Sensationalism Veils: The Portrayal of Muslim Women in Western News Media

From Oprah to FOX news, The New Yorker to The Ottawa Sun, post 9/11 coverage of Islamic cultures by Western news media has skyrocketed and there is growing concern from members of Muslim communities, scholars and journalists with the messages being conveyed on a daily basis. According to Steven Franklin of the Columbia Journalism Review, these "Worn stereotypes, inaccurate references [and] less than informed sources [mean that]…Islamic nations are often portrayed in news reports as uniformly intolerant and anti-democratic". Similar concern surrounds women in Islamic cultures, as criticism levelled at the homogenous view of Muslim women by the Western news media abounds. In a recent article, Gema Martín Muñoz, Professor of Sociology of the Arab and Islamic World at Autonoma University of Madrid wrote: "The media representation of women in Muslim countries, apart from its coverage of unacceptable acts of discrimination, mainly serves to perpetuate a set of cultural expectations that denigrate a vast and diverse cultural world." Alia Hogben, Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women, notes this dissemination of misconceptions and misrepresentations about Muslim women leads to the amplification of cultural misunderstanding: "If you go to the corner of a busy Canadian street and ask 'what is your image of a Muslim woman?' I know the answer will be: 'covered up, unthinking, oppressed'. It is a constant barrier that you have to fight through, to come to an understanding of the person."

In an essay for an online forum by the Social Science Research Council, Dr. Haideh Moghissi, Professor of Sociology at York University writes: "The recurrent Islamaphobia of media and governments in the West reduces the life experiences of people from the region to religion and religion alone. Underlying such images is the assumption that Islam is a blanket under which people from Islamic cultures are huddled together regardless of their regional, ethnic, cultural, class and gender differences". Under this blanket, women in Islamic cultures are grouped together and defined by dominant discourses of passivity and victimisation, predominantly represented by various forms of the veil, notes Gema Martín Muñoz. This habitual focus by the news media on the victimization of women in Islamic cultures is frustrating, Alia Hogben says, because "If I, as an ordinary Muslim woman, have something to say, it is not heard, because it is not sensationalized, it doesn't fit the stereotype. What is being reflected is not our lives, but some kind of superimposed perspective of our lives". With an overabundance of stories emphasizing stereotypes, there is an apparent failure to focus on the achievements of Muslim women, especially those who do not fit the veiled and victimized stereotype. An article by Tarek Fatah published in 2004 highlighted the failure by Canadian news media to produce coverage of the election of Canada's first Muslim woman M.P., Yasmin Ratansi.: "The search for the authentic Muslim has forced reporters and editors to look for women in head covers", which Fatah notes, Ratansi does not wear.

Many reasons appear to be the cause of such essentialist representations of women in Islamic cultures. Constraints such as deadline pressures, length requirements and reader accessibility, force stories to be brief and under-investigated which leads to influenced stories that can perpetuate stereotypes. According to Dr. Karim H. Karim, Director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, "Because the editor at home will not have a good understanding of what is happening on the ground, which the foreign correspondent does, they will reinstate the dominant discourses of the stereotypes the correspondent is trying to fight against. Even within the newsroom there are struggles going on in terms of representation: a picture may be added to an article which completely subverts the intention of the writer."

As well, Journalistic conventions of 'fairness' often impose only two sides or perspectives. This dichotomisation oversimplifies the complex and multi-faceted nature of the issue. Kathy Gannon, a Canadian journalist who has spent 18 years reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan, reinforces this sentiment: "In the West, we tend to have relatively limited attention spans and we need things in simple, broad strokes. We also like symbols in the West and the burka is a strong symbol. But it's a hugely black and white approach, or a good vs. evil approach." Dr. Karim notes that "Journalists have to keep in mind the complexity of these societies, the personal struggles, the social struggles, the constant striving on women's part for equal rights to choose whether to cover themselves or not. These kinds of struggles are ongoing. It's a changing situation and it is not linear. This is something that often journalists miss out on."

A May 2004 study by the Pew Research Center found that reporters themselves feel commercial and financial pressures of the news media industry are damaging the quality of news coverage, and not a lack of journalistic ethics or professionalism. Spending cutbacks aimed at increasing profits have resulted in over-worked journalists, the loss of foreign bureaus and a general trend towards rehashing old stories and facts.

What effect has sensationalistic coverage produced in multicultural societies like Canada? Gema Martín Munõz writes: "Far from increasing our knowledge of the 'Other', more often than not this treatment leads to distorted conclusions, which strengthen feelings of rejection and incomprehension." This can be seen in turn by the reactions of Muslim women "who do wear the hijab, [and are] afraid to go out, or do not wear the hijab when they go out because they feel threatened and insecure due to the kind of stereotypes equating the enemy with people who wear Muslim clothing" recounts Dr. Karim. This danger to the well-being of intercultural relations points directly to the need for journalism to be anthropological noted Carolyn Rouse, Associate Professor with the Department of Anthropology at Princeton, in a recent lecture for the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. Rouse stated that an anthropological approach to reporting on cultural issues entails challenging and disrupting conventional categories and de-constructing generalisations. Questioning the basic categories through which we define the world around us can be crucial to the understanding of women in Islamic cultures. This lens prompts questions such as: is the veil truly a sign of oppression for all Muslim women? The adoption of a lens that challenges easy dualities also speaks volumes to the concern voiced by Haideh Moghissi as to the challenge of confronting "inferiorizing stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women without resorting to apologetic and self-glorifying accounts of Islam and Muslims".

To be fair, not all attention surrounding this subject is negative. The increase in Western news media coverage of issues surrounding Islamic cultures has been viewed in a positive light by some. "Monolithic misconceptions are subsiding as the nature of the Muslim community worldwide gains more attention" writes Dr. Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Muslim-American newspaper the Muslim Observer. For example, in a report for the BBC about controversy arising from the wearing of jilbab gowns at a high school in the town of Luton (UK), journalists Cindi John and Dominic Casciani note that this is a national, and not a religious issue. The CBC's diligent coverage of the recent election of Ingrid Mattson as president of the Islamic Society of North America also reflects a changing discourse. Dr. Karim notes that there are "some good journalists mak[ing] the extra effort to try and bring in nuance, even in the shorter articles, and explain the complexities of these societies."

Another possible means of improving current coverage would be to encourage journalism as a profession for Muslim women. Dr. Tayyibah Taylor, Editor-in-Chief of Azizah Magazine, emphasizes this point: "Without Muslim women working in the media, both behind the scenes and in front, and without accurate representations of Muslim women in the media, the public…will continue to think of [them] as someone to pity, shun or fear". According to Dr. Karim, there may be hope yet, and he notes that "journalists who are entering the field today have gone to school with a diverse group of people, which the previous generation of journalist may not have, so they are used to seeing classmates who are Muslim, and have come across different points of view". However, Dr. Karim emphasizes that there is much to be done by journalism schools to further cross-cultural understanding.

The current state of Western news media coverage can be said to be beset with problems of misrepresentation due to generalizations stemming from numerous sources. The direct results of these circumstances on the reporting of women in Islamic cultures are simplifications of the complexities and contexts of each woman's life. In the end, the audience is also partly responsible for the quality of reporting according to Kathy Gannon; "It's not all the media's fault either. There have been real attempts to go beyond black and white and fill in the grays but frankly, there is not a real appetite for it." There is also a rising demand for responsibility at an individual level in addition to that of the journalistic community; Dr. Tayyibah Taylor writes: "I wonder how many people exercise critical thinking while watching the news. How many of us digest everything that is said without examination?"

Mara Munro is a recent graduate of McGill University and is currently working on contract with the Centre for Intercultural Learning