In prior history, when pagan Arabs would bury their girls alive, when Christians questioned whether women had souls, and when Jews were cursing women and blaming them for “original sin,” Islam freed women from all forms of domination, repression, and humiliation (Qutub, 2013). This paper analyses the representation of Muslim women in American and Canadian media. First, the paper highlights the representations of Muslims as a whole followed by an analysis of the representations of Muslim women in particular. Next, the paper discusses Muslim women’s identities and the veiling practice from their perspectives. Taking into consideration the limitations of previous studies, the paper then proposes various tools or lenses to help rethink the identity of Muslim women. Lastly, the paper outlines the positive and negative outcomes of media (mis)representation. Critical analysis is used as a methodology to uncover oppressive discourse and portrayals when constructing “the other.” Edward Said’s postcolonial criticism of the “other” and Agenda Setting Theory influenced the theoretical framework.
Keywords: otherness, misrepresentation, the veil, Muslim, identity.
Saving Muslim Women From Their Misery: The “Other” Representations Between Reality and Entertainment in American Media
Media have the power to create, challenge, or reinforce one’s beliefs and values. Many people associate Muslim women with an oppressive lifestyle, suicide bombers and terrorists, and religious restrictions. Western media have continuously misrepresented the identity of Muslim women. Muslim women are typically portrayed as backwards, uneducated, oppressed, voiceless, antiquated, submissive, and victimized. Furthermore, veiled Muslim women are perceived to be threats to public safety in the public sphere (Zempi, 2014).
The Western view of the East is greatly influenced by stereotypical negative images consistently presented in Hollywood films (Arti, 2007). Although the stereotypical images of Muslim women initially emerged in the American media, those negative representations exist in numerous Western printed media, including daily newspapers in France like La Libre Belgique (Meddeb, 2014), the mainstream Canadian media (Katherine, Bullock, & Jafri, 2000), the Australian printed media (Imtoual, 2005), the German weekly Die Zeit (Ehrkamp, 2010), and popular American newspapers like The New York Times (Greenberg & Miazhevich, 2012) and The Washington Post (Mishra, 2007).
Based on Said’s Orientalism and on typical imagery of the media and movies, Western media tend to represent Muslim women as the “other.” This sense of otherness draws a distinction between Western women and non-Western women. Basically, the “other,” third-world woman is the opposing extreme of the Western first-world woman (Mohanty, 1984). In other words, this division implies that first-world white women are modern, educated, and liberated. In contrast, third-world women are backwards, ignorant, and oppressed. Accordingly, the present study examines representations of Muslim women from the perspective of both media and Muslim women. According to Kelly (2008), the power to define the reality of others is a form of domination. Hence, the paper introduces ways to rethink Muslim women from their view and aside from stereotypical media images.
The Logic of Research Analysis
Using critical analysis, this paper will trace (mis)representations of Orientals by the American and Canadian media, as well as Hollywood’s imagery. Postcolonial criticism is an appropriate method through which to address this topic because it provides an opportunity to critique misrepresentations based on the opinions and experiences of Muslim women’s exposure to Western media. Additionally, a critical perspective is the perfect tool for uncovering oppressive power (Miller, 2005). The study also applies feminist criticism to analyse representations of Muslim women.
This study will examine misrepresentations of Muslim women in Western media through the lenses of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Agenda Setting Theory, and Third Wave feminism. Said’s study of “otherness” is considered to be a branch of postcolonial theory, which critiques colonialism. Said (1978) used the term “Orientalism” in referral to misrepresentations of Eastern cultures by Western scholars, artists, writers, and movie producers. He argues that Western representations of the East have been constructed in a way that draw distinctions between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”). He also pointed out that the West constructed the image of the East according to their domination position over the East.
In alliance with Said’s notion of “otherness and political vision,” Agenda Setting Theory suggests that the selectivity of media is the result of corporate interest. The concept of selective exposure suggests that mass media tend to expose certain images to the public while ignoring others (Griffin, 2010 p. 378). For instance, media repeatedly claim that Muslim women are restricted in the public sphere, but they ignore women’s private, personal sphere. In other words, only images and topics that fit the political agenda are exposed, while others are simple ignored. Overall, the theory indicates the media is a tool to maintain the power of the powerful and to keep the powerless marginalized. However, social networking sites have played a key role in changing the rules of power and deciding what is to be exposed to the public.
Overview of Muslim (Mis)representations in the Media
The Muslim woman based on Hollywood stereotypes is typically a sexy belly dancer, an oppressed veiled housewife, or a militant woman (Said, 1978). On the other hand, Muslim men are portrayed as billionaires ruled by their sexual desires, terrorists, suicide bombers, and repressive, violent husbands and fathers (Arti, 2007; Kozlovic, 2007; Said, 1978). The backgrounds and locations used often include the desert, tents, wildlife, camels, and uncivil societies.
According to Arti (2007) and Kozlovic (2007), both of whom examined representations of Muslims in Hollywood movies, at least 119 movies negatively represented Muslim societies and value from 1921 to 2010. Furthermore, these movies all include the most common stereotypes: Aladdin (1992), Black Sunday (1977), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Crusades (1935), Déjà vu (2006), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), Hollywood Harems (1999), Delta Force (1986), Ishtar (1987), The Sheik (1921), Navy Seals (1990), Terrorist on Trail: The United States vs. Salim Ajami (1988), The Ten Commandments (1932 & 1956), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Wrong is Right (1982), Flight 93 (2006), True Lies (1994), The Taking of Flight 847 (1988), The Dictator (2010), and Sex and the City 2 (2010). A full filmography is provided in Kozlovic’s (2007) study.
Greenberg and Miazhevich’s (2012) research provided a quantitative analysis of representations of British Muslims in The New York Times over 12 years. The analysis was divided into three periods according to the observed themes. In the first period (1997–2001), the coverage of British Muslims used extensive indirect references to their faith. In other words, The New York Times used ethnic rather religious labels, such as “Pakistani,” “Asians,” or “Bangladeshi immigrant” when addressing British Muslims. The second period analysed The New York Times coverage from 2001–2005. The number of article about British Muslims increased 50% in this period. Furthermore, “radicalization” and “extremism” were explicitly linked with British Muslims. The strong emotional wording and the escalating number of articles in this period might be explained in terms of the 9/11 attacks, which occurred at the beginning of this period of analysis.
The third period (2005–2009) saw a change of focus to the British government. The New York Times articles perceived the British government was turning a blind eye to defects in multiculturalism. A number of articles expressed opposition to the veil, like Perlez’s “Muslims’ Veils Test Limits of Britain’s Tolerance” (2007) and “Behind the Veil” (2006). Another theme evolves around warning the British system against Muslim values and communities, using phrases like “Britain is sleepwalking into segregation” in Cowell’s “Islamic Schools Test Ideal of Integration in Britain” (2006). In this period, the U.S. media used hostile language to critique Britain for hosting Muslim communities “threatening organization.” Ironically, Britain was portrayed as a deviant “other” because of integrating Muslims in its communities.
Hollywood’s stereotypical images and The New York Times articles are not the result of the 9/11 attacks, as the majority of the movies under analysis were produced prior to 2001. Hollywood’s negative representations of Islamic societies mainly justify the American military presence in Muslim countries. As long as Islamic cultures are portrayed as being in need of Western modernization and feminist freedom, American hegemony and troops are rarely questioned.
Who is the Muslim Woman According to Western Media?
Literature analysing both visual and printed Western media concluded that there are seemingly endless misrepresentations of Muslim women. Muslim women are typically portrayed in American and Canadian media as one of three characters. The first character is the mysterious sensual belly dancer. The second is the oppressed Muslim woman wearing a veil, victimized by the males in her family and by society. The final character is the militant Muslim woman dressed in military clothes and operating as part of a terrorist cell (Said, 1981; Kutty, 1997). The most common characteristics attributed to Muslim women revolve around being backwards, exotic, and part of a barbaric religion (Said, 1979). Wilkins’s (1997) research analysed 230 U.S. press photos and added “passive,” “victims,” and “impersonal” to the list of stereotypes.
Canadian media has continuously questioned the nationhood of Canadian Muslim women. Bullock and Jafri (2000) examined the representation of Canadian Muslim women in the mainstream Canadian media. They indicated that not only has Canadian media presented Muslim Canadian women as “alien and scary,” but also as outsiders, foreigners, distant “others,” and as members of a faith (Islam) that does not relate to Canadian values. Gowlett’s (1995) research on Muslim women in the Canadian print media confirmed both the Orientalist stereotypes and Katherine et al.’s (2000) findings. Moreover, Jafri’s (1998) study reviewed five Canadian dailies from 1993–1997. Interestingly, 73 articles out of 96 about Muslim women presented Muslim women as outsiders, “other,” not as “us,” members of the Canadian nation.
Mishra (2008) examined a total of 83 articles in 15 American newspapers that included the representation of Muslim women. The Washington Post included 15 articles on Muslim women, which was the maximum number of articles among other newspapers. The New York Times included 11 articles, San Diego Union Tribune included 10 stories, Houston Chronicle included eight articles, St. Petersburg Times mentioned seven stories, St. Louis Post-Dispatch addressed six topics, Chicago Sun-Times contained five stories, Boston Globe published five articles, The Seattle Times had only three, USA Today included three topics, New York Daily News included three, Atlanta Journal Constitution mentioned three relevant topics, The Times Picayune included two, The Plain Dealer reported one, and Denver Post included one article.
Miahra’s (2007) study focused on the representation of Muslim women in 15 articles in The Washington Post. The findings of the analysis indicated that The Washington Post followed similar negative patterns to those found in other U.S. and Canadian mainstream press (Bullock & Jafri, 2000). The articles presented Muslim women in association with terrorism. Additional articles portrayed them as passive victims of Islamic laws and described their lives as “oppressed lives” (Mishra, 2007). The articles highlighted that oppressed Muslims are in need of Western liberation. Indeed, they explicitly indicated that Muslim women should follow Western values and lifestyles (p. 14). Both Ahmed (1992) and Qutub (2013) have resisted the notion of Westernization as salvation for Muslim women. Qutub (2013) articulated her view on this from a feminist perspective:
Muslim women do not need any Western saving, liberation, or modernization as assumed by the U.S. media (Abu-Lughod, 2002). Instead, they simply require to be respected for who they are. (p. 150)
The 26 articles that analysed the representation of American women in Arab News perceived the freedom enjoyed by American women as superficial (Mishra, 2007). However, Arab News did not suggest imposing the Islamic laws on Western women.
The most disturbing aspect of the representation of Muslim women in the Western media is the absence of representation of the vast majority of Muslim women. In other words, representations of Muslim scientists, political leaders, postgraduates, teachers, doctors, nurses, photographers, and businesswomen have rarely if ever been displayed by American media as implied by former studies.