Powerful Actors or Oppressed “Others”?: Violent Muslim Women in the News

In recent news, Muslim women have been highlighted for their violent actions towards in men in their society.

While comparing different articles reporting on the incident of the unnamed Iranian woman (whom I will refer to as the Bad Hijabi for convenience) who beat up the cleric who policed her for her “bad hijab,” I couldn’t help but marvel at the remarkably imaginative accompanying photos:

Iranian women dressed all in black. Via CNN.

Iranian women dressed all in black. Via Daily Mail.

Iranian women dressed all in black. Via Global Post.

Iranian women dressed – surprise! – all in black. Via Huffington Post.

Iranian women dressed in purple with pink stripes and lime green polka dots. Just kidding. They’re wearing black. Via Bloomberg.

Okay, women in Iran wear black chadors, we get it. But there’s a class and ideological dimension to the chador, just as there is a class and ideological dimension to the women in Iran who wear manteaux, show some (highlighted) hair, and wear visible makeup. In fact, just like many of the harassed women, the Bad Hijabi was probably dressed like this:

An Iranian woman wearing some colour (for real). Via NPR.

More Iranian women. Are those coloured headscarves? Via RFERL.

By showing Iranian women only as black tents, living in a country where women’s rights are in a “sordid state,” these articles serve to compare Iranian women to their Western counterparts who are fighting to “go topless.” The lack of women’s rights is framed to focus on what they cannot wear and what they cannot do, even as similar restrictions on what they cannot wear are underway in FranceNetherlands, and Canada. Once again, we are invited to pity these Muslim women who must live under such repressed conditions, and support their efforts to fight against the men who hate them.

But it’s not actually about the hijab. In an article for her blog Persian LettersGolnaz Esfandiari gives a historical explanation as to why the Bad Hijabi “lashed out” at the cleric. According to Esfandiari,

“For the past 30 years, Iranian women have been harassed, detained, fined, and threatened by the morality police, security forces, and zealots over their appearance. Women have fought back in different ways, including by pushing the boundaries of acceptable dress and criticizing the rules, which apply only to women…

Of course, when the same type of incident is reversed — a “badly veiled” women beaten in public by police — it’s simply a necessary enforcement of the dress code.”

It is only against this long context of the double standards of policing and punishment that women fight back. Yes, women –  in her article, Esfandiari also lists some other clerics who have been beaten up by other women for the same reason. While one could argue that Bad Hijabi’s violence is only in response to male violence, many members of the basij, or morality police are women.

Could we start seeing Bad Hijabi as rightfully demonstrating her personal and political dissatisfaction through violent means? A rational actor who interacts with her surroundings? She did not fight back just because she was a woman having a bad day. But in many of the articles reporting on this, Bad Hijabi’s actions are portrayed only in relation to her being a capricious woman, instead of perhaps having a broader political purpose.

As Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry write in their book Mothers, Monsters, or Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics:

 “Instead, women who commit violence have been characterized as anything but regular criminals or regular soldiers or regular terrorists; they are captured in storeyed fantasies which deny women’s agency and reify gender stereotypes and subordination.”

These authors argue that when women are violent, their violence is often explained by their gender. Narratives of violent women often categorize them into the mother, monster or whore narratives: women are violent in order to protect their children, because they are mentally disturbed, or to fight against their sexual possession by men. The following case is a fitting illustration of all three narratives.

A few weeks ago in Turkey, Nevin Yildirim shot and beheaded her rapist after she was refused an abortion, and she is now awaiting trial for murder. According to her quotes, Nevin is constructed as a protective mother (“Everyone would have insulted my children”), and mentally unstable – she mutilated the rapist’s body (“I knew he was dead. I then cut his head off”) and displayed the head in the village square – after being a victim of repeated physical and moral assault (“I knew he was going to rape me again”).

On the other hand, she had a clear ideological intention for her actions (“I saved my honour”) and seemed to have made a rational decision by killing the rapist (“Since I was going to get a bad reputation I decided to clean my honor and acted on killing him. I thought of suicide a lot but couldn’t do it.”)

However, just like Bad Hijabi, the articles on Nevin Yildirim guide the readers towards conversations about women’s rights in Turkey, abortion restrictions (here and here), the salience of honour in Turkish culture, the mental health of women who face rape, or even all three topics. Rural Muslim women are depicted to be living in such terrible conditions, where they cannot get justice when they seek it and are so desperate to the point of committing violence. Their violence always has a socio-cultural or psychological reason; they aren’t just ordinary criminals.

These articles raise important questions: Are we fascinated by these women because their violence transgresses the norms of behaviour expected of women (and Muslim women especially)? When does violence become unacceptable and when does it become special and celebrated?

Violent women already suffer from being stereotyped as a mother, monster or whore, according to Sjoberg and Gentry’s book. But violent Muslim women must face the additional stereotype of being an oppressed ‘other’ in relation to violent Western women. The news coverage of Bad Hijabi and Nevin Yildirim don’t only talk about their violent actions, but also link it to the restrictive conditions in their countries. The images and text of Bad Hijabi’s news coverage hone in on the lack of women’s rights in Iran, while the text of Nevin Yildirim’s coverage focuses on abortion and honour in Turkey. Aimed at a Western audience, this indirectly continues to reinforce the differences between Western and Muslim women. Talking about what Third World women don’t have serves to remind Western women of what they (should) have.

Although the media may intend to showcase the bravery of these women who dare to fight back, their violent actions actually serve to make Muslim women the “Other,” and consequently, construct the self-image of Western women. These depictions of Bad Hijabi and Nevin Yildirim serve to in fact, reassure women in the West that they have indeed the freedoms to dress as they wish, have abortions and seek justice for rape, even if reality in those societies too is a bit more complex.

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  • http://www.muslimspice.com Muslim Spice

    Iran also has its team of elite ninja type warriors who are women. Their pictures were published last year.

  • Rochelle

    “The news coverage of Bad Hijabi and Nevin Yildirim don’t only talk about their violent actions, but also link it to the restrictive conditions in their countries.”

    How dare them! Providing context? For shame! Including socio-political background about an event! I am appalled!!”

    Seriously though, wtf?? Are you saying its bad to give gender context to a story about a woman beating a cleric for criticizing her hijab? To perhaps *mention* that women are forced to wear hijab and face incredible restrictions? That’s orientalist or something?

    “However, just like Bad Hijabi, the articles on Nevin Yildirim guide the readers towards conversations about women’s rights in Turkey, abortion restrictions (here and here), the salience of honour in Turkish culture, the mental health of women who face rape, or even all three topics..Their violence always has a socio-cultural or psychological reason; they aren’t just ordinary criminals.”

    I’m really confused. Is this a bad thing? Are you critiquing this? I thought contextualizing violence in the broader socio-cultural landscape was a good thing??

    “The images and text of Bad Hijabi’s news coverage hone in on the lack of women’s rights in Iran, while the text of Nevin Yildirim’s coverage focuses on abortion and honour in Turkey.”

    I still understand why this is a bad thing. Its impossible to find significance out of either of these acts without considering the gender dynamics in their country.

    About your hideous Iran claims:

    “The lack of women’s rights is framed to focus on what they cannot wear and what they cannot do, even as similar restrictions on what they cannot wear are underway in France, Netherlands, and Canada.”

    Um… WHAT? I had no idea that they were going to criminalize consensual sexual relations in those countries! I had no idea they were going to dictate that a woman receive half the inheritance as her brothers! Are they going to require mandatory hijab, too? Ban women from travelling by themselves without a male guardian? Provide men right to unilateral divorce, 4 wives, and countless sigheh wives while removing nearly all women’s divorce rights and sexual autonomy?

    How the eff did this get by MMW’s editors? To compare the situation of women in Iran with the laws in the Netherlands is willful ignorance, or bombastic lampooning. It is worth talking about and struggling against gender oppression in the Netherlands. But calling it “similar” to Iran is insane.

    “But it’s not actually about the hijab.”

    Are you seriously nuts? Esfandiari’s own quote argues that its about hijab – the history of policing women’s appearance. What do you think women’s appearance means, exactly? It’s not about their eye colors. Its about HIJAB.

    “While one could argue that Bad Hijabi’s violence is only in response to male violence, many members of the basij, or morality police are women.”

    Have you ever heard of patriarchy? It means that even women can participate in a system that is fundamentally sexist and oppressive to women. Are you arguing that the beat downs of women for bad-hijab is *not* male violence????

    Those claims really appall me and should appall anyone who has actually faced violence for their clothing. (ps, the basij who threatened me were male, and tend to be).

    So… giving context is good, but too much is bad, and portraying these women as just criminals is bad, but talking about their oppression is a no-no too… so at the end of the day… we just should just stop printing news about women in the ME. Got it.

  • Tec15

    There is another incident that happened a few weeks ago that you missed, and it was discussed in this very website exactly. A French woman wearing a niqab attacked a female police officer who asked her to take it off. Unlike the case in this particular story, links about that incident were not approvingly passed around and shared by “feminists” titerring about how awesome she was for standing up for herself. That particular story was safely ignored as it didn’t offer any scope for vicarious point scoring.

    Of course, it’s almost a good thing that you didn’t bring it up, as the discussion would be immediately derailed with endless screeching about how “France isn’t like Iran don’t you know? and how dare you compare the two?” and other irrelevancies.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

      That’s an interesting example to add – but let’s have these discussions without dismissing opposing arguments as “endless screeching.”

  • http://susu-pekat-manis.blogspot.com Sya

    Salam to all,

    It was very difficult for me to write this article. When I first heard about these 2 incidents, I had mixed feelings: on the one hand, reading about women fighting back was heartening, but on the other, there was no difference in how Muslim women were represented.

    The aim of this article is the aim of MMW in general: to critique the media representation of Muslim women. I picked these two incidents because of the similarity of location: Third World, Muslim laws, reacting against male violence. My method was to look at all the different articles I could find on these 2 incidents and analyse how they framed the incident.

    Basically, I agree with Sjoberg and Gentry: both women were constructed along one or more of their 3 narratives. I argued that in addition, Muslim women were represented (as they always have been) as being oppressed. I’m not placing any value judgment on how these articles are written, but I think it’s a good start to be aware of how Muslim women are written about.

    Muslim Spice and Tec15: With all due respect, there is a lot of material on the Internet and surely, many similar incidents happening across the globe. I chose to look at these 2 incidents as case studies for the purposes of this article. Thank you for bringing up your interesting examples, which could be material for further articles inshallah.

    Rochelle: I hope you had the chance to click on the links where I mentioned France, Netherlands and Canada. My point was that Third World and Western women face similar restrictions in how they are allowed to dress (one place dictates what they must wear, the other dictates what they cannot). I apologise if you were offended by my words.

    Lastly, I know we instinctively sometimes want to defend these Muslim women for fighting back. I just wanted to raise the point that the underlying message of these articles are not in fact any different from much of other news coverage about Muslim women in general. This is just to bring it to our attention, there are probably equal numbers of people who say this is either good or bad.