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.

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