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The Media’s Portrayal of Islam and the Hijab


This entry was posted on Friday, June 1st, 2007 at 3:25 am


By Derya Goren


 Time, people, culture, society, and the environment we are surrounded by, can produce the formation of many perspectives regarding an issue that we see in today's society. One of many controversial topics that surround Islam is the Hijab. Many questions and generalizations are often formed in the minds of many non-Muslims in regards to the concepts behind the Hijab through the influence of the media. Throughout the years of conflict between the “West” and “Islam”, the media has strongly altered the minds of non-Muslims by negative exploitation of Islam, and Muslims, in particular on Muslim women. Misconceptions such as, “Are you bald underneath” “Do you go to sleep with that on?” to the association of “terrorism” that contrasts to what Muslim women believe the Hijab represents. A common misconception is “the Islamic Hijab is something cultural, not religious”. The use of the word “cultural” is faulty when describing the Hijab as it implies that it is a result of customs and practices that are something separate from Islam. The cultural dress is referred to the ancient Pre-Islamic Era (Jahiliyah). It is the veil from the Pre-Islamic Era that is considered as “traditional” which stops women from contributing in society. On the contrary, the Islamic Hijab is not considered as an informal tradition, nor does it lower her self-respect. The Hijab is aimed at presenting women with poise and equality in society. An example of Pre-Islamic era in our modern world is the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban are a party who regard such activities un-Islamic for women, who are prohibited from exercising their primary rights. The Taliban have banned women from employment outside the home, apart from the health sector, and have terminated education for girls. Prophet Mohammad (peace & blessings be upon him) said, “Seeking knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim”. Even Henry VIII forbid women to study the Bible when the first English translations began to appear. Its an irony although the Taliban claim their guiding philosophy on women are in place to ensure the physical protection and self-respect of women, where as, many Afghan women have been killed, beaten and publicly hung. For many Afghan women fear of being severely punished by the Taliban is their main security concern. Another misconception is “Muslim women have no right in Islam”. Islam gave women rights over 1400 years ago, which is still ignored by many Muslims and non-Muslims today. Firstly, Islam has given women the basic right to freedom of speech. In the early days of Islam, the leaders of the Islamic state regarding legal issues consulted women. Rights that were appointed to Muslim women since the beginning of time are only just surfacing for non-Muslims. In Islam, a woman is free to be whom she is inside, and protected from being portrayed as a sex symbol and lusted after. Islam praises the status of a woman by commanding that she “enjoys equal rights to those of man in everything, she stands on an equal footing with man” (Quran, Nadvi: 11) and both share mutual rights and obligations in all aspects of life. Many women are treated in ways far from Islamic ideals, yet in the name of Islam. The Taliban is an example of a cultural and political name that has been branded with Islam. There is no freedom for women if they are imprisoned in their home in the name of the Hijab and Islam. Moreover, the veil of Islam is not associated with the veil of oppression. Women that are regaining their identity and role in society, are now wearing the Hijab and are embracing its concept of liberation. They are taking their lawful places that Islam had awarded them fourteen hundred years ago. In fact, the western women had no rights nor did they have rights over their husband. Not only were woman the property of their husband but so were their possessions. In 1919 women in England fought for their rights to be elected to parliament. Because of their demands, they were imprisoned by the government and suffered greatly. It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when women were given these rights. A quote from the Quran in Surah 2: 26 states:
“And for women has rights over men, similar to those of men over women.” The background history between Islam and the West will shed some light as to why Muslims are portrayed so negatively in the media. Some strong contributing factors are the medieval western conflict, the crusades, the oil crisis of the 1970s, the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian revolution, the Gulf war, and the explosive Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the September 11 bombings, the Bali Massacre and the London bombings. All these events have caused Islam to be consistently associated with violence and unresolved conflict. Furthermore, the view of Muslims as being violent typically explains why Muslims are seen to establish a threat to the West. One of the most effective ways the media attempts to somehow prevent Islam being seen in a positive frame is to develop propaganda against Muslims and Islam. The media is able to use the Hijab as a means of exploiting Muslim women, and degrading them. The media assumes, in some cases, that the actions of one Muslim are representations of the general Muslim population. This is generalization. This sets a example for members of society to abuse and degrade them. An image of a Muslim woman wearing the chador was labeled as “like death out for a walk” in the Australian Magazine, 25-26 Jan. 1995 issue. The media implied to locate the position of women in Islamic society as dominated. The image also portrayed the difference between Muslim and Western Women in today's society. In current affair programs, people watching are bombarded with images of Muslims as savage terrorists, killing innocent people with no remorse. What results from this is the viewers of these programs, recognize and accept only the labels, and therefore with Islam immediately associating it with negative images. I asked a resident from Parramatta, who wished to be kept anonymous if “the September 11th bombings altered their mind about Islam and Muslim women?” He said “I never knew Islam and the Quran preached terrorism. It has made me aware of Islam and the teachings. It increased my awareness of the complexities of Islam and politics in the Middle East including the veiling of Muslim women”. This answer shows how influential the media is towards its viewers. Throughout the western society, the practice of Muslim women wearing the Hijab has resulted in extreme points of view towards their so-called “oppression” and lack of freedom. Despite the obvious portrayal of Muslim women and myths that surround it such as; “Muslim women are oppressed”, there continues to be an abundance of Western women reverting to Islam. What Islam uses to protect women is the Hijab. This is ironic because the Western media often portray the Muslim veil as a suppressive force in a woman’s life. Every Muslim woman is required to wear a scarf or some sort of head covering and loose-fitting, modest attire. This is not a means of controlling a woman’s sexuality or suppressing her but rather, a means for protection. It implies by dressing this way she will not be seen as a mere sex symbol but will be appreciated for her intellect. Furthermore, it will not subject her to harassment. It is interesting to state the head covering for women is not an Islamic innovation but was also practiced by Judeo-Christian women centuries earlier, and yet is laughed at by the West today. Naima Omar, a student of University of Western Sydney says “It is funny to say the same veil worn by catholic nuns for God is despised and presented as a symbol of subjection and domination when it is worn by Muslim women for the intention to protect themselves and devoting themselves to God”. The term Islam means submission to the will of Allah and peace. Muslims believe Islam is not a religion but a gift that has been awarded to them. They believe Islam is the way of life and that is harmonious however the media portrays the opposite. Maria Moskovakis, 18, a Greek Orthodox says “yes of course Muslims are presented negatively in the news. An action by one Muslim is presented with so much bias. If one Muslim commits a crime, it is not the person but the religion presented that goes to trial. What we hear and see is all controlled. As El-Gharib (1996-97) noted, television, books, newspapers, and magazines are used to present Islam as being a backward and barbaric religion. It has been seen as oppressive and unjust; and more than this, it is seen as being most oppressive to women. These various forms of media misrepresent Islam in different ways, however largely achieve the same negative result  the creation of a growing barrier of misunderstanding and hostility between Islam and its followers, and the West. Muslims have an obligation to fulfil which is to educate themselves, their children to gain knowledge which is ordained upon them regardless of their race, gender and marital status etc.
A Hasan Hadith narrated by Ibn Majah in the Quran states:
“Seeking knowledge is a duty on every Muslim” and therefore gaining knowledge is regarded as an act of worship. Stopping any Muslim regardless of age and sex is not Islamic. Dr Homer of Sweden was asked by the United Nations in 1975 to study the status of Women in the Arab countries and said: “It is the Swedish woman who should demand her freedom, as the women in the Arab countries has already reached the peak of her freedom under Islam.” From “Status Of Women In Islam” page 23. Many have become used to believing the false information that they are spoon fed every time they turn on the screen, listen to the radio or open a newspaper.

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