A Web Picture of Muslim Women

One day, out of idle curiosity, I entered the phrase “Muslim women” into Google. Links to Wikipedia articles and organization homepages appeared, but what caught my eye was the row at the top: “Image results for Muslim women,” with a selection of three. My slow Internet connection made me wait for the pictures to load. The first was a photograph of two women in full black niqab. As the second loaded slowly, I expected to see a hijabi. No, just more women in full niqab — this time not black but white. Surely the third picture wouldn’t also be a niqabi. Probably a hijabi, I thought, faint hopes of a non-hijabi already gone. The third picture was far from a niqabi. It was a Miss Universe contestant, clad in nothing but a bikini and several necklaces.

Well, this is an interesting statement on the view of Muslim women, I thought. Do people see us as defined only by very conservative dress (which only few women adopt) and sex appeal? That’s what this sampling of images would suggest. I clicked to see more images. It doesn’t get much better. On the first page of images, the niqab appears disproportionately frequently. The majority of the photos link back to articles about dress: wedding dresses, ice-skating outfits, hospital gowns, and general wearing of “the veil.” There’s a disturbing image of a nude woman, face veiled, with explosives strapped to her body. Not surprisingly, it links back to an Islamophobic page about “the depraved evil that is Islam,” explaining that women are the “toilet bowls of Islam.” How lovely that this is the eighth-highest image illustrating “Muslim women.”

If you do the same search now, the results will be the same, only the image bar has moved to the bottom of the results. Below it is a list of “searches related to Muslim women.” This list also serves as an interesting insight into the image of Muslim women. It’s not a surprise that “Muslim women clothing” is first. Amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike, clothing seems the easiest thing by which to judge Muslim women. Some other depressing results were “Muslim women abuse” and “treatment of Muslim women.”

To compare, I tried searching for “Christian women,” “Jewish women,” and “Hindu women.” The related searches for first two were notably more positive (“Christian women speakers,” “famous Jewish women”) and lacked any image bar. Perhaps people have no interest in seeing such “normal”-looking women? “Hindu women,” on the other hand, did result in a sample of images. I guess Hinduism does count as exotic.

The results of my search were hardly groundbreaking — just depressing. Looking for a silver lining, I clicked on what seemed to be the one picture of a Muslim woman not defined by her clothing. It led to this very cool project by the BBC. It’s a brief collection of mini-profiles of Muslim women from a conference in New York. Unlike the Google results, this sampling of women is diverse, from ethnic background to style of dress, and realistic. While Google failed miserably, the BBC should be applauded for its excellent portrayal of real Muslim women.

According to the BBC introduction, the conference was sponsored by the American Society for Muslim Advancement. I don’t know what else ASMA has done, but this video at least is definitely an improvement from the stereotypical and objectifying image Google paints of Muslim women.

So… Toilet bowls? I think not.

  • Latoya Peterson

    I’ve read the whole article and I am still stuck on the visuals. That about says it all, doesn’t it?I’m waiting for Maxim to do an article: the Foes We Want to Fuck.

  • Zeynab

    HA!I’m working on a post that deals specifically with some of the images that come up.

  • I need my Sisters, where are You?

    OH MY GOD! I’m so happy to see a video like that. Thank you very much for posting that. I have never heard of a Muslim Women conference, where Muslim women are free to talk. The other day at Ottawa University, they had there usually speakers and they told the women to come 2 hours earlier to ask questions, because when the presentation started women are not allowed to speak because their voices are “awra”. It broke my heart, and you know what’s so funny, for the longest time I was taught that “awra” means your gentials or breast. What a paradox! Other times if you don’t wear a hijab you can’t even enter the premises. I feel so sad, as a Muslim this was the first time that I heard a women recite the Quran Karim. I hope to God, that my experiences are exceptional, and that other women have been more exposed to a diversity of people and thoughts.

  • UmAlawi

    reply to “I need”I sympathise sister – I have been turned away from many a mosque / prayer room simply for being female… I pray that one day the people who claim to be muslims will start to learn what our religion is really all about and stop getting mixed up in culture, tradition and false imagery.Also here is a link for very modest swimsuits: – modestswimsuits.co.uk

  • Lynn

    Who do you suggest is to blame for making the clothing represent what muslim women are about?

    At what point does the actions of a group of people start to define that group? Islam IS as Islam DOES and Islam IS as it’s followers act.

    It was said that some of the Christians that Mohammed was dealing with were not acting according to their religious teachings and ever since you will hear Muslims say that the book is corrupted. At what point do we say that the Qu’ran has been corrupted?

  • Aynur

    @Lynn. Are you Muslim? I’m guessing not – not to attack you or anything, but just by how you wrote you post.
    We believe that the Qur’an has not been altered in any way, unlike the Bible. It was memorized and then written down. People still memorize it today. So to say the Qur’an has been corrupted isn’t correct, but there are those people who interpret verses differently, or those who go more by the hadiths, which were not memorized. HTH.

  • Laura

    To Aynur -
    Perhaps Lynn was not suggesting corruption *in* the Qur’an, but corruption *of* the Qur’an by its followers? meaning self-appointed Muslims who appropriate what the Qur’an says for their own agenda, intentionally or not.
    Hence the idea that, in the rest of the world’s view, “[any religion] IS as its followers act”. Or that Muslims today are not faithfully following the teachings of the Qur’an (as the Christians Muhammad dealt with were not faithfully following their creed), which gives the rest of the world an incorrect and corrupt view of Islam and the Qur’an.
    That’s how I read her comment, anyway.

  • http://mystupidmine.blogspot.com Rere

    Well, that just figure what’s inside a man head : they were always wondering what kind of sexy body and pretty face behind the veils. The more covered the more they wondered. Some kind of sick fetish, I think?

  • Farah

    Just leave us alone! I’m sick of people discussing muslim women and relying completely on cultural and media stereotypes when most muslims are non arab. How about asking women how we think and feel? Non muslims aren’t bothered fo r wearing less clothing so why is such a problem that we wear more?

  • Nissa

    Its getting really depressing being objectified and dehumanised from all sides. Yes what someone wears makes a statement…but when you never ask them what that is and use your own misconceptions or when you ascribe some kind of false consciousness or brainwashing to the answers they do give you you will never understand.
    The obsession with the niqab is just getting ridiculous…it really does speak to people’s fantasies and fears all at once. Its worrying because this kind of fixation and fascination with women of a particular group with facets of sexualisation and demonisation does not really end well.