Unfair Play: Doha Conference Sheds Light on Biased Images of Muslim Women in Western Media

This week in Doha, Qatar, the “East and West — Women in Media’s Eye” conference took place in Education City. The Peninsula and The Gulf Times both had pieces on the event. However, I was hard pressed to find any articles about the conference in any Western based, English language media outlet. Insha’Allah (God willing), this event will get more attention in some Western English language media outlets because the results definitely need to be heard not only by readers in the Gulf.

Saadia Izzeldin Malik, a professor at Qatar University, presented a study that looked at images of Muslim women in Africa in two major U.S. magazines, Time and Newsweek, from 1950 to 1998. The results of her study were not surprising to me and are definitely one of the reasons why I rarely read either magazine anymore:

Using content analysis, the study found that in the 44 stories of the two news magazines used (Time and Newsweek from 1950-1998), women in Muslim countries in Africa were depicted within the themes of veil, Islam, female circumcision and famine, she said.

Malik stressed that within these themes, there are different metaphors used to depict the images of Muslim women from the North and sub-Saharan Africa, saying that photos, especially during famine portray African women as predominantly helpless and needy.

The results of Malik’s study shows that the framing of Muslim women through the veil and oppressive circumstances is not limited to Muslim women from the Middle East or various parts of Asia; it is a universal narrative. As has been discussed here on MMW on various occasions, the themes of the veil, Islam, and various oppressions cloud the media’s representation of Muslim women the world over. It is important that Western media’s coverage of Muslim women becomes more nuanced and Malik’s study is part of a growing amount of literature that attests to this.

Malik’s study is important because there is not a lot of media coverage of Muslim women in Africa and also because there is even less analysis of the media coverage of Muslim women in Africa. Because the coverage of Muslim women in Africa is so limited in Western media outlets, it is especially important that the coverage of African Muslim women does not become bogged down by various limited themes. It must focus on the issues that are facing African Muslim women. Malik also stresses that the coverage of African Muslim women needs to increase.

In addition to Malik’s study on the representation of African Muslim women, another study, done by Daniela Conte, was presented on the the representation of Muslim women on Italian television. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that the representation of Muslim women on Italian television typically confirmed the stereotypical idea of a  “Muslim woman who is mainly victim of abuses and without rights.” This was an especially important part of Conte’s study:

“This portrayal confirms the male-dominated approach of media and even the tendency towards a simplification of media contents and the reduction of the complex society into stereotyping categories,” she added.

This point is really crucial because the stereotyping and simplification of Muslim women and the issues that affect us are just as much a result of patriarchy and the male-dominated approach of media as it is racism and Islamophobia in the media.

These studies, as well as the others, presented at the conference show once more how media represented of Muslim women needs to be greatly improved. All Muslim women ask for is a fair portrayal. Is that too much to ask?

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