From being represented as individuals who are hidden away from the public eye to being associated with terrorism, many argue that the representation of Muslim women within popular culture and history tends to miss the mark. In this article, we examine and analyse the traditional stereotypes that are often associated with Muslim women in the mainstream media and explain how these are often problematic to our progress and identity.
Muslim women have always been portrayed as being ‘closed off’ from society, as individuals who are secondary characters, held back and silenced by overbearing and dominant male figures in their lives, which pays tribute to the orientalist lens through which Muslim women are often examined. A clear example is seen in western depictions of the imperial harems of the Mughal and Ottoman empires, which were seen to be ‘exotic’ and ‘closed off from the public eye’, thus creating a narrative that described Muslim/Eastern women in a sexualised and oppressed manner.
Aside from this prominent narrative, covered women have either become the poster girls of oppression, sitting on the front of glossy magazines who use such images to catch the eyes of those who live in a society where the average woman does not cover, or the ‘wives’ of individuals who carry out heinous crimes against humanity.
Not only are we robbed of our identity and objectified, but we become associated with ideas and images that neither represent us and are quite frankly, derogatory. Add to this the fact that Muslim women are the least likely to be employed despite being fully qualified, and with recent reports highlighting the fact that Muslims have the least amount of social mobility, it can be argued that Muslim women have also been robbed of the opportunity to set the record straight. This is the harsh reality for Muslim women who live in the West – a place many of us call home.
Many within the West are quick to call out the atrocities that are committed against women in seemingly ‘Muslim’ countries, yet the representation we are given within popular culture is just as destructive not only to our identity, but also in its portrayal of Islam to those who already consider it to be ‘alien’.
Why is it that Muslim women are only talked about in relation to men in prominent Western discourse? Why are we not celebrated for our own individual achievements? But more than anything, why do powerful media outlets stereotype us to fit these conventional ideas so greatly that the average Muslim women becomes invisible?
Within the UK, the clearest example can be seen through the show ‘The Real Housewives Of ISIS’, which satirised the daily lives of women who were married to members of ISIS. The show received widespread criticism, with many explaining how such shows simply fuelled the anti – Muslim sentiment. Many also argued that because these women were visibly Muslim, it would appropriate the insults and other Islamophobic comments many Muslim women face, such as being called a ‘terrorist’. Not only does this demonstrate how existing stereotypes surrounding Muslim women are problematic, but how there needs to be honest discussion about the way the Muslim community is represented in popular culture.
As seen from the show referenced above, Muslim women are constantly linked to their male counterparts, thus reinforcing this narrative of Muslim women to be weak, fragile and incapable of existing without a dominant male figure.
Anyone who has the slightest indication of Islamic history and knowledge will be able to tell you that powerful women surrounded and played important roles in the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
Muslim women are not reliant on men to give them their identity or their worth and never have been. Many Muslim women are single mothers, are those who have escaped warzones, are young women who grew up without a male role model yet continue to be confident, independent and assertive. Yet, their visibility in popular culture is seemingly absent.
However, many Muslim women are using online platforms and their own initiative to start up their own organisations to challenge these conventional norms. A clear example of this is seen through the four day exhibition run just last month by the talented Najwa Umran, the founder and director of the FMC – Female Muslim Creatives.
Over the four days, the exhibition showcased the work of eleven female Muslim artists from all over the world, such as Malaysia, the UK, the USA and Singapore. Not only did the exhibition address issues that are often seen to be sensitive or taboo in the Muslim community, but it also celebrated the achievements of Muslim women, especially those involved in the online community.
Panelled talks included incredibly talented individuals like Nafisa Bakkar who is the co-founder of Amaliah.com, Jannat Hussein, a gifted artist and Bayan Goudarzpour, an incredibly powerful writer and poet. Together, they talked about the struggles of being Muslim women in their own respective fields and addressed certain issues and problems within the Muslim community. Not only was this exhibition a success in breaking down stereotypes surrounding Muslim women, but it also demonstrated the vast amount of talent and diversity in our community.
As we can see, the average Muslim woman living in the Western world is educated. She is an engineer, a lawyer, a doctor, an artist, a mother, or even both. We are confident, kind and comfortable with our identities and just like many hundreds of thousands of people, we are trying to make our way along this earth to work towards a better future for ourselves and those who will follow us. With the rise of social media, we are becoming more vocal and showing how, regardless of the media’s attempts to silence our existence, we will continue to rise and showcase just how amazing Muslim women can be.
Zahraa is the Founder & Editor-In-Chief of The Muslim Diaspora. She hates writing about herself in the third person, but can usually be found researching and reading about South Asia & The Middle East, conflict & popular culture, political events and issues surrounding women and the wider Muslim & BME community.