A few days ago, as part of an event hosted by Columbia Journalism school, Nahed El Tantawy, Nina Ansary, and Lisa Goldman took part in a panel with the title “Alternate Narratives of the Middle East: Coverage of Women.” I’d recommend everyone go watch it, even thought at the beginning much of the discussion covered well-worn ground – Middle Eastern women are not all Muslim, they don’t all cover, they are not all oppressed, they don’t all have the same understanding of their faith, they are anything but monolithic. Oftentimes, people roll their eyes at this and say, yes we’ve heard all this before, and essentially, stop whining.
At one point however, Nahed El Tantawy gave concrete examples of how these representations persist in media coverage. For example, she notes the pervasive fascination with the veil, which sneaks its way into almost every article on Muslim women, from descriptions of the women themselves to images of women wearing veils, even when the story itself has nothing to do with the veil. Among her examples, Eltantawy points out one of my pet peeves: the habit of noting that a particular woman who doesn’t fit your tired old stereotype is “not your typical Muslim.” Also, although admitting that this may just be typical sexist language, she notes that the Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain was described as “petite” and quotes from another article where a Muslim athlete is described as “a wisp of a young woman who looks as if one gust of wind could blow her away.”
Only a few days ago, she said, there was this headline: “Helpless Muslim woman showered with alcohol.” And she asked, “why the need for helpless? Just tell us what happened.” I’d seen this particular story shared quite widely, including by Muslim women, and the incident was taken as proving the extent of abuse directed at Muslim women, especially those who are identifiably Muslim, without any comment on what it means that this anonymous woman is described as “helpless.” That not many people commented on the choice of the word is an indication that perhaps at this point we are just taking for granted the tinge of stereotypical language that seems to go with every story about Muslim women. Exasperatingly, even when the headline appears as the more factual “Muslim woman was doused in alcohol”, the story had an unrelated photograph of a niqabi looking over her shoulder somewhat warily.
There has been a spate of racist attacks against Muslim women in the past few days, from Simone Joseph ranting at Hanane Yakoubi and her friends and calling them ISIS bitches, to this man who yelled “white power” and “kill them all” as he attacked a Muslim woman and tried to remove her headscarf. So is there a way to cover these stories without reinforcing the notion that Muslim women are “helpless” victims?
In Yakoubi’s case, we should point out that the women mostly laughed off the rant, one woman can be seen smiling and shaking her head in the video, according to some reports, another apparently stepped off the bus because she didn’t want her child to hear the insults directed at her. That is, they reacted, they did something: they were not just victims. Of course, in some cases, women who face such attacks choose to remain anonymous. In those cases, it is more difficult to highlight their response – but that does not mean the stories of the attacks should be plastered with images of women in niqab and adjectives like “helpless.”
It is important to point out that although Muslim women often face the brunt of such attacks, Muslim men have also been the targets of racism, such as in this rant directed at an elderly Turkish man, which is uncannily similar to Joseph’s rant, going from threats of violence to mocking the use of foreign languages. The rant ends in the attacker throwing away the elderly man’s zimmer frame.
In both cases, people have asked why passengers did not get involved, did not object – in fact, giggling can be heard in the video of the latest attack. Clearly there is a sense that those being attacked need help or should receive support from those around them witnessing the attack. But that does not mean they are “helpless.”
Striking a note of optimism towards the end of the panel in CSJ, Goldman noted that there is now “quite a high number of female journalists who are native Arabic speakers with fluent English reporting for the international media and the local media.” And it’s not just Arabic speakers. Beyond the Middle East, there is an up and coming generation (including MMW’s own Sara Yasin with Buzzfeed, and Sana Saeed with AJ+) who are changing the framework of Muslim women being seen as victims rather than actors. Let’s hope that one day soon, there won’t be words like “helpless” and the obligatory frightened/frightening looking niqabi attached to almost every article on Muslim women.