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Islam's women under Western eyes

About the author
Gema Martín-Muñoz is Professor of the Sociology of the Arab and Islamic World at the Autonoma University of Madrid.

International events suffer peculiarly from the impact of the mass media on the formation of ‘public opinion’. Unlike home reporting, there are no alternative channels to balance the ‘message’.

The media not only constitutes almost the sole source of information for the images and attitudes that they create. They also perpetuate historically inherited stereotypes and cultural imaginaries that form part of the national collective memory bank.

The imperial imaginary

The work of our sociology department on cultural stereotypes of Islam and the Arab world, in both the education system and communications media, has identified a series of common trends. This suggests that there is an ‘agreed cultural paradigm’ informing the way Western societies look at Arab and Muslim societies, which favours, even determines, the analysis of subjects from those regions. It perpetuates negative, mutually divisive perspectives on what are seen in a rather Manichean way as ‘Islam and the West’.

Far from increasing our knowledge of the ‘Other’, more often than not this treatment leads to distorted conclusions, which strengthen feelings of rejection and incomprehension.

Both Islamic and Western histories tend to emphasise the bellicosity of their relationship, presenting the historical process as one of continuous confrontations (Byzantium v. the Islamic empire, the Christian Kings v. Al–Andalus, the Ottoman v. Europe, Arab and Islamic nationalism against the West). This is just as true of the Western media treatment of the Islamic world – antagonism and threat increasingly predominate in our minds, with the result that Arab and Muslim otherness have come to serve as a ‘repellent’ in the complex construction of both European and Western identities in general.

This deep–seated cultural reflex has been renewed and reinterpreted since the Iranian ‘Islamic Revolution’ through the so–called ‘threat of Islamic fundamentalism’. As a direct result, numerous Western experts in international politics are now privileging a global theory, which predicts a confrontation between the West and the Islamic world.

Based on the simple premise of a negatively interpreted ‘cultural difference’, the essentialist view which informs this theory warns that the cultures are closed universes, unchanging in their fundamental aspects; therefore inferior or backward (immutably traditionalist, irrational, aggressive). This deep–rooted ‘determinist’ view of the Muslim world sees it as a static universe in which the doors of social change and progress have been closed because of innate religious (or tribal in some cases) factors. Everything tends to be interpreted and explained not as a result of specific political or socio–economic situations, but as a consequence of Islam itself.

What occurs happens because ‘they’ are Muslim, without taking into account local history and geography, the concrete social structure or particular human experience. On the contrary, these are explained only as manifestations of the extreme religiosity considered inherent in Islamic culture.

By contrast, the values of the West are presented as a unique paradigm applicable to the whole of humanity, so that cultural diversity is experienced not as a variety of options of equal value, but as a hierarchical structure in the scale modernisation backwardness. This ethnocentric cosmopolitanism, which exclusively attributes to itself the paradigm of rationality and progress, tends to define the Muslim world as remote from modernity.

Of course, there is nothing new to the historic practice of stigmatising, demonising, or ridiculing large groups of people with whom the West has had long colonial and post–colonial relations. What is new is the rising dismay and militancy that has recently targeted the more damaging cultural manifestations of that relationship. The post World War II global order and some very relevant events including the Gulf War (1990–91) have opened this new era.

Muslim women make an appearance

One research project has analysed the representation of Muslim women in the Spanish press. It looked at news items appearing in national and regional newspapers between January 1995 and June 1997. There were 417 news items selected in various categories: news reports, interviews, feature stories, opinion and photographs. Special attention was given to the images of women in photographs. Out of the total of 332 photographs, 34 per cent of the total sample portray Muslim women. Most of these women were displayed within hard news sections (18 per cent on the front page and 68 per cent on inside news pages).

Analysis shows that Western media interest in women in Islamic countries tends to be restricted to the Muslim dimension. In only 14.9 per cent was the subject of women not related to the representation of ‘woman and Islam’, or rather, ‘woman as a victim of Islam’. Inequalities between the sexes are not exclusive to Islamic culture, but in comparative terms such an exclusive emphasis rarely occurs elsewhere.

Moreover, within a vocabulary which attempts to bring attention to the rights of Muslim women, fundamental rights that women must have in any egalitarian society – social rights in general, educational rights, public liberties – are ignored in favour of a focus on those symbols which receive most ideological attention in the West, such as the veil, or evidence of Islamic fundamentalism.

Few articles cover the job–related, personal, political or creative aspects of the lives of women. But the same Islamic culturalist ethnocentrism also makes it hard to understand those dynamics that do not reproduce our construction of modernity and our secular–feminist model.

The root of the problem is that historical experience in Muslim countries and in European countries has been very distinct. In the latter, religion was progressively marginalised as the line of progress and modernisation advanced. In Muslim countries, Islam’s cultural impact does indeed extend beyond the strictly religious. It provides a framework from which social groups derive their references and their historic experience.

According to Fatima Mernissi, the emancipation of women is achieved ‘through a re–reading of the past and through a re–appropriation of everything that has structured our civilisation. The mosque and the Koran belong to women as much as the stars that move in the heavens. We have the right to all these riches to construct our modern identity. To reduce Islamic women to being obedient observers is to ignore the dynamic of religious rebellion.’

Algerian journalist Salima Ghezali agrees: ‘The foreign observer tends too often to consider “modernist” women as the sole expression of female emancipation whose message is understood in the West. However, Islamic women also fight, in their way, against their condition of oppression.’ (El País 30/4/1995)

Western communications media offer a simplistic and remote reflection of the reality in these countries mainly because they ignore, or fail to absorb, the conscious and deliberate support given an Islamic identity by millions of women. It is not that all Muslim women feel the same, but that the differences between them are not established according to the criteria: Islamic woman = traditional and backward woman; Westernised woman = modern woman.

The factor that distinguishes ‘traditional’ from ‘modern’ woman is not the veil, whose various forms reflect a variety of social realities (such as a political position, a religious affirmation or a social practice), but whether or not you have had access to education. Today, many young, urban and cultured women in Islamic countries are busy modifying Islamic socio–cultural references in the traditional framework that constrains them. However, those women linked most closely to Muslim identity, or directly implicated in Islamic militancy, are mostly absent from the sources covered by the communications media we studied. Of the 417 news reports analysed, we found only four references to them (0.95 per cent).

Victims and the veiled

Meanwhile, three characteristics inform the dominant representation: the passive attitude of Muslim women, their role as ‘victim’ and as ‘veiled’.

Theirs is a ‘passive attitude’ in the specific sense of a media criterion that defines people not as individuals carrying out an initiative related to work, or seeking media attention, but as the object of domineering family relations or as symptomatic of a cultural landscape over which they have no say. Muslim women frequently constitute a ‘cultural imaginary’ linked to Islam. They are rarely a source of information about crucial events in their communities. They appear essentially as observers rather than active participants.

The image of the oriental woman is constantly reiterated as a subordinate figure suffering from religious oppression. The veil, reclusion or marginalisation are the usual themes, symbols of both the relations and limitations of women in Islamic lands. The veil is a sign of mystery (in accordance with centuries–old Western stereotypes of exotic orientalism) or of submission and oppression (the traditionalist view of an anonymous, backward woman, subjugated by religious obligation). Victimisation of Muslim women is the basic mainstay of their image in our communications media, whether against the setting of the Algerian and Afghan conflicts, or in the context of their personal and family lives.

Women in Arab and Muslim countries are basically negative news, linked to violence, and figuring as a topic, but rarely included as sources. Of the 417 articles we analysed, those in which women appeared carrying out active roles represented 27.5 per cent.

Veiled meanings too

The superficial interpretation that associates veiled women with submission and the unveiled with liberation dominates the media presentation. It ignores the fact that the world of dress in Muslim countries today hides a diverse universe, populated with different constituencies and generations. In this way, the ‘haïk’ (traditional) veil and the ‘niqab’ (fundamentalist) veil, the Afghan ‘burka’ and the modern Islamic ‘hejab’ mark the considerable differences between the new generation and previous ones, among those who study and go out and the reclusive women, between those who assert themselves and those who are submissive.

What Western media give us to understand is that the veiled woman carries out no responsibilities and has no professional affiliations. The reality is not only difficult for the West to accept, but is irritating, in so far as it fiercely contradicts long–held Western views.

That women, after suffering discrimination and marginalisation, should voluntarily opt to adopt Islamic doctrine and even demand to wear the veil is difficult for the West to accept and, therefore, the communications media hide such examples, or simply take no interest in them. They do not wish to see in any other light women who, in the eyes of European and Western societies in general, are ‘victims of Islamic macho violence or Islamic fundamentalism’. They are not inclined to see them as victims of Western incomprehension, let alone acknowledging that there are states which prevent women from using this symbol of Muslim identity, against their will.

Hence, the French Education Minister’s statement to the press regarding the wearing of headscarves in schools in 1994. This described the veil not only as a religious mark of distinction, but also as a ‘sign of women’s submission’ that ‘symbolised the inequality of sexes and the confinement of women’. This statement only confirmed a perspective that the West has of the Orient. It never occurred to the minister that some young women may want to wear the veil as a gesture of identity and cultural self–affirmation.

Sociological surveys show that women who wear the veil voluntarily, those whom the communications media resist mentioning because of cultural prejudices, give various reasons doing so (professional, feminist, nationalist or anti–imperialist). Amongst these, the religious explanation in its strict sense is hardly ever a prime motivation.

Western assumptions may be further challenged by a 1994 study of Algerian women indicating shared perspectives between women wearing the ‘hejab’ and those not doing so: 91 per cent of the former and 96 per cent of the latter want to pursue a profession when they finish their studies.

Of each group, 44 per cent consider that women can do any job, including wage labour; 96 per cent of those wearing the veil and 75 per cent without believed that there were such things as ‘women’s jobs’; 49 per cent with the veil and 66 per cent without believed that both sexes should receive an equal education; and 71 per cent of the former and 96 per cent of the latter said it should be the same education.

Who do we see?

Here, we noticed an intriguing duality or mismatch. As sources of information, almost exclusive attention is given to Westernised women in Arabic and Islamic countries, or those from ‘modernist’ circles. The secular–feminist sector, according to the Western model, is undoubtedly the most familiar source of information (in fact the only one) to the reporter, although it is not the most representative of these societies. But, in photographs, the traditionalist image of the veiled woman predominates.

Where Muslim women were the source of information, they were all from the elite (writers, journalists, political representatives) and of these: 64.2 per cent were about the Algerian conflict; 10.7 per cent were about the Palestinian–Israeli conflict; 10.7 per cent were about the status of Muslim women; 3.5 per cent were about political participation; 3.5 per cent were about Islamism; 7.1 per cent were about different political questions.

The Algerian conflict is especially representative in this regard. The greater the level of violence in a political conflict, the more the communications media feel the need to establish who is guilty. One of the commonest ways of doing this is to locate the victim of this violence. To concentrate on the victims of conflict, or to personalise it, is considered bad practice by many media experts, because it avoids serious discussion or explanation of underlying social, economic and political factors.

However, the treatment of women as victims in the case of Algeria is paradigmatic. This heightened preoccupation with the subject of women is particularly striking in war reporting. Although few of the 90,000 victims of the recent Algerian conflict were women, the reader’s interest has been directed to their experience. This has the effect of deferring any thorough excavation of the underlying causes of conflict, which tends, therefore, to be presented as the illogical product of irrational violence – an outcome which is conveniently reinforced by a cultural and religious contempt for women, simply because they are women.

To conclude

The image of Muslim women in the media is usually linked to Western imaginaries and reproduces the thinking necessary to perpetuate this perspective.

Women are often called upon to illustrate a preconceived cultural landscape that endorses the ‘agreed paradigm of Islam in the West’: distant, passive, exotic, victim, veiled, reacting to events instead of actively participating in them.

In the case of Muslim women there is a double prejudice, the product of an accumulation of contradictions: those derived from the differing media treatment of men and women, and those derived from a deep–rooted orientalist ideology about Islamic culture.

This situation creates and perpetuates negative stereotypes in public opinion, discriminating against Muslims settled in our countries, preventing our societies from experiencing solidarity with Muslim women. Hence, sometimes when we think we are supporting their emancipation, we are actually supporting those authoritarian powers responsible for their predicament as the targets of legal discrimination.

The result is that we are left with no understanding of modern lifestyles that do not necessarily depend on secularism for a delivery system. At times, our paternalism leads us to feeling sorry for women who are quite capable of defining themselves, despite their lives having been defined up until now either by Europe or by authoritarian regimes. At times, when we denounce the lack of equality for Muslim women, we forget to mention the way that men as well as women are deprived of their democratic rights in these societies. Sometimes we confine our sources of information to those who reflect our own cultural image or dress code. All this leads to a lack of understanding among most people, and encourages the formation of radical identity seeking among a minority.

Cultural plurality is based on the necessary knowledge of the Other as it is, not as we would like it to be. The media representation of women in Muslim countries, apart from its coverage of unacceptable acts of discrimination, mainly serves to perpetuate a set of cultural expectations that denigrate a vast and diverse cultural world. Irresponsible generalisations are made. Multi–dimensional realities are hidden. The forces for change that do exist are ignored. Testimonies and actors are very selective. And patriarchy in the Muslim world is presented as an extreme, immutable, almost exclusive case, the product of an irreversible cultural determinism.

But it may be that social change in Muslim societies, and the decline of patriarchal power, must spring from democratisation and development from within. Perhaps these societies must have the chance to define themselves, without having to be defined by the West.


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