From Gaga to Malala: Muslim Women as Stereotypes and Exceptions

Editor’s note: Malala Yousafzai has been extensively covered in media lately, and several MMW writers wanted to weigh in on the way she is being portrayed.  Today’s post is by Amina; stay tuned for reflections from Nicole and Eren later this week.

Lady Gaga’s pink burqa. [Source].

Just a couple of months ago, Lady Gaga wore a ridiculous, sheer pink burqa. While I didn’t buy her reasons for it, she allegedly did it as some vague, old attempt at empowering Muslim women by trashing a form of hijab.(Read Eren’s take on “Pink Burqas, Gagas and Madonnas” here.) Mariam Elbaprovided a great analysis of Gaga’s “Bura/Aura”  lyrics for PolicyMic; the lyrics include “I’m not a wandering slave, I’m a woman of choice … My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face.” All of that, as Elba, points out, sounds okay, maybe even promising. And then, the chorus dives into stereotyping and  hypersexualizing with  “Do you want to see me naked, lover? Do you want to peek underneath the cover? Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura? … Do you wanna touch me? Let’s make love.”

As Elba writes:

“The heavily erotic images ultimately dehumanize and degrade burqa-wearing women and turn them into animalistic beings. In a society that automatically associates the burqa with Muslim women and Middle Eastern culture, a song like this only adds onto the monolithic image of the Muslim woman being quiet, sheltered, and owned by a man.”

With her recent American tour, internet campaign to award her the Nobel Peace Prize, and alright media bonanza, stories about Malala embed a similar rhetoric. The mainstream media has largely personified her an exception, rather than the rule; as if with her courage, bluntness, and conviction, she is unlike most Muslim women. Omid Safi’s post, “How to Keep Malala from Being Appropriated” makes a great case for the need to avoid an “exceptionalizing narrative.”

Don’t get me wrong. Malala is indeed incredible. But the media discourse about Malala often insinuates that her commitments to women’s education are derived from Western influences and values juxtaposed, again, against the backdrop of stereotypes that characterize Muslim women as downtrodden and dreaming to be saved by the white knight in shining armour.

Her boldness seems acceptable largely because of that narrative. The reactions to other “brazen” Muslim women aren’t nearly as warm. When the Boston bombing suspects were named, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of the suspects, came immediately and fiercely to their defence.  Zubeidat was rarely grieving, somber or apologetic in the media glare. Instead, she remained consistently defiant and insistent of her sons’ innocence. The media reactions to Zubeidat were almost instantly vicious, labelling her a terrorist and questioning the “extreme” nature of her religious views. If she were less outspoken, more apologetic, and weakly sobbing behind a microphone, Zubeidat would have better fit social expectations of a grieving mother and of Muslim women, in general.

Then, there are the stories that rarely make a ripple on the Western media circuit – like the “Speed Sisters,” a group of female Palestinian street racers that draw crowds along the roads of Ramallah. And the Saudi women who embrace regular acts of civil disobedience and challenge their social status quo by driving. And the Sudanese women who recently staged a silent protest demanding female detainees be released. I’m grateful for Anneke’s weekly Friday Links because her posts generally host links to healthy counternarratives of Muslim women, in contrast to the typical stuff we read about in the mainstream media.

There’s something immensely telling about the stories mainstream Western media decides to promote and those that get swept under the rug. The stories that are told and ways in which they are told say as much about the storytellers as those that are the actual subjects of discussion. Mainstream media actively homogenizes Muslim women into meek, weak beings who lack the audacity and know-how to challenge patriarchal systems. That narrative – one that denies a Muslimah’s autonomy – makes it difficult, if not downright impossible, to engage with Muslim women on the basis of solidarity. Instead, the West just sells itself as the ultimate saviour, bound by a superficial chivalrous oath to protect Muslim women from those evil, evil Muslim men who must ALL be pledged to the Taliban.

As I establish my professional career, I’m cognizant that I stand on the shoulders of giants, that my values, passions, and drives come from brilliant, fierce Muslim women: my unapologetic Nani, my strong-as-steel mother, countless activists, and brilliant academics. Yes, I am a Canadian woman. But my opinions on education, independence, empowerment, and self-sufficiency are heavily borne from my cultural and religious influences as a Muslim woman and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. While the Muslimahs I know are exceptional, they are by no means the exception. If the mainstream, Western media ever intends to genuinely engage with Muslim women, then it’s seriously time to acknowledge the depth and breadth inherent to Muslimahs.

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Ignorant Solidarity with Muslim Sportswomen

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