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This post was written by Asifa Akbar.
Since its inception, Muslimah Media Watch (MMW) has been committed to dispelling myths, stereotypes and misrepresentations about Muslim women and occupies a vital niche in the larger movement to combat islamophobia. It has succeeded in doing this through an inclusive and varied set of critical contributions canvassing a wide-range of topics that attempt to challenge conventional viewpoints, mainstream information, and assumptions about the diverse world that encompasses the experiences of Muslim women.
In doing so, MMW’s single most important and laudable effect has been to demonstrate Muslim women in all their individual diversity and richness: they have a voice, are capable of expressing their opinions, and ‘speak for themselves’ when it comes to interpreting and practising their faith, and living/expressing their social, economic and political identity as individual Muslim women.
Through eye-catching titles and thought-provoking posts, MMW instantly challenges mainstream media assumptions on current (global) controversies as they pertain to the identity and autonomy of Muslim women. It is clear from its responses to mainstream media spins on stories that MMW’s role as a media ‘watchdog,’ presenting alternative representations and correcting misinformation on Muslim women, is essential and powerful. As a ‘watchdog’, it is inevitably a forum that must respond duly to mainstream understandings of Muslim women in a timely manner. As such, it is in many ways inevitably reactive.
Conversely, one of the powerful benefits of MMW and online media in general is the ability to invite instantaneous responses, commentary, and debates on particular topics, that (ideally) further challenge assumption on all sides; or at the very least is a finger on the pulse of thinking and discourse on those topics, from readers across the world.
One of the drawbacks of instantaneous online discourse/public conversations, however, is that they are often emotionally-charged. People see headlines, taglines, hash-tags and feel compelled to jump on popular bandwagons of thought or newsworthy events. This is hardly new. Sensationalism is an inherent part of social media as it is of most media (and no doubt accounts for much of the anxiety and angst that many people feel in contemporary times). Everywhere one turns (especially online) someone has something to say and others have something to respond to in return, turning into an instant, kaleidoscopic, mostly civil town-halls of sorts; but often also a battleground of petty exchanges and personal attacks with words often ‘read’ out of context.
Healthy debate allows us to get closer to the truth/s so this is not necessarily a bad thing. But constant tidal waves and whirlpools of reactivity especially in social and other media can create a kind of sea-sick atmosphere and potentially obscure the full picture by drowning out more measured, detached and sober responses.
And more importantly, where the identity of any group of is concerned in such a context, this may present an irresistible propensity toward self-definition mostly in reaction to the ‘Other’ views and assumptions. Such constant (self-) defensive identification unwittingly sacrifices true autonomy and agency, circumscribing the full-scope of representation of identity as it fuels the “us” vs. “them” frenzy. It counter-intuitively allows others to set the agenda of identity discourse and to control the right to truly speak for oneself. In responding to negative stereotypes and generalizations, there is a danger of systematic identification in the negative (often in political retort) and of reproducing a (defensive) Muslimah identity by default, taking on a power if its own.
This is the tipping point for MMW’s watchdog role and its aim to expose inconsistencies in mainstream media and to inform about the identities and activities of Muslim women across the globe. It is at this point where the ‘watch’ in MMW must be careful not to self-circumscribe. The role of sentinel is necessary and vital in a world full of misinformation, prejudice, discrimination, and violence.
However, the ‘Watch’ in “Muslimah Media Watch” must be a continuously expansive and self-aware one – one that also showcases Muslim women just as they are – just being or doing (by action and example) – and not solely in reaction to. In the long-run, this will help to dispel myths and stereotypes about what it means to be a Muslim woman in a fuller, more enduring way. In this way, the ‘Watch’ in MMW can be not only akin to a watchdog but can become like a beacon or watchtower, shedding light on all injustices, as well as progress for that matter – wherever found.