This was written by Arwa Aburawa.
Regular readers of Muslimah Media Watch may remember last year’s article criticizing the coverage of Muslim women in Marie Claire. Guest contributor Asma Uddin pointed out that the magazine’s coverage showed Muslim women as “sequestered, brainwashed, and victimized, if by no one else than their own, naive, unknowing selves.” She went on to assess four articles from the U.S. edition of the magazine that illustrated this, which you can read here.
This is where a confession comes in. When I was younger, I used to read Marie Claire, and I have vague memories of enjoying flicking through its pages—even getting excited at its coverage of Muslim women. For my masters in International Journalism, I wanted to look at the representation of Muslim women in the media, and I focused my research on the coverage of Muslim women in women’s magazines and Marie Claire in particular.
I analyzed ten years’ worth of U.K.-edition Marie Claire magazines (minus 35 magazines which were missing from the archives) to measure the amount of times Muslim women were covered. Then I used content analysis (essentially codes or themes that are counted in the articles) to assess whether Muslim women were represented as powerless victims or empowered women.
The results I found were surprising. My research found that Muslim women were covered in around 44% of all the magazines I searched: roughly, one article per magazine was deemed as representation in that issue. Most of that coverage was on Muslim women from developing countries such as Afghanistan (a whopping 11 articles) rather than those from Britain (only 4 articles), but overall Muslim women were well-represented.
When I assessed the articles, I found that exactly half portrayed Muslim women as victims, while the other half showed them as independent, empowered women. This may seem like a mixed outcome, but the fact that half of the article showed Muslim women as non-victims is a pretty unexpected result. What’s more, the veil was barely mentioned in articles as oppressive (the only two cases were in Afghanistan, so they may even be justified) and Islam was rarely mentioned as imposed or oppressive.
I don’t want to say that the notion that Muslim women are stereotyped as powerless victims oppressed is false, but just maybe it’s more complicated. Looking back, there were some really awful articles, like “My husband was a suicide bomber” or “Sold into marriage at 11,” which definitely painted Muslim women as victims. But there were also some really great articles, such as “I am Muslim and British” and one that covered the biggest matriarchal society in the world (which happens to be in the heart of Muslim Indonesia).
I am in no way saying that Marie Claire is some great women’s glossy magazine that covers Muslim women just right, because it’s not. But we also have to accept that there (usually) isn’t a concerted effort to show Muslim women as victims. Most of the time, articles are mixed and show Muslim women as both victims of their circumstances, but also empowered to make a change. In fact, most of the articles followed the typical “Triumph over Tragedy” trajectory popular in women’s magazines, which go into painful detail about how women are oppressed and then conclude that, by some miracle, a woman has stepped up to challenge this oppression and will emerge triumphant.[Womens magazines’ complete inability to trace the problems that women face to their political sources is another issue altogether, as is their complete phobia of ever suggesting political solutions. Yes, we can talk about sex, abortion, anorexia—but politics or religion (God forbid!) is completely out of the question.]
At the risk of undermining my findings into insignificance, I have to add that my research was based exclusively on the U.K.-edition of Marie Claire magazines, that one article per magazines counted as representation in that issue, and that of course researcher bias in terms of interpreting the articles is unavoidable (no matter what others will tell you). Marie Claire is also quite a pricey and highbrow magazine, which since 2009 is becoming more like your average glossy mag in terms of its focus on fashion and sensationalist articles. So things could change.
Finally, are the words and pictures on the paper the only way that readers judge Muslim women? Obviously not and there are a lot of factors such as existing views and personal experiences that will influence how readers will see Muslim women.
My research is not perfect—no research is—and although I don’t feel comfortable saying an outright “No,” I can confidently say “No, Muslim women are not consistently portrayed as victims.” What stood out to me was that articles were overwhelmingly mixed and it would probably depend on the reader whether they felt that the Muslim woman was represented as a victim or not.
For example, there was an article titled “I am a suicide bomber,” about a Palestinian woman who tried to blow herself up. Although I concluded that she was portrayed as a victim, I was honestly surprised at the amount of agency she was granted. The entire article was in her own words and she explained that she took the decision entirely on her own, and that she did it for revenge against Israeli oppression and violence that she had personally witnessed.
While this example does illustrates the serious topics that were on discussion when it came to Muslim women (which Uddin also points out in her piece), there were also articles in Marie Claire on light-hearted topics, such as celebrating Eid, Muslim fashion, or visiting the beach.
Okay, so sometimes coverage of Muslim women is so bad that you want to just scream at your TV/computer screen/radio/magazine, but most of the time, it’s mixed. This isn’t a neat conclusion to my question, but I think it perfectly illustrates the complex and contradictory way that Muslim women are represented in the media today.