Islamophobia: Let’s talk about gender

Islamophobia: Let’s talk about gender July 14, 2008

I recently came across this report called Muslims Under Siege. It was written as an accompaniment to a BBC Channel 4 Dispatches show called It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim, which was aired last week. (Folks in the UK and Ireland can watch the show here; unfortunately, I’m in Canada and couldn’t access it myself.)

The report is definitely worth a read. It talks about rising Islamophobia (and the acceptability of Islamophobia) in the UK, and focuses heavily on the role of the media in perpetuating stereotypes and fears. These issues are certainly not new to most people reading this blog, but the extent to which the media had a role in grossly exaggerating and even falsifying information in certain cases was staggering even to this already-cynical reader.

But what does this have to do with representations of Muslim women in particular? Well, here’s the thing: not enough. The report focuses largely on stereotypes of Muslims as “terrorists” and other similar images. It looks at people’s fears of Islam and fears of what the rising numbers of Muslims will mean in Europe. Although the report is said to have been prompted by the kafuffle over Jack Straw’s comments in 2006 about women who cover their faces, it doesn’t look in much detail about the assumptions being made about women who choose to dress in certain ways, or about Muslim women in general. There are a few examples through the report of people assuming Islam to be oppressive to women (most often because of the headscarf), but these don’t form a large part of the analysis, and the gender issue is generally not touched upon.

What worries me isn’t so much the lack of emphasis on women; it’s that by not looking explicitly at the experience of Muslim women as a category of analysis, the “Muslim” experience or images that the report discusses are often actually those of Muslim men.

To try to illustrate this better: think of the first thing that comes to mind when you try to imagine a media stereotype about Muslims. Chances are this is going to be along the lines of “terrorist” or “fundamentalist.” (Chances are this “terrorist” is male.)

Now think of the first thing that comes to mind when you think of stereotypes of Muslim women. This might be more in the realm of “oppressed” or “veiled.”

Am I wrong? I’ve certainly seen this play out before (among Muslims asked similar questions), but maybe other groups of people are more creative.

The point is, women represent approximately half of the Muslim population. Why are the images of Muslims as oppressed relegated only to discussions of the female experience? Why do we assume that images of Muslims as terrorists reflect general stereotypes of Muslims as a whole, even though these assumptions are (by and large) being made mainly about Muslim men? What would it look like for the experiences of Muslim women (including the stereotypes that we come up against) to get equal airtime in conversations about “Muslim experiences,” rather than being limited primarily to the discussions about “Islam and women”? Or for us to acknowledge the terrorist stereotype as also a gendered image that mainly encompasses men? (Of course, no two people have exactly the same “Muslim experience,” regardless of their sex, and there are many more social categories that people fall into, so this is obviously simplified here.)

Going back to the report, its own title page features a woman in niqab. Headscarves, face coverings, and burqas form a huge component of the visual images used to illustrate stories of Islam as a scary, foreign religion. I would have loved to see this discussed in the report, or to see a wider analysis of the effects of images of Islam as oppressive towards so many of its followers. In general, I wish we could see more of that in articles on Islam, rather than having to search for the material on Muslim women in order to read more about the stereotypes facing half of Islam’s followers.

(On an optimistic note, I saw this article a few weeks ago and was struck by the fact that three people in hijab were referred to, respectively, as “a Canadian Muslim,” “an American high-school Muslim star runner” and “an 11-year-old Canadian kid.” Of course, we can assume all of these people to be female, since they all wear headscarves. I found it so refreshing though to see these young women talked about as “Muslims” rather than as specifically “Muslim women.” Maybe this use of language is one way to get these situations discussed as Muslim issues in general and not just as issues specific to women.)

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