols of segregation and oppression, nor the security risks they pose.’ These suggestions persist despite researchers showing that banning the burqa will increase isolation for Muslim women, further alienating then from mainstream society. In France, for example, ‘Law of 2010-1192’ prohibits the concealment of the face in public. Since the law was enforced, documentary film-maker and sociologist Agnes De Feo interviewed over 150 French Muslim women who wear the veil and analyzed the results. De Feo’s research highlighted that the women who wore the veil before the law’s enactment now stay at home, and women who previously did not wear the garment have taken up the veil as a form of rebellion against the discriminatory law. De Feo’s findings complement the work of John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed who argue that such policy discourse is rarely guided by the voices of Muslim women, but is rather misinformed by Western ideas of how Muslim women should be. 

Tellingly, the only positive portrayals of Muslim women describe them as liberated by their lack of hijab or veil.

The British press further propels the idea that Muslim women are oppressed. An analysis of 200 articles, systematically sampled from eight of the most read newspapers in the United Kingdom over a one year period (23/12/15- 23/12/16), found that British newspapers’ perpetuate stereotypes of Muslim women as wives and mothers, as passive and submissive, and as victims and sex slaves. Positive representations were virtually non-existent - for example, there was no discussion about the active participation of Muslim women in the workforce. Tellingly, the only positive portrayals of Muslim women describe them as liberated by their lack of hijab or veil. The stereotypes that the press encourage not only erodes the social, economic, and cultural diversity of Muslim women; they nearly always neglect the fact that the Islamic world is made up of many countries, societies, traditions, languages, and, of course, an infinite number of experiences. Homogenising a hugely diverse set of people is not just insular, it is simply inaccurate.

Many Muslim women actively reject the media’s portrayal of their lives. Alima Boumediene, a former Member of the European Parliament, emphatically stated: ‘I, a woman of Muslim culture and/or faith, and many people like me, refuse to be prisoners of either of these stereotypes. We are who we decide to be and not what the mass media wants us to be!’ However, and unsurprisingly, these narratives do not make headlines. Rather, the British press paints a very narrow, sensationalized, and distorted picture. 

One of the consequences of this type of reporting is that such simplistic perceptions hinder intercultural co-existence and promote culturalist theories. Samuel P. Huntington’s famous 1993 essay entitled ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ warned that the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ would soon be fundamentally incompatible. In order for the ‘West to remain powerful,’ it would be necessary to ‘exploit differences and conflicts’ amongst Islamic states and only support civilizations that were sympathetic with Western values. In 1998, Edward Said presented a lecture in which he described this ‘so called clash’ as a U.S. foreign policy ‘attempt to legitimise intervention in order to maintain global dominance.’ 

President Bush calculatingly posits this imaginary ‘other’ as the enemy, inherently opposed to the values of liberty and freedom.

Even before the Global War on Terror had begun, President George W. Bush’s inaugural address made his foreign policy objectives transparent: ‘We will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors. The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake: America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favours freedom.’ Strikingly apparent is the emphasis between 'us' and 'them'. President Bush calculatingly posits this imaginary 'other' as the enemy, one who is inherently opposed to the values of liberty and freedom. 

The Global War on Terror, responding to the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, was advocated for as an answer to Saddam Hussein's supposed ‘weapons of mass destruction’, although today's evidence has proven that these WMDs did not exist. In fact, it is clear that this persisting ‘war on terror’ has been built upon a plethora of myths and fabricated narratives. One such narrative has included the ‘saving’ or ‘liberation’ of Muslim women. In 2002 Laura Bush said: ‘Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’  Whilst it is true that the Taliban oppressed and still oppresses women, this kind of 'saviour' narrative was used to justify the U.S's violent military penetration and ultimate attempt to maintain global dominance. This is also not the first time that women have been used to justify and legitimise foreign intervention. In fact, many colonising missions have used a similar line of rhetoric.

These narratives and depictions are often an explicit attempt to legitimise and maintain Western hegemony. It is important to consciously and continually recognise how such detrimental media representations do not exist within a political vacuum but are a clear reflection of wider national and foreign policy measures.

Sara Gill is currently postgraduate student in Development Studies at the London School of Economics.

Marissa Conway