Choose Your Caption: Niqab as Illustrative of, Well, Everything

The development of a university course about Muslim women in the media and the threats faced by Muslim women activists would appear to be two very different stories. Yet they were both illustrated by nearly identical photographs: a lone Muslim woman wearing black clothing + black niqab. This is far from the first time such unrelated photographs have been shoehorned into coverage of Muslim women.

Photo via the Guardian, alongside an article about a class on Muslim women and media.

While it’s tempting to stifle a yawn, these choices of stock photographs should be challenged because it is wrong on many levels. Here’s why:

Only a minority of Muslim women wear the niqab. Contrary to the bingo card-worthy cliches, most Muslim women (estimated worldwide population of over 500 million), do not live in Saudi Arabia (total population 26.2 million), or Afghanistan (total population 29.1 million), countries commonly associated with the face-veil. While face-veil wearing can be found in various forms across the world, it remains a minority practice. This remains true in the UK, where both articles were written.

Making the default as Muslim women = niqab wearer is making an inaccurate image as the default. If the media wants to talk about Muslim women, it should portray us in more representative ways, and here’s a tip: large numbers of Muslim women, if not in fact the majority, don’t wear hijab either.

And this photo was from the Independent, in an article on Muslim women activists facing threats.

Another issue with the usage of photographs of niqab wearers is that they are frequently stock photographs. They do not feature anyone actually involved in the story, but rather a Muslim women is used merely as an illustrative prop.

Then there comes the question of agency. Did the women in these photographs give their permission for their photograph to be taken? Did they agree for it to be used to illustrate news stories that discuss anything from niqab bans to domestic violence? Did they actually get paid for the photograph in the first place?

Such lazy usage of stock photographs is indicative of a wider attitude of stereotyping and dismissiveness towards Muslim women.

Friday Links
A Potential Burqa Ban at the Federal Level in Switzerland
South Africa’s Open Mosque : Media, Feminist Critiques and “Unopen” Mosques.
Malalagate, Patriotism, and Disingenuous Agendas
  • musicalchef

    Yup, you’ve just hit upon a pet peeve of mine! :-)

  • Woah

    I’ve met that person in the bottom photgraph.

  • wood turtle

    This morning I thought Manal al-Sharif had died due to the The Telegraph pairing her picture with the headline: Saudi female driver who defied ban dies in fatal accident.

    Examples like this and the niqaab as stock “Muslim woman” footage is endemic of convenient shock media — and completely unacceptable. Thanks for bringing it up for discussion.

  • Tim

    The absense of consent might explain why niqabi photos are so popular. Good article.

  • Jannah

    Thank you. For so long I have been getting so tired of the niqabi sisters getting all the face-time (so to speak) in the media. The image is a cheap and lazy shorthand supposedly representing all Muslim women. Anyone who didn’t personally know any Muslim women would get the idea that we all go around in niqab. Of all stereotypes, it’s the one most taken for granted. I’ve been wishing somebody would criticize this cheap propaganda.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Thank you for your comments.

    I really am troubled by the idea that not showing your face = no need for your consent.

    Usually stock footage involves models who have been paid for their time and given permission for the footage to be used. We do not know if this is the case when pictures of women wearing niqab are used.

    Insha Allah, I plan on forwarding this post to both The Guardian and The Independent. It will be interesting to see what their response is.

  • BintYounus

    *I* wear the niqaab and find it annoying how blah all the stock pictures are!
    I always wonder why there are never any pictures of regular hijabis, or even of niqaabis doing stuff – as opposed to staring into the camera, or off the to the side a bit. I would love to see a picture of a hijaabi blowing bubbles or playing soccer (like my best friends), or a niqaabi in a lab coat or on the swings at the park (like me).