Mainstream Western Media: Let Go of the Headscarf!
-By Yasmina Mrabet
Connection Point Manager
“The mainstream Western media would have you think that Arab and Muslim women are so deep in their oppression that they rarely, if ever, fight for their rights or speak their minds or impact any change.”
Mainstream Western media are rampant with misconceptions about Arab and Muslim cultures, particularly when it comes to women. Stereotypes are exacerbated in movies, talk shows, and on news outlets, where many times self-proclaimed ‘experts’ with little or no cultural knowledge of the Middle East are speaking on behalf of the region and its people. This kind of reporting has contributed to and perpetuated cultural violence, and continues to play a large role in maintaining a historically tense relationship between the ‘West’ and the Arab and Muslim ‘world.’
The concept of cultural violence was introduced to the field of conflict resolution by Johan Galtung. It is the contextual manipulation of symbolic components or features of a particular culture for the purpose of justifying direct or structural violence against that culture. The mainstream Western media is guilty of manipulating symbolic features and components of Arab and Muslim cultures to perpetuate misconceptions and unauthorized narratives about these cultures. What I am saying is not new. Edward Said’s Orientalism was published in 1978, and in it, Said explained the term ‘Orientalism’ as a discourse and style of thought used by the West to dominate the ‘Orient.’ Said further explained that this distorted style of thought and discourse, which I say is cultural violence, can result in the internalization of ideas about oneself and about the ‘other’ that are inaccurate and historically unfounded.
When it comes to Arab and Muslim women, the mainstream Western media has exaggerated and in many cases completely fabricated a slew of ideas that lie at two extreme ends of a spectrum. At one end, women are exoticized and depicted as submissive sexual servants in so-called ‘harems.’ At the other end (more popular these days), women are essentialized and depicted as silent, oppressed, supporters of terrorism and shrouded in black. Jack Shaheen, the author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, examined the negative portrayal of Arabs in the Hollywood film industry. He first found that Arabs are associated simultaneously with Islam, and that Arab women are humiliated, demonized, and eroticized. In Hollywood films, Shaheen explains, Arab women never speak, they never work, and they are never recognized for achievements. One element Shaheen highlights is the importance of clothing in Hollywood films, and how it is manipulated as a cultural symbol.
It really makes you think … when it comes to how the mainstream Western media covers women and issues impacting women from Arab and Muslim societies … how much of that coverage is focused on one item of clothing: the headscarf. There are countless articles and news stories incessantly making statements about the headscarf, defining the headscarf, describing the headscarf, questioning the headscarf … the hijab, the veil, the burqa, the headscarf, the headscarf, the headscarf.
The headscarf is an example of a cultural and religious symbol that has been politicized and demonized by the mainstream Western media, resulting in distorted understandings of its symbolic meanings infiltrating our consciousness. It is an unauthorized politicization; the attributions of particular meanings to the practice of veiling that are either exaggerated or inaccurate. The social and political implications of the practice of veiling in the Middle East have transformed throughout its long history, which many do not realize began well before the revelation of Islam. Today, the strength of the veil’s place in Orientalist discourse has created almost an inability for the West to understand it as a religious and cultural practice, rather than as a marker of backwardness and oppression.
As Edward Said warned, Orientalist discourse on the veil has also been internalized by Arabs and Muslims themselves. We have seen discrimination against women wearing the hijab in Arab news broadcasting companies. We have seen bans against this article of clothing in several Arab and Muslim countries. Turkey is a Muslim county in which veiled women suffered as a result of a ban on the headscarf from academic institutions. Although this was finally lifted in 2008, we see what can happen as a result of the systematic spread of misinformation. This false discourse constitutes an assault on women who wear the veil, forcing them to make the implicit statement that they represent and support values that are incompatible with modernity and secularism, and instead compatible with extremism. This is the power of a false discourse, and the media has the power to perpetuate that discourse. The mainstream Western media has, and continues to do so.
The power of the media lies in the attention it commands from its consumers, which gives it the opportunity to act as a tool of education. When this tool is misused, the result is miseducation. We are not only talking about the miseducation of Westerners about Arab and Muslim societies—but as mentioned with the example of headscarf bans—we are also talking about the miseducation of Arabs and Muslims about their own cultural symbols. When it comes to Arab and Muslim women, the mainstream Western media continue to perpetuate erroneous notions…and they just can’t seem to let go of the headscarf.
Did any mainstream Western media outlets report on the anti-rape campaign led by the Lebanese women’s movement? Do they cover the work of women who lead the Peaceful Families Project, which provides workshops for Imams to discuss how to assess risks and collaborate with service providers in cases of domestic violence in the American Muslim community? Have there been any reports on Palestinian women activists who are using nonviolent tactics in political action against Israeli occupation? Do the mainstream Western media cover the work of Muslim women in the American public service sector? Do they cover stories on Arab women in the arts? How about the perspectives of Arab women educators? Arab women peacebuilders? No. The mainstream Western media would have you think that Arab and Muslim women are so deep in their oppression that they rarely, if ever, fight for their rights or speak their minds or impact any change.
Well, maybe it’s time to turn away from the mainstream Western media to get real news on Arab and Muslim women. Luckily, we actually have somewhere to turn to…the virtual world of the internet, where you are now reading this article. To the blogs, to the comments sections, to the online campaigns and web-based collectives—this is where we can begin to reach across physical boundaries, and reach past cultural symbols that have been politicized without permission. New internet media have created a new opportunity for education, public discourse and social activism. They have given a voice to a large segment of civil society that has been historically silenced—women.
Dear Mainstream Western Media: Guess what? You can no longer control the narratives of the lives and experiences of Arab and Muslim women.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.