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Covering Islam and Muslims
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Community, Family and Gender

Journalists are taught to avoid stereotyping people based on their religion – but when it comes to Islam, recent events have fueled a rise in stories that are based on and reinforce tired cultural clichés.

For example, Laila Al-Marayati, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Women’s League, said “You can’t find an article written about women in Islam that doesn’t use ‘veil’ somewhere in the title,” rattling off examples like “Under the Veil” and “Beyond the Veil.”

“They [journalists] love that word, because that’s the one item they use to universally identify with Muslim women.”

It is often assumed that Islam is bad for women and secularism is better, she said. “Because people are functioning under assumptions ... the whole story kind of falls apart,” Al-Marayati said. “Rather than recreating a new story ... I’ve seen a tendency to just find the people who fulfill the assumptions that the reporter has in the first place about Islam and Muslims and women.”

Al-Marayati pointed out that the media only started covering women’s issues when that coverage served an agenda. “Before 9/11, there was not a lot of media coverage of the status of women under the Taliban,” Al-Marayati said. “But after 9/11 and the build-up to the war there, that was one of the most prominent stories in all of the major newspapers. It almost felt to me like it was becoming a tool ... of getting popular support and popular rallying behind the cause of going after Afghanistan.”

Fadwa El-Guindi, the director of El Nil Research, stressed that “to understand Muslims in America, one needs to acquire knowledge about Islam overall ... about immigrants and minorities in America in general ... about Arab culture and the Arabic language. One needs context, to put knowledge in perspective.”

One of the real problems that Americans have when it comes to understanding Muslim cultures arises because we see their traditions through the prism of our own history – such as the way a Nightline reporter assumed that because Muslim women were forced to sit in the back of the mosque during prayer, they were considered to be of secondary status and subordinate to Muslim men.

“Being in the back has different meanings in different cultural and historical context,” El-Guindi said. “Associating subordination or secondary status with being in the back or the side during public, mixed-gender prayer is rooted in the American white-black relations.”

Another important issue El-Guindi talked about was the mislabeling and misconceptions about the Islamic dress. “Burkha is one dress form, hijab is another,” El-Guindi said. “We need to know the difference and look at pictures that show the difference.”

She also discussed an article that appeared in Playboy magazine that was full of “ideological distortions against Islam and Muslim women.” Her response to the article and its use of the terms “gender apartheid” and “gender jihad” can be found on the resource section of the website.

The topic of “embedding feminism in military operations as a justification” was another issue El-Guindi brought up, calling it another form of racism. “What is needed is a different kind of feminism, one that is free from military colonial projects,” she said. “One that promotes economic justice and unites women and men as it respects cultural difference ... and common humanity. We call come from the same roots.”

The final speaker on the panel, Carolyn Rouse, an assistant professor of anthropology at Princeton University, talked about the issues surrounding discussions and representations of secularism and religion.

“Is there a difference between secularism and religion?” she asked. “We construct meaning around patriotic events ... things like childbirth ... we imbue everything with meaning. So the divide between secularism and religion is sort of a false divide.”

She also discussed the misconceptions about Islam. “We sometimes make a lot of assumptions about how secularism or Western religions are tolerant in a way that Islam isn’t. There is this assumption that somehow Islam has this kind of power over people that secularism doesn’t,” Rouse said.

That idea that Islam has some sort of hold over women is a major issue in media representations, Rouse argued.  Muslim women understand that they are being oppressed, she said, but “what bothers me is that we always use what Muslim women do as sort of an example of oppression.”

Rouse also talked about the idea that women who convert to Islam do so because they are being forced to by this unseen power that isn’t present in secularism or Western religion.

“When I talk to women who convert, they have decided to surrender to a particular set of ideas [because they] think there are certain natural laws, objective natural laws, and we agree that these are laws that we want to surrender to,” Rouse said.

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