Home Deliberation Media And Portrayal: Representation of Muslim Women In Mainstream Media

Media And Portrayal: Representation of Muslim Women In Mainstream Media


Traditional forms of mass communication, such as newspapers, television, and radio, are regarded collectively as mainstream media. The process by which the media interpret and construct the world, or external reality for us is called representation.The media plays a significant role in the process of social construction of reality and can be used as a potent weapon to mould and sculpt people’s perceptions, as the information that individuals are exposed to greatly influence their perception of the world. In short, we amble about with media-generated images of the world, using them to construct meaning about political and social issues (Gamson, Croteau, Hoynes, and Sasson, 1992)

There is a significant amount of media coverage on Muslim women, particularly regarding their dress code. A major part of debate on this topic is disputed in an unpleasant manner by politicians and the media as well (Petley, Richardson, 2011). It is argued that the media uses language that “if ever used towards the religious practices of Christian or Jewish women; it would immediately be considered unacceptable” (El Hamel, 2002: 299). Anti-veil feminists today argue that Muslim women who choose to cover themselves are victims of a misogynistic and patriarchal belief. They are pitied and portrayed this way.

Western media’s View of Muslim Women

Ghazala Khan, who was present at her husband’s heart-warming speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, was accused of being “oppressed” as Trump stated in an interview afterwards: “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”Ghazala later made a video stating that she did not speak at Convention because she struggled to hold back tears when looking at photos of her late son.  But the mainstream media was always going to support Trump’s view. Why? Because it is part of the norm in our societies to view Muslim women as oppressed, and in desperate need of getting “Westernised”. What should have been an event honouring a son who gave his life to the country he loved was diverted away to a false narrative surrounding his mother.

Targeting Channel 4’s news presenter Fatima Manji, Kelvin MacKenzie stated that “the hijab is a sign of the slavery of Muslim women by a male- dominated and clearly violent religion.” It seems that when the privileged have the desire to try and erase Muslim women from the workplace, the only way is to make racist remarks, particularly about their clothing. This completely disregards the fact that Manji is an excellent journalist. Ghazala and Fatima Manji stand for hundreds of Muslim women who have been subjected to the same treatment. Whenever a Muslim woman is under the spotlight (a rarity), the media representations of her personality ranges from the seriously inaccurate to the downright ridiculous. 

Countless other Muslim women such as American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Bake-Off winner Nadiya Hussain and American judge Carolyn Walker have all made substantial achievements. These were quickly overlooked by the one thing these ladies had in common – they were all wearing hijabs on their heads. And since the media has deeply ingrained the notion that the hijab is a symbol of oppression and subjugation, it makes it impossible for Muslim women’s achievements to be truly appreciated. A helpless Muslim woman seems to no longer be just a stereotype. “Muslim woman” has become synonymous with “helpless victim”. The three common ways the media portrays Muslim women are: veiled, oppressed, and, most dangerous of all, homogeneous; meaning: the rich diversity of opinions, appearance, spectrum of faith, occupations, cultures and even languages that exist among Muslim women are wiped clean to instead mass-produce a distorted image that is meant to sell copies and perhaps even governmental politics.

Isn’t it sad that those women are suffering under illiteracy, that they are subjected to polygamy and divorce, that they are forced into seclusion,  that they cannot drive , that they are stoned and beaten in the streets are the common phrases of international media? Same is the attitude of Indian media towards Muslim women.

Portrayal of Muslim women by  mainstream Indian media:

The Indian media stormedon the triple talaq issue. Barkha Dutt writes in her article titled “The Fight Against Triple Talaq is a Fight for Basic Dignity”dated June 4, 2016,published in Hindustan Times:

“When history tries to understand how and why Indian secularism came to be corrupted, distorted and reduced to a mere political slogan, the beginning may be traced back to 1986 when the Rajiv Gandhi government set aside the Supreme Court’s decision on alimony for a poor Muslim woman who then became a national headline — Shah Bano. Under pressure from the Muslim Personal Law Board and with one eye on vote-bank politics, the Congress surrendered to the clergy and enacted a law that made it impossible for Shah Bano to receive Rs 179 mandated by the judiciary as monthly maintenance from the husband who had divorced her”.

Such is the statement by a senior journalist and ‘the so called unbiased media person’ saying that secularism is corrupted or distorted. Forget about media houses that have a bad name of biased reporting like TimeS now and Zee News etc, of that brigade.

Islam says it is the responsibility of the children to take care of their mother in old age. Maintenance was obligatory on the five children of Shah Bano, and not on her ex-husband.  And the children also have the right of inheritance in the father’s wealth.

In the same article, Burkha Dutt further adds that Aafreen Rehman and Saira Banu were both divorced by speed post, that Aafreen was physically abused, and Saira was forced to go through multiple abortions by her husband and how she has not seen her two children in months. You may ask why these women are resisting talaq from such brutal men; “Aren’t they better off without them!”, you may wonder. But their fight is not about the desire to remain married; the protest is against gross inequality, the fight is for basic dignity. Really! But how?The whole debate is changed with ease. Instead of punishing the husbands of victims, the clergy and Muslim personal law board are accused. It is deeply saddening that their husbands denied the basic rights of wives and subjected their wives to violence. Both the women should have come out of the marriage and filed case of harassment on their respective husbands long ago. That would have been a dignified step. In a debate on the same issue on national television, Barkha herself was saying that divorce should be with mutual consent. The whole world is witnessing the failure of mutually consented divorces, and is seeing how women suffer in such rulings.

In another article titled “Muslim Advocate Takes Triple Talaq Battle to Supreme Court” dated June 02, 2016, Bhadra Sinha writes in Hindustan times:“A Muslim woman advocate associated with the RSS has moved the Supreme Court seeking that the religion’s personal law be codified to end practices such as polygamy and triple talaq. Faiz’s petition reflects the growing demand among Muslim women for the discriminatory practice to be liquidated”.  The electronic media is even one step ahead. The debates on news channels are not debates but shouting matches where the louder you are the better. Moreover many female participants are those who do not represent practicing Muslims. Representatives of film industry or political parties are invited as the Muslim voices.

CNBC Awaaz: Tihre Talaq ko Talaq

NDTV India: Will government answer Muslim women’s war cry?

News Hour’s debate, 24 may 2016: We the people: Are all personal laws anti-women?

This kind of sensationalizing news reporting misrepresenting Muslim women can never give  justice to victims. Media has created hype about talaq. Instead of focusing on real issues, they are purposely misleading the public. According to the 2011 census the divorce rate in Muslims is 0.56% however a total of 92,760 Muslims are categorized as beggars- a one fourth of the country’s total beggar population of 3.7 lakh. In 2011-12, unemployment among educated Muslim youth was 18% according to kundu panel. As per the 2011 Census  data, Muslim separated/divorced/abandoned women is less than the other communities. The statistics of divorce in eight places where Muslim are in majority were gathered with the help of Muslim mahila research kendr, shariya committee for women by Muslim Personal law Board. During 2011 to 2015 a total of 1307 divorced were reported in  Kannur, Nasik, Karimnagar, Guntur, Secundrabad, Mallapuram, Ernakulam, Palakkad  whereas in Hindus 16505 divorces happened.

All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) organised its ‘5th North India Tafheem-e-Sharia Workshop’ for Ulemas and Legal personnel of the society at Jaipur on 8th & 9th April 2017. A report covering the event published in Two circles on 10 April stated that the speakers at the event stressed that making or changing a law will not solve the problem of Talaaq by quoting the example of Anti Dowry Act, because one woman dies every hour due to dowry related reasons on an average in the country and there is a steady rise in such cases according to official data. Hence there is a need to spread awareness of ethical behavior in sensitive issues.The census of 1961 has revealed the data related to polygamy, where Muslims are 5.7%, Hindus 5.8%, Buddhist 7.9% and Tribal 15.25%. The trends continued to repeat same statistics. Hence it is a myth and propaganda that polygamy is a problem in Muslim society. As per Hindu Law (1955-56) polygamy is prohibited, while statistics show the other way round. There is no legal status for Hindu second wife (Supreme Court Verdict: 2010; Bench: J., MarkandeyKatju; J., T.S. Thakur), while in Islam the second wife enjoys equal rights as the first wife. It was also enlightened that there are rarely any case of dowry killing, officially reported in the Muslim Community because of the beauty of Sharia accordance and women empowerment in Islam.

The electronic media and print media continued to show its hypocrisy in case of Nahid Afrin, a Bollywood singer of Assam. Almost every media house was claiming that a fatwa is issued against a teenager Muslim singer. A report in TOI titled ‘Not afraid of fatwa, will sing till last breath: Nahid Afrin’ dated  Mar 16, 2017 “Over 40 clerics from Muslim organisations issued the “fatwa” against the 16-year-old, restricting her to perform on stage, saying that the performance by a girl on stage was against the “Sharia laws“”. Later the secretary of the Assam State Jamiat Ulama, Maulvi Fazlul Karim Qasimi, spoke on the issue that no fatwa has been issued in this case and blamed the media for spreading misinformation. “Is this how a fatwa is issued? On a piece of paper?” he replied. Except for NDTV, no other did admit or apologize on showing the fake news. There can be many reasons for mainstream media’s such behaviour towards Muslim women. Hindu upper caste domination in the media could be one of the reasons. The deep=seated prejudice against Muslim women arising out of orientalist construct of Islam and projecting patriarchy inherent to it, could be the other reason.

India’s ‘national’ media lacks social diversity:

A Report claims that Hindu ‘upper’ caste men dominate the media. They are only about 8% of India’s population but among the key decision makers of the national media, their share is as high as 71%. Gender bias rules: only 17% of the key decision makers in the media are women. Their representation is better in the English Electronic media (32%). Muslims are severely under-represented in the national media: they are only 3 % among the key decision makers, compared to being 13.4% of the country’s population.

Conclusion: Where and how do we initiate attempts to reform such an environment that systematically stereotypes an entire population as radicals or oppressed women? This task is not an easy one to undertake. First and very importantly, there must be an acknowledgement of its existence and the effect it has on opinions in the public sphere. By recognizing media bias, a personal change may occur that eventually allows societal change to follow. This is a change that will have to start within the media, as it is both the source and the medium of propagation of the issue. Secondly, adequate and immediate responses should be developed to issues that the biased press uses to malign Muslims. Myths about Islam and Muslims should be debunked by a variety of means. This requires proper research. Efforts should be made to seek a fair representation of Muslims, and other marginalized communities. Lastly, a network of Muslim journalists and writers in different parts of India should be formed.