media representation


Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Single Muslim mothers must be the new “it” topic for the Western media. There has been a lot of coverage of Rachida Dati, the French minister of Moroccan and Algerian heritage, who just recently had a baby while still being single. Now, the BBC has done a piece on single mothers in Morocco. The story looks at the struggles that single mother face in Morocco and also looks at the efforts of a group called Feminine Solidarity Association that seeks to assist single mothers.

Honestly, I liked this story (I know in the past I have often been critical of the BBC’s coverage of Muslim women). There was no comparison of the treatment of single mothers in Morocco versus the treatment of single mothers in Britain and other Western societies. The article was pretty straight forward. There were only a couple of statements which I thought added absolutely nothing to the story. “Khadija [Noha], whose pretty face regularly breaks into a slow but frank smile, was also cast out by her family [emphasis added].” I thought this statement was particularly sexist. A lot of news stories that focus on women make comments on their looks, and articles on Muslim women always seem to have comments about how we look. A description of Ms. Noha’s looks is really unnecessary and adds nothing to the actual story.

Besides that one line, I found the article to be a welcome look at how hard life for single mothers can be not only in Morocco, but in conservative Muslim circles in many parts of the world, including the West. The double standard for men and women is discussed. Khadija Noha discusses how she went out with a man who promised to marry her but left her when he found out that she was pregnant. There is also discussion of how single mother advocates, such as Aicha Ech Chana, the head of the Feminine Solidarity Association and Jamilah Bargach, an anthropologist, are pushing to make fathers of children born outside marriage more accountable for their children.

I think this is particularly necessary because I think too often Muslims forget that it takes two to tango. We criticize and ostracize single mothers while forgetting that fathers are being let off the hook. We should help single mothers and commend them for taking care of their responsibilities. Fathers who forget their children are the ones who should be ostracized for taking the easy way out and not taking care of their children. This is a problem that hasn’t been addressed adequately by Muslims, but needs to be.

The efforts of the Feminine Solidarity Association are especially noteworthy. They teach single mothers various skills so that they can work. They also help single mothers in Morocco find housing and provide childcare services for mothers while they work. Ech Chana, who founded the organization, seems driven by the desire to empower single mothers. In the article, she speaks of the rights that single mothers have in the Qur’an and is critical of the way that single mothers are treated in Morocco. She along with with advocates like Jamilah Bargach are working to highlight the plight of single mothers, a plight that has been ignored by many Muslims for too long.

In Thursday, October 23rd’s edition of The Independent, journalist Johann Hari asked the question “Dare we stand up for Muslim women?” Hari (pictured below right), a young British journalist with left leanings and who has defended Muslims against the fear mongering of Canadian right-wing writer Mark Steyn, has presented an interesting and compelling case for the need to better the situation of Muslim women in the world. His examples are heartbreaking and elicit sympathy for the suffering women. However, as noble as Hari’s intentions may be in writing the piece he has made one very big, yet sadly extremely common, mistake – he has assumed the worst of Muslim women themselves – and this mistake only further entrenches racism toward Muslims in the East/South and creates a superior-inferior dichotomy.

Johann Hari. Image via Hari's website.

Johann Hari. Image via Hari's website.

Hari begins by presenting us with a graphic depiction of the severely burned face of a 21-year-old Bangladeshi acid-burn victim, Shahnaz, whose husband and brother-in-laws attacked her with acid. Why? According to Hari “[h]er crime was to be a Muslim woman who wanted to be treated as equal to a man.” Shahnaz had wanted to study but her husband disagreed. Hari also reports that the incidences of acid-burning of women has increased in Bangladesh and cites the growing independence of Bangladeshi women as the cause of anger among the men who burn them. “It is just one tactic in a global war to keep Muslim women at heel,” Hari says. He then lists tactics through which other Muslim countries have displayed their misogyny, often in brutal ways.

No one can deny that such horrific incidences occur. No one can deny that many Muslim women live in very difficult situations. However this is not a Muslim problem. Violence against women in many different forms whether it be hitting, slapping, rape, burning, etc., occurs in all countries. There exist men in all cultures and all religions who feel it their right to abuse women. Pointing out occurrences of such behaviour only among Muslims demonizes Muslim men and denies Muslim women their agency (a point to which I will return below). Additionally, in the process of painting this as a Muslim problem, which is what Hari has done, we end up denying that non-Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries suffer similar fates. For instance, if we stay with the region of South Asia, India‘s rates of violence against women are disturbing to many human rights workers. Additionally, this Violence Against Women Fact Sheet would indicate the universality of the problem of violence against women.

However, getting back to the Muslims in Hari’s piece, it is worth noting that Hari writes about the cultural variation in Muslim countries by writing:

We ask nervously: isn’t it just their culture that women are treated differently? Isn’t it a form of cultural imperialism to condemn these practices? The only rational response is to ask: whose culture do you want to respect here? Shahnaz’s culture, or her husband’s? The culture of the little girls learning in a Kandahar classroom, or of the Taliban thug who bursts in and shoots their teacher?…Muslim societies are not a homogenous block – and it is racist to pretend they are.

However, he points out cultural variation not to say, as I would, Muslims are a diverse people, or that the culture does not condone violence against women and that such behaviour is not a part of their diverse cultures but rather a product of ubiquitous patriarchy, the entrenchment of which is in large part a product of international economic and educational injustices. No, he uses this argument to say that there exist two cultures – the male Muslim culture and the female Muslim culture. The male Muslim culture is the brutal, angry and oppressive one, and the female Muslim culture is the subjugated, imperiled and submissive one. The picture that Hari has painted is one of brutal Muslim men and their oppressed Muslim women. It would seem that all Muslim men oppress all Muslim women all the time in every way possible. This message is nothing new and has been a part of Western/Northern discourse regarding the East/South for centuries now. A message used to demonize and to justify invasions of the East/South for centuries, including this one. Afghanistan and Iraq sound familiar?

But no Western/Northern saviour can stop here. It is not enough for those of us in the West/North (and yes I am also Western/Northern) to say “those people are so bad,” but we must, as now we have a contrasting people, say “we are so good.” After all, where there is bad there must also be something good. How else would we know that something is bad? And Hari does just this.

It is here, in our open societies, that the freedom of Muslim women is slowly being born. Last week, Amina Wadud became the first ever woman to lead British Muslims in prayer. All over Europe and the US, Muslim women are pushing beyond a literal reading of the Koran and trying to turn many of its ugliest passages into misty metaphor.

It is true that the West/North is seeing the rise of many Muslim women who are “pushing beyond a literal reading of the Koran.” We have Amina Wadud, Laleh Bakhtiar and Asma Barlas to name some. However, this is not unique to our part of the world. If the West/North has these women then the East/South has academics like Fatima Mernissi and Nawal El-Saadawi, and not to mention activists like Asma Jehangir, Malalai Joya, Ghada Jamshir, Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, Mukhtaran Bibi, Shirin Ebadi, just to name a few. Hari would have us believe that women living in Muslim countries are so utterly helpless so as to need pity and eagerly await to be rescued from their men by the West/North. However, the evidence states something quite the opposite.

A rally in Afghanistan in support of Malalai Joya, 2007. Image via AP Photo.

A rally in Afghanistan in support of Malalai Joya, 2007. Image via AP Photo.

Women living in Muslim countries can help themselves and are helping themselves. They are working every day to better the conditions of the women in their countries. They are resisting the misogyny of men all the time. Muslim women living in Muslim countries DO have agency and are taking the initiative to better their conditions. If anything is holding them back, if anything is oppressing them, it is the West/North itself (though not alone). Even Hari touches on this issue a little though fails to elaborate, mainly because it would seem that he may not realize that elaboration is an option. Let me try.

Hari rightly criticizes Western/Northern governments who support regimes that oppress women – Saudi Arabia for example. He is right when he says:

While we as a society are addicted to oil, our governments will always put petroleum before feminism. While we suck on the Saudi petrol pump, smearing rhetorical estrogen on to our bombs looks like an ugly trick.

But this is just the contemporary aspect of how the West/North oppresses women in the East/South. Colonization of the East/South by the West/North is a racist part of world history, the legacy of which has lived on in the East/South. The colonizers left, but not without making sure those whom they ruled over were not only thoroughly traumatized but also left with the mess of ethnic rivalries, wealth disparities, and educational discrepancies. The colonizers raped the land then left “her” to die. The result has been ages of high levels of wealth and educational discrepancies – factors which can gravely and greatly impact patriarchy and its strength. Patriarchy exists everywhere, though the strength of it can be impacted by other, namely economic, factors. All this then results in, what seem to be, stronger patriarchies in post-colonial regions. And of course, how can we forget the role the War on Terror has played in oppressing Muslim women, specifically in Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of Pakistan. How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their homes are being bombed and their loved ones dying? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their brothers, sons, husbands are being disappeared or killed by occupying forces? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their food-producing soil is contaminated with chemicals from Western/Northern bombs? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when they have no water, no heating, no shelter?

Finally, as if to prove the freedom of Muslim women in the West/North Hari gives the example of his friend Irshad Manji’s call to the E.U. and U.N. to provide microcredits to Muslim women across the Middle East to help them start their own businesses. But in doing so he completely neglects the fact that the idea of microcredits, or microloans, belongs to a Bangladeshi, Muslim man – Muhammad Yunus – who Manji herself credits. But Hari, for some reason, completely leaves out this glaring fact.

And here we come full circle – from the Bangladeshi Muslim girl who was the victim of her husband’s cruelty, to the Bangladeshi Muslim man who created an economic model to help the poor women of his Muslim majority country. The dichotomy of the “dangerous Muslim man” and the “imperiled Muslim woman” of which Sherene Razack so aptly speaks in her book Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics (read Fatemeh’s review here) just does not exist in Bangladesh it would seem. Or in any other Muslim country for that matter, as simple and compact as that would be.

So then, in the end, what can we do? Hari wants people in the West/North to stand up for Muslim women. As I have already (hopefully) shown, Muslim women are already standing up for our/themselves and the problem is not simply Muslim men (though I hope I did not create the impression that Muslim men never oppress Muslim women – many do but no more than non-Muslim men). To that we say thanks, but no thanks.

What Western/Northern people can do is stand up WITH us. When we say American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq cause Muslim women much suffering, stand with Muslim women as we speak against the occupations. When Muslim women say the War on Terror causes us great suffering because our freedoms are surpressed, the safety of our brothers, fathers, sons, is jepordized, we are terrorized, join us in our criticism of this war of terror. It is in standing WITH Muslim women, not for us, that achievements will be made. It is in solidarity, not appropriation, that healthy progress can take place.

Iranian woman in Car

Iranian woman in Car

As soon as I saw headline, I have to admit I was thinking “huh?” and “what!” I’m not too keen on products geared towards women because usually these products rely heavily on stereotypes. Unfortunately, this new feminine car does just that. It’s suppose to come out in a range of “feminine colors” and “interior designs” because we are just so keen on how our car looks. I guess those guys in my neighborhood who spend thousands of dollars on rims and getting their car waxed didn’t get the memo that they’re not suppose to car our their cars looks. Oh, and those women I see in big, black Escalades with spinning rims really didn’t get the memo that they’re suppose to be in more “feminine” cars but I digress. To make things even better the new cars will feature “automatic transmission, parking and navigation aids and a jack for changing tyres without getting grease on your chador.” Again, I wonder why this is special to women. I’m sure plenty of men in Iran would love to drive an automatic since they’re much easier to drive. My husband and most American men aren’t buying automatic simply for their wives to drive but to drive themselves since they’re less of a hassle than stick shifts. Same for the navigation aids. As for not getting grease on chador, who wants to get grease on their clothes. I honestly don’t understand why these products aren’t marketed to both genders since they would seem to benefit both men and women.

While that was annoying, that part of the article that “ground my gears” was the BBC’s little tirade about gender in Iranian society. After describing the features of the car the author writes “If that suggests a degree of sexist stereotyping in Iranian society, it is, just possibly, true.” Yes, definitely. But then we start to get in this little slippery slope of self righteousness with the author saying things like “Iranian men have yet to absorb fully the message of equality” or “‘As a result, the report concludes, Iran’s new generation of working women “are obliged to play the role of a superwoman to resolve their contradictions in handling all tasks.’ It says such women ‘have become increasingly frustrated with their life'”. Now I don’t disagree with these assertions but I did wonder why they were brought up in an article about a car for women and why the author was acting like these issues were exclusive to Iranian women. American women have to contend with this issue as well. American women spend more time doing household chores than their husbands. British working women also have to contend with juggling it all while getting little help from men. So this is an issue that affects women all around the globe. Next time, I think the BBC should just stick to the story.

Find out more at MMW’s Friday Links.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a critique of a LA Times blog post about and Egyptian organization that is working to combat sexual harassment in Egypt. The BBC News has now has a piece on its website about Egyptian women and sexual harassment as well. The two articles are different. The LA Times story was written as a more traditional story that did a profile of Egyptians, male and female, working to stop sexual harassment. The BBC piece is a collection of stories told by Egyptian women exclusively in their own words. While I liked the first person perspective of the BBC feature, I found the feature to be a mixed bag. I’ll focus on the positive aspects first before offering a more critical critique.

One of the things that I liked about the feature was that the stories were told by a variety of women: hijabi and non-hijabi, middle class and working class, etc. (Posy Abdou, one of the women, is pictured left). Sexual harassment affects women of every social stratum in Egypt so it’s great that the BBC was able to get the perspective of women from different classes. Also, I appreciate how hijabis and non-hijabis are shown because it reinforces the point that sexual harassment is not about the clothes. The more focus that is taken off of women’s clothes, the more focus can be placed on men and how they use sexual harassment as a form of power over women.

Additionally, I appreciated the first person accounts of the women. Too often the stories of Muslim women are filtered and told through the viewpoint of some other party, whether it’s Muslim men or non-Muslim men and women. The women’s interviews were probably edited. However, it is still nice to hear first person accounts from Muslim women.

While reading the women’s account provided insight into the daily battle with sexual harassment in Egypt, what I found lacking was any stories of women who fought back and became activists against sexual harassment. Only one of the women profiled, Noha Wagih (pictured right), mentioned anything about activism. She mentioned that she wanted to make a TV program about sexual harassment. While the voices of victims need to be heard, I found it rather curious that the BBC didn’t have one profile of activists such as the one done by the LA Times. All of the stories tell us about women’s experiences with harassment, but that is the extent of the coverage. All of the stories reinforced the image of the oppressed Muslim woman who is helpless. It also reinforces the image of the aggressive, misogynist and violent Muslim man.

Also, the exclusive focus on women takes away the focus that should be placed on men as well. It makes sexual harassment seem like it is only a problem for women, when it is a problem that affects both genders. There’s no examination of patriarchy or ideals of hyper-masculinity that are affecting the perpetrators’ views of women. There’s no look at how twisted interpretations of Islam maybe affecting these men’s idea of women either. By just centering on the experiences of victims, readers are left with no context. They have no idea why this phenomenon is occurring and what is being done to stop it.

Thus, I was left wondering why the BBC did this particular feature. Was it to inform readers about this issue, was it to give the women a chance for their voices to be heard, and was it to reinforce ideas about the superiority of Western gender as compared to gender norms in the Arab world? I honestly was not sure. The only thing I was sure about was that I ultimately finished reading the stories with the eerie feeling that I had just read yet another Orientalist-influenced piece that only served to reinforce stereotypes rather that promote any thing positive.

Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Last year, the British program Dispatches went undercover in a Mosque in Britain to expose “radical” Islam functioning in Britain. I’m sure the main point of that program was to scare inform Britons about radical Muslims who lurk in every corner. The masjid in question is funded partly by Saudi (although many masajid around the world are) and at least some of the members subscribe to the Salafi form of Islam (erroneously called Wahhabism in the program). Coming from a city with plenty of Salafis, I wasn’t shocked by anything I saw in the Dispatches programs. I was actually disappointed and disgusted. The message seemed to be although Muslims talk about interfaith dialogue and living in harmony with their non-Muslim neighbors, one can never be sure about that. The Dispatches program is definitely one of the worse in a long line of media programs aimed at increasing Islamophobia among the masses.

This year, Dispatches made a return visit to the mosque. For this visit, they used a female reporter as the undercover agent and had a more explicit focus on women, unlike the last episode. When the episode begins, we’re given the usual images of niqabis that are shown whenever we discusss “radical” Islam. I counted three shots of niqabis before we’re shown actual footage from the reporter (who also donned a niqab). Curiously enough, we’re shown footage, not of men speaking of the “need” to hate the kafir and be segregated at all costs, but of women doing this. Salafi women have propagated this separatist version of Islam for quite some time. You can see some of the remarks in the clip below:

This time, Dispatches reverses our expectations of gender norms for Muslims. Usually men are shown as active advocates for extremist Islam with women being the passive victims of it. However, in this show, women are shown actively advocating for the Salafi vision of Islam as well.

A few messages about Muslim women are conveyed in the Dispatches program. One message, which is common, is that Muslim women are complicit in their oppression and “brainwashed” by Muslim men. Most of the women in the masjid wear niqab, which is associated in the West with oppression. By showing these women in niqab preaching this extreme, separatist view of Islam, a Western audience will probably come to the conclusion that Muslim women are indeed brainwashed.

Another message was that Muslim women are just as dangerous as their male counterparts. This message has been propagated in the MSM a lot recently, with recent news stories on women suicide bombers and now the Dispatches program.

Dispatches promoted more negative images of Muslim women and Muslims as a whole. It will do little to help Britons understand their fellow Muslim citizens, including Muslim women, and only serve to make a wider gap between the Muslim population and non-Muslim population in Britain.

Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch


Women suicide bombers have been receiving increasing coverage in the media in recent years. Just this past week, at least three articles have been written about women suicide bombers in Iraq. The coverage of women terrorists in the Western media is often colored by gender expectations and stereotypes of women as well as the usual fear of Muslims.

One of the most problematic aspects of coverage of women suicide bombers is the focus on personal motivations. News stories about women suicide bombers often focus on revenge for the death of a loved one and dishonor from rape or sex outside (thus, forcing them to become suicide bombers). In fact, the Times article that is linked to in the Friday Links for 7/1/08 is titled ” Love, blackmail and rape – how al-Qaeda grooms women as ‘perfect weapons’”. Some women suicide bombers are motivated by personal factors and some are coerced. However, there is hardly ever a look at the ideological and political reasons for why women become suicide bombers. I suspect this is because of gender bias. Women are seen as irrational and emotional and the reasons for why they become terrorists are portrayed as irrational and emotional. This is completely different from how male suicide bombers are portrayed. Coverage of male suicide bombers usually does not focus on personal factors and almost exclusively focuses on religion, ideology and politics. Coverage of male suicide bombers focuses on their causes and usually not the bomber himself. This leads to portraying male suicide bombers as having more rational reasons for becoming suicide bombers.*

There’s also the usual focus on clothes. The three articles linked to in this post as well other, older articles almost always focus on Muslim (usually hijabis) women’s dress . The assumption goes that the “robe” (jilbab) that Muslim women wear allows them to easily conceal bombs and thus makes them very attractive to extremist groups. The picture aboves is part of a slide show that accompanies a BBC News story about women suicide bombers in Iraq. I guess the focus on hijab is to be expected in just about any news story that focuses on Muslim women. However, I find it troubling that hijab is once again tarnished, albeit more covertly than usual. The “robe” explanation usually segues into the idea that women are attractive to extremist groups because they’re less likely to be searched by male soldiers. All of these reasons and motivations for the rise in women suicide bombers totally take the focus off of political circumstances (which Western nations definitely play a hand in) that also influenced the decision of both male and female suicide bombers.

Additionally, there is little focus on how women suicide bombers challenge gender roles. This does not mean that I endorse suicide bombing. However, women suicide bombers do effectively show that Muslim women can have multifaceted gender roles. Women suicide bombers show that women can be effective in military operations. Additionally, women suicide bombers have actually inspired feminist activism in various parts of the Muslim world including Egypt, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Suicide bombings are controversial and I imagine that it is hard for Western media outlets to put any positive “spin” on this issue. However, isn’t it the job of the media to show all sides of a story? This would include showing how women suicide bombers are affecting gender norms in their societies.

*Terri Toles Patkin’s essay “Explosive Baggage: Female Palestinian Suicide Bombers and the Rhetoric of Emotion” further expands on this idea.

Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Fashion designers are now starting to see head scarves as the latest hot fashion trend. In an Islam Online article, various designers were quoted about this new trend. Two words that came up often were”modesty” and “chasity”. Apparently fashion designers want to show that modesty, chasity and elegance are not mutually exclusive. Although the designers said that they weren’t focused solely on Muslim women, I’m sure that Muslim women are definitely a market that is increasingly being focused on by the fashion industry.

As a hijabi, maybe people think I would be elated by this article but I’m actually a bit cautious. For one thing, isn’t the one of the objectives of hijab to take the focus off of outer appearances? One of the most common arguments given by hijab apologists is that the hijab prevents women from only being judged by how they look. It allows women to be judged for who they truly are. If headscarves are suddenly made into the latest fashion trend, doesn’t it suddenly lose that purpose? Hasn’t it become the latest commodity that women must have? As Muslims, should we support that? That’s why I was a bit surprised that the article was featured on an Islamic website. The commercialization of hijab seems antithetical to what hijab is all about.

Also, the article brought up the issue of the definitions of modesty and chasity. As I read the article, I kept wondering how modesty and chasity are defined especially in this quote:

According to Dennis Nothdruft, curator of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, the headscarf resurgence is about a new sense of “chastity” in fashion. He affirms that the trend is not all new after all. “Women wore headscarves in medieval times to maintain their modesty,” he explains.

Is the wearing of hijab the sole indicator of modesty? What about women who do not wear the hijab, both Muslim and non-Muslim? Are they immodest? Isn’t modesty also related to our attitude? I don’t think hijabis who look down upon non-hijabis to be the most modest people around. Arrogance isn’t modesty at all. This isn’t to say that hijabis necessarily look down upon non-hijabis but it is to point out that modesty is about much than headscarves. Also, women who don’t wear headscarves are not necessarily immodest. Modesty is a complicated thing and I’m never happy when it’s reduced to our appearance.

That being said, I can’t deny that I do try to look nice and that it is rather cool for people, Muslim and non-Muslim, to realize that dressing in hijab does not mean dressing “Umar the tent maker’s daughter” (as my mother put it). Dressing in hijab does not mean that we don’t put any care into how we dress. So when I read articles like the one referenced, in a weird way I do feel a little happy.