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North American and European Media’s Misrepresentation of Muslim Women

by Tamara Abueish


            Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States, or those who are thought to be associated with Islam, rose to 78% in 2015, making it the highest percentage of Muslim-targeted hate crimes since 9/11 (Center for the study of Hate and Extremism, 2016).The vilification of Muslims in North American and European media seems to have an influence on non-Muslims and Muslims alike. The media has influenced the drastic rise of islamophobia, the “fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them” over the years (Ramberg, 2004, p.6). This is believed to be a result of the public’s reaction to the November 13 attacks in Paris and threats to Europe and the U.S. from ISIS, in addition to intolerant rhetoric made by Donald Trump throughout his campaign (Siemaskzo, 2015). The strategic display of stereotypical images and generalizations of Muslim women are commonly used by some media outlets to create juxtaposition between the Islamic and non-Muslim cultures as if the two cannot coincide. For example, Laura Navarro (2010) analyzed the way Muslim women are commonly portrayed by the media, and she found that they often depict them under three themes: passivity, victimization, and the veiling of women. The media uses these themes to create a stigma of us versus them. This misrepresentation affects the attitudes and perceptions of the general public, whether they are Muslim or not. So, how do North American and European media influence the attitudes and perceptions of people? And what effects does this influence have? Through stereotypical images of Muslim women and generalizing headlines, such as “Muslim Terrorist”, several issues could arise; these issues include islamophobia, hate crimes, self-Orientalism, and  racial profiling which is defined as the “targeting of particular individuals by law enforcement authorities based on their personal characteristics” (The Leadership Conference, 2016, p.1).

The Influence of the Media

             We are constantly exposed to different messages through several kinds of media, such as social media, news, movies, and TV shows. The media has become one of the main generators of images that form our understanding of other cultures, ethnicities, and religions. Visuals that are displayed in the media subtly influence people’s thoughts and feelings because they are consumed instantaneously and can have a lasting effect on people’s opinions. According to Ann M. Barry (1997), this occurs because the images’ meanings are understood faster than that of texts. Additionally, images grab the reader’s attention more than texts do therefore they leave a lasting impression on them (Newhagen & Reeves, 1992). Visuals are repeated in the media to unconsciously reinforce the stereotypes the public has on a certain issues, cultures, genders, or races. This strategy is used to convey messages that will otherwise be too controversial when said in words, because as pointed out by W.J.T. Mitchell (2002), images have a “surplus” meaning that cannot always be put into words (p.180).

Generalizations about Muslim women will continue to prevail unless people strive to become more media literate, meaning “possessing the knowledge to be competent in assessing messages carried by mass media” (Vivian, 2009, p.6). In other words, when people take the time to analyze the news stories, images, or headlines that are displayed by media outlets, they will be more likely to spot prejudiced views and less likely to be influenced by them. People can be taught to be more media literate when governments take action to incorporate media literacy classes into the elementary and high school curricula and provide workshops across the globe.

Media representations of Muslim women pre-9/11

          Muslim women were portrayed negatively by the media long before that time. Since 1896, Hollywood has played a major role in shaping people’s perceptions of Muslims and Arabs (Shaheen, 2001). For example, in the movie Aladdin, the women in the film are shown as belly dancers dressed in revealing clothing (Musker, J. & Clements, R., 1992).  Another example is in the film The Sheltering Sky, based on a book, where the women are dressed in black burqas and were always shown walking behind men (Shaheen, 2001). The previous cases represent the two opposite representations of Muslim women that are often presented in the media where they are either shown as one or the other. According to Shaheen (2001), filmmakers often use repetition as an insidious tool to reinforce these stereotypes.

          Hollywood filmmakers did not create these stereotypes themselves; they were influenced by European artists and writers. Women in Muslim societies were portrayed as exotic and oriental, dancing harem girls. In one example of a European literary account, a letter written by Gustave Flaubert stated that Muslim women are, “impassive, undemanding, and insensate herself” (Lowe, 1996, p.76).  In the 1900s, it was common for European image-makers, like Georges Mélies, to display images of young, submissive, harem girls dancing around ugly, old, bearded men (Shaheen, 2001).  There are constant protests against Muslim men’s oppression of Muslim women by abusing them, but people fail to realize that Muslim women were oppressed by having their sexuality exploited and their representation limited.

Muslim women portrayed in the media post 9/11

After 9/11, the themes previously used by the media when discussing Muslim women were exacerbated. American media predominantly showcased Muslim men as angry, abusive, and fundamentalist and Muslim women as quiet and oppressed.              The media used these images to create an idea that Muslim women need to be saved from the shackles of Muslim men. For example, Smeeta Mishra (2007) analyzed the representation of Muslim women and men in The New York Times between September 11, 2001 and September 11, 2003. Muslim women were most often portrayed as oppressed, weak, and in critical need of liberation that would come from the West.  These representations become stereotypes when they are constantly repeated and no other representation of Muslim women is provided. Negative stereotypes of Muslims increased, because the media rarely tells stories about regular Muslims. Unfortunately, stereotypes “play a role in the ways we are invited to think about, and act toward, minorities in our midst” (Srberny-Mohammadi, 1995, p. 440).  For example, when Muslim women are believed to be oppressed people with different beliefs may feel the need to pressure them to embrace the ideals of others.

          Additionally, politicians used this image created by the media as a justification to wage wars on countries. One example is Laura Bush’s 2001 speech in which she states, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (Bush, 2001). Bush attempts to discreetly connect terrorism with Muslim men by saying that freedom for women in Afghanistan would only be achieved by fighting the terrorists. She continued to say, “because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes” (Bush, 2001). This manipulative method is meant to influence people by persuading them to support the war under the pretense that it is to save humanity. By making certain stereotypical images the common representation of Muslims, male or female, American media continues to paint all Muslims under the same brush.

Media Representation in Europe

         The media has played a major role in influencing the perceptions of the European public when it comes to Muslims. Over the years, debates on the burqa, refugees, and terrorism was all over the news. The European public has argued that Muslims who immigrate to Europe refuse to interact with society, and are unwilling to let go of their own values in order to embrace the culture of the place to which they moved (Özcan, 2013).

Media representation of Muslim women in Germany

            Muslims make up almost 4 million of the population in Germany (Özcan, 2013). The country has been accepting Muslim immigrants as early as the 1960s (Özcan, 2013). However, images and headlines of Muslim women were published repeatedly in the media that reinforce themes of “parallel societies”, alienation, and backward views. The images presented in the media are clearly intended to unconsciously influence the attitudes and perspectives of people on Muslim women. Often, certain visuals are repeated or other versions of the same image accompany different stories. One example addressed by Özcan (2013) is a news photograph of an uncovered Afghan woman smiling playfully in the midst of a group of other fully covered Afghan women. This image has been frequently used out of context in German media, and images similar to it were placed with different news stories.

            The images presented in the media have both implicit and explicit meaning. They usually imply contrasting life styles between Muslims and Germans living in Germany; in turn, this represents the idea that Muslim women are unwilling to integrate with their surrounding society. One example addressed by Esra Özcan (2013) when she analyzed images of Muslim women in the German magazine Der Spiegel was the image of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf and a long black coat, walking down a street. The image was show from a distance just as the woman was passing a billboard of a lingerie advertisement. The woman in the billboard is looking directly into the viewers’ eyes, while the Muslim woman’s back is to the audience; Underneath, the photo’s caption reads “Muslim woman, lingerie advertisement in Berlin, inclusion of immigrants” (Özcan, 2013, p.436).  Here, the image sets the German woman as the standard for modernism while dehumanizing the Muslim woman. The fact that the Muslim woman’s face is not even shown in the picture is what dehumanizes her. These images are often intentionally used to create juxtaposition between the two societies and reinforce the belief that they cannot coexist.

Media Representation of Muslim Women in Spain

            The representations of Muslim women in the Spanish media reinforce the stereotypes that were previously prevalent in European societies. Spanish media repeatedly shows Muslim women as ignorant and submissive. According to Navarro (2010), when Muslim’s issues are discussed in the news, it is predominantly focused on religious issues, like the veil, instead of focusing on issues related to equality and public freedom in Muslim societies or countries. The Muslim woman’s passivity is incited by the fact that they are never portrayed as individuals, and only as part of a larger group or subordinate members of their families. Several outlets in Spanish media also tend to exclude representations of diverse Muslim women, many of whom are teachers, students, lawyers, artists, entrepreneurs (Navarro, 2010).  Their victimization is reinforced through repetition of news stories that only focus on their oppression and their clothing. Additionally, when these issues are the only ones presented when discussing Muslim women, it influences people to connect Islam with the oppression of women (Navarro, 2010). 

Effects of Media Misrepresentation

            The misrepresentation of Muslim women has had several consequences on both non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Islamophobia has increased among non-Islamic cultures (Ramberg, 2004). This is determined by the increase in the number of anti-Islamic hate crimes where the victims are either Muslim or presumed to be Muslim (Center for the study of Hate and Extremism, 2016). This implies that people may have formed generalizations of what a Muslim looks like and assumed that anyone who falls into that category is a Muslim. Since the media commonly focuses on Muslim women as religious subjects, rather than actual people who have interests and opinions that are not related to Islam, they reinforce the idea that Muslims’ lives are centered on their religion. This creates a stigma of involving Muslims into societies, which consequently leads to misunderstandings between societies. Muslims are victims of racial profiling, “the targeting of particular individuals by law enforcement authorities based on their personal characteristics” time and time again (The Leadership Conference, 2016, p.1). Several Muslims reported being stopped by authorities at airports, or asked to go through further security checks for no reason other their apparent identification with the Islamic faith. For example, an Italian economist was recently escorted by security off an American Airlines plane after a passenger seated next to him reported that he had been writing in a script that she did not recognize and assumed to be Arabic. The man, who has curly black hair and dark skin, revealed to officials that he was not writing in Arabic, but solving a mathematical equation (Rampell, 2016).

            Muslims who are consistently being alienated and harassed for their beliefs might find that the only solution to their problem is to avoid interacting with members outside of their Muslim communities. They might feel unsafe and threatened by doing simple acts such as walking down the street or riding the train. For example, a woman in the United Kingdom was doused in alcohol by a group of men as she rode the train. They continued to taunt her by asking if she ate pork or hid a bomb under her hijab. The woman claims that although the train was reasonably empty, not a single passenger stood up for her or asked the men to stop (Desk, 2015). The Chapel Hill shooting was another hate crime that shook Muslims all over the world. Three young college students were shot execution style in their homes by their neighbor who treated them aggressively in the past (Tazewell, 2016).  It is no surprise that the end result of these hate crimes is that Muslims’ sense of self is affected. As a result, Muslims might often go through self-esteem crises, and start questioning their identity and faith.

            A major effect of media misrepresentation of Muslim women is the concept of self-orientalism. Orientalism, the study of the East by the Westerners, began as a set of beliefs colonials held about the people they ruled, but soon it became ingrained in their attitudes and perceptions towards these people (Moosavinia, Niazi, Ghaforian, 2011). This need to find a way to distance and control the people that are colonized in case they try to overturn their power was later called Orientalism by scholars. Along with colonists, the media aided in the creation of the image that Muslim women are obedient, covered, isolated people, when in reality they deliberately assigned these characteristics to them. Unfortunately, the real problem arises when self-orientalism comes into play; the consequence of Orientalizing people is that soon enough they begin to see themselves in the same way the West sees them. Muslim women might limit themselves to characteristics that they were labeled as by a society that does not even try to understand them, so they might no longer have the motivation to empower themselves nor the women around them.

The UAE’s Empowerment of Muslim Women

        The UAE has taken initiative to change the widely held point of view that people may have on Muslim women. Its rapidly developing status and multi-cultural society attracts people from all over the world. The UAE is ranked as the leading nation in the gulf region for gender equality (World Economic Forum, 2014). The empowerment of women is believed to be an integral goal in the plan of developing the UAE further, and time and time again the UAE has exceeded international standards when it comes to the empowerment of women (UAE Embassy, 2016). Several women’s organizations in the UAE aim to advance the status of women in the country while still holding on to their cultural heritage in an attempt to avoid losing their identity. There are several organizations developed in the UAE that represent the interests of women. One example is the General Women’s Union, which was established by Her Highness Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak. The GWU’s aim is to bring together all the different cultures and societies of the women living in the UAE. The organization is known for introducing literacy programs, suggesting new laws to benefit women, and being affiliated to several international and regional organizations (General Women’s Union, 2016).

         Additionally, the UAE is trying to change international opinion on the status of women in Islamic countries is by hosting regional conferences like the IIFMENA (Investing in the Future). The United Nation Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), in partnership with The Big Heart foundation, and under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah recently hosted the conference with the aim of “Building the Resilience of Women and Girls” (IIFMENA, 2016). The conference brought together government representatives, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, gender equality leaders from the region and internationally to discuss the advancements of women and girls and to highlight the integral role of a sustainable approach when building the resilience of women (IIFMENA, 2016). Conferences on the issues of women are occasionally held in the region, so it is not uncommon to see several well-known humanitarian organizations from all over the world participating. Workshops and talks are held throughout the events, and open to all in order to better educate the public on the empowerment of women. International leaders and influential people often take part in these events to help raise awareness.



        As the findings show, some people’s attitudes and perceptions on certain topics may be influenced by the media. Often, media agencies strategically use images to convey a message that would otherwise be considered too risky or controversial to put into words. Muslim women have been inaccurately represented by some media for decades. Through repetitive images and strategically worded headlines, the media has reinforced the stereotypes that are commonly associated with Muslim women, which has affected Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Bigotry towards Muslims has been on the rise, and can be seen in the increase in the number of anti-Islamic hate crimes, the establishment of burqa-bans, and the general attitudes of the public. This affects the UAE, because although the government is trying to liberate women, it is often done by following the standards that are set by the West. However, conferences and organizations are trying to spread gender equality while maintaining the cultural traditions of the country. Some Muslim women in non-Muslim countries might consistently feel unsafe, doubt their faith, and start to self-Orientalize. Unless people become more media literate, they will fail to notice the stereotypes that are unconsciously reinforced through the media. Though the paper did explore a few ways in which the media can influence people. one flaw in the paper is that it did not explore the extent at which the media can have an influence on people.


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Tamara Abueish is a Saudi Journalism and Women's Studies student. She is currently in her sophomore year at AUS. Tamara hopes to become a journalist for the United Nations and to report on women's issues around the world. Tamara is also the president of the Women Empowerment Club at AUS.

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