The media has generally caricatured Muslim women as meek, passive, oppressed and in need of liberation. This formed a cluster of stereotypes that are a hallmark of our generation. Nevertheless, much of this has changed recently. However, the change, in my opinion, has not been completely positive. We are seeing Muslim women, with hijab, on ads and even on TV shows (including the newsroom). Yet, much of this has been a shift from stereotyping to playing identity politics. The complexity of the issue surrounding Muslim women intersects with issues of religion, politics and their interaction in everyday civil society.
What overshadows some of the positive aspects of the portrayal of women in general, and Muslim women in specific is the constant need for justification. Muslim women always need to prove themselves, whether in a Nike advert to show themselves as active or to participate and break some ceiling of what is expected of them. This does not help solve the problem of their representation but exacerbates the problems. This is a natural process of globalisation that seems to rob women in general of their sense of autonomy. To conform to some global outlook that is dictated by a given company. The narrative of everyday women of faith (Muslim in this case) is ignored. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind how much we have moved on in the discourse from misguided representation to a place where we can discuss this as an issue rather than deny its existence.
There are also economic aspects and the much ignored colonial gaze that seems to still be present in how Muslim women are portrayed. 2017 was a tragic year in terms of the abhorrent attacks taking place across the world, both from terrorists and institutional state based wars. At the forefront of these events are the slow but certain rise of the far-right (as seen from the recent elections in Germany) and the normalisation of violent rhetoric from many groups. With the Burka ban in Austria, we can see how fear of the ‘other’ is building. Yet, in all this, we don’t have a space in which true expression of grievances can take place, for all sides.
The media, unknowingly or knowingly, is engineering a clash by not dealing with humans as humans, but seeing them through the lens of identities. Muslim women are the new frontier for exploration and patronising activism that lacks touch with the reality of individual life. We are not victims, we don’t wish to be victims nor do we appreciate being turned into victims. We wish to be portrayed as we are in our daily lives; we are not exotic beings who need to be discovered. If we wish to break the pattern of self-righteous rhetoric, then an appropriate structure and framework for dialogue need to be constructed. An environment in which we solve our problems through knowledge, acknowledgement and progressive dialogue. That is, to be simply human beyond all other labels.