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.

  • Safina B Said

    Great title. Surviving a bullet to her head and having a fiercely supportive activist father make her an exception.

  • Rochelle Terman

    “Don’t get me wrong. Malala is indeed incredible. But…” And thus the prelude to yet another logically unintelligible rant about how much Malala sucks. But wrapping it in a “don’t get me wrong, Malala’s great, but…….” so as to confer plausible deniability.

    “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.”

    OK – if you don’t see why comparing the media’s reactions towards Malala to their (media is plural, editors) reaction towards Tsarvaeva might be a little inappropriate, I don’t think we can have a serious conversation about this. Do you really think the media didn’t like Tsarvaeva because she defied soft-spoken expectations? Um, they didn’t like her because she supported two terrorists. The media wasn’t too keen on Timothy McVey’s family either .I’m not saying their reaction towards Tsarvaeva was cool, but this logic is just so, so strange. Malala’s in the news because of her connection to a nobel peace prize. Tsarvaeva was in the news because of her connection to a bombing.

    But no let’s reduce all representations and politics around Muslim women to a binary of Western-puppet and vs. authentic anti-Western native. You wanna talk about likable and unlikeable stereotypes? 1) A native Muslim woman who takes on the Taliban and other right-wing religious orgs as her main priority , and 2) talks about in the West. If a woman fits these two criteria, she is libel to be called a Western puppet (even if she talks about drones), a native informant, an Uncle Tom, or a “drama” queen (see the other MMW article on this that asked if we were “sick of hearing about” a girl who was shot in the head for going to school — lovely)

    Sometimes I think you guys are perpetuating this “good Muslim bad Muslim” thing as much as anybody else is.

    And cue tec15 is 3… 2… 1…

    • Tec15

      Heh, Can’t disappoint you ;) . But you should know all about native informants and Western appropriation from the drivel and the military coup apologia that is regularly spouted by the Centre for Secular Space.

      Gee, I would like to listen to you but you have such an unbroken record of supporting native informants and Islamophobic stooges like Taj Hargey, it’s hard to discern when you are actually making a genuine point and not kneejerkingly standing up for the Western media. Ciao.

      • Rochelle Terman
        • kristariley

          Okay, back on topic please… There’s enough to say about Malala and the media stuff around her that there’s no need to resort to unrelated personal attacks.

          (As a side note, apologies for an earlier comment from me saying “Approuve” somewhere in this thread – a typo in trying to moderate the comments ended up posting as a comment instead.)

  • Syed Tahseen Raza

    A very nice thoughtful write up..such interjections are urgently needed


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