The Swiss political and media landscape is charged with loaded images of Muslim women. The French side of Swiss media (namely, in newspapers like Le Temps) usually presents a balanced view of Muslim women, and television shows are of a decent quality, especially compared to television in the U.S.
So I had no reason to be anything but excited for the December 16th episode of “Temps Present” on the TSR. But the show fell short, starting out with a reminder that we are a little over a year after the minaret vote (in Switzerland, not Egypt or France). The anchor makes the point that Swiss women voted over 80% in favor of banning minarets, compared to a little less than 60% of the voters as a whole. This, the anchor summarized, was due to Swiss women’s concerns about the place of women in Islam. The show thus opens with a question: should we be afraid of the place women have in Islam? This is where my hopes were dashed–the starting point of the show begins with Swiss women’s fears of TEH ISLAMZ.
So why do a show about Egypt and France? The show was divided into segments based in two locations: Egypt and the French “banlieue” in the Lyon suburbs. Why not Swiss Muslim women on this prime time show? Are they just not sexy enough for news? Switzerland is a small country without a lot of Muslims, but…really? They couldn’t find any Swiss Muslim women?
The anchor reminds us that in the Egypt segment, our journalists had a tough time “asking the hard questions” about the “place of women in Islam, which isn’t excellent” but that, luckily they found a “courageous minority who are willing to tackle topics like divorce, sex and religious freedom. In their quest to show its Swiss audience some “liberated” Muslim women in Egypt, we got a star turn from sexologist Dr. Heba Kotb and two women’s rights activists (whose interventions were the best in the show). This was in comparison to the “creeping Shari’ah” segment of the show with non-liberated, covered sisters participating in a covert halaqat (religious devotional gatherings) in Cairo.
The journalists wonder why, in the face of such obvious oppression in Egypt (which they showed in the earlier segments), women are still “turning to Islam.” For me, it is apples and oranges. There is a patriarchal system in place that indeed rests on Islam to some extent, but why must women turning to Islam be seen as cashing into a male dominated system? It’s the old chestnut for religious feminists: is the opium of the people really just the opium of the patriarchy?
I was willing to give “Temps Present” a pass for filming a segment in France rather than Switzerland, if the segment were to teach me something new and interesting. But the segment in France was typically clichéd, with the same old story: footage in Vaulx-en-Velin, one of the most famous “hoods” of the Lyon suburbs, the tiny prayer room in the projects, a portrait of the overzealous convert, the born Muslim girl who “doesn’t need to wear hijab to prove she is Muslim” (a concept I don’t disgree with, but am tired of it being presented as a paradigm in France).
Whatever chance they had to show “French Islam” in all its diversity was squandered. And what is the point anyway? Although Lyon is less than a hundred miles away from Geneva, the daily lives of French Muslims is quite dissimilar to what the majority of Swiss Muslims experience. The socioeconomic status and ethnic composition of Muslim minorities in Switzerland is quite different from France. So not only was show’s coverage in France tired, it was also irrelevant.
Despite the disappointed tone of this post, I don’t think the show was bad per se. The journalism was the usual high Swiss quality and the show’s participants, especially the women in Egypt, are doing valuable work for women. What bothered me was that, as a Muslim woman in Switzerland, I found the angles taken by the journalists overused, tired and above all, clichéd.
Understanding that there is a major divorce problem in Egypt or that the Tabligh are taking over the French suburbs doesn’t give me, or the Swiss audience, any insight about what this means for us. The Swiss public is pretty savvy (their questionable votes on minarets aside, of course) and there were chances not taken in this show to present, or at least tie in, a uniquely Swiss point of view.
For those who speak French, the show is available for download on iTunes for free, and is also available in streaming on the show’s website.