Muslim females and their representation in the media

There are times when we have been thinking about something for a while, muse about it, and then the moment of truth strikes when we know we have to raise our voice. For me this moment was when I read an article on Adage titled “How to reach Muslim women (Hint: They’re not an aesthetic)”. The arguments presented in the article are over simplified and I will be gentle in my criticism of the female writer cutting her some slack for her young age. Nevertheless, why can’t they be an aesthetic? I didn’t quite understand what the writer meant by the hint.

Muslims are expected to be a big market for many industries. I recently heard a University of Queensland (UQ) academic talk about the same after returning from Malaysia; where he had accompanied a cohort of tourism and hospitality students from UQ. University of Queensland’s tourism and hospitality programs, where I have had the privilege of studying as a postgraduate student and working with the academics and staff as a colleague, continually ranks in the top 3 tourism and hospitality programs in the world. Dr Richard Robinson, whom I have reported to and have loved working with, talked about his Malaysian experience in these words, “the intensive program involves learning about Malaysia’s cultural heritage and how that reflects in their cuisine and gastronomy”. Muslims form a different and distinct market segment in terms of their consumption of food in cafes, restaurants, and hotels. At the same time, the topic is a complex one with geo political underpinnings.

It’s an interesting conversation that needs to be had with caution, respect and understanding. The persona of a Muslim female shopper is arguably harder to understand than the generic female shopper, where the academia has made some progress over the years. In my opinion, there are way too many varied personas of Muslim female shoppers. There are marketing books written about the business case for marketing to women. A book titled “Wonder Woman: Marketing Secrets for the Trillion-Dollar Customer” by Ellwood & Shekar (2008) clearly dispels the myth of women being a niche market. The truth, as of 2008, was that women make over 80% of all purchases in the US (Ellwood & Shekar, 2008). Why is so much unknown about the Muslim female who is also a decision maker – or does the world not think so? I am not a researcher in this field but I have a feeling that we understand much less than what researchers, marketers and advertisers need to know.

Taking an educated and nuanced view of religions and ways of life, we know that for instance Christians have different sects, China that is understood as one country in the world has in fact many different countries within it (which means numerous different ways of living, value systems etc), and Hindus are quite different in their belief systems. Yet when the world thinks of Muslims, stereotypes emerge. Stereotypes exist for other religions too but stereotypes about Muslims are hard wired because of numerous factors. Mass media, and more recently an orange man, have played a huge and rather callous role in propagating mostly negative stories of Muslims. How can only negative stories emerge out of some of the most historically and culturally rich parts of the world?

Our understanding of the truth about the Muslim world is broken. Typical images of a Muslim include a terrorist, a bearded man, a woman in a full cover from head to toe or at least a hijab, and families with possibly larger number of children. The woman is not expected to be highly educated, or having a head that operates independently from her husbands. Saudis are not the only Muslims in the world, and Saudi women are playing their part in breaking stereotypes slowly but steadily. In short, the reality of being is Muslim can be in stark contrast to the portrayal of a Muslim in mass media and our perception and understanding of Muslims when we hang around them in social and work contexts. The representation of Muslims is a poignant topic. Could the life stories or perspectives of more Muslim female writers help? Perhaps!

In my experience, stereotypes of Muslims, both men and women, exist for a reason. Our private and public lives are sometimes different. People have a hard time placing me in a box that I fit well in. And I am proud and happy that I don’t fit in one. I remember the absolute amusement on the face of this woman who watched me greet a female acquaintance who was wearing a head cover (Hijab). I was returning from a party in the city with a dress appropriate for the occasion and inappropriate from the typical Muslim stereotype point of view. I wish I know what was going on in the onlookers’ heads but I can tell readers that, the one I did notice, she seemed intrigued, amused and watched us closely. I don’t blame her and it was not an intrusion in our privacy. It’s just the way things are.

I am sure many women can relate to this. Yet I think that getting the world to understand what a Muslim woman is all about is hard. First we need a conversation amongst Muslims to see how there are various types of Muslims, many shades of beliefs, differences between religious beliefs and spirituality, and therefore perhaps many representations instead of a singular identity. The different types of Muslims that somehow co-exist in different pockets of the world, are confusing for Muslims themselves. The Muslim community has divisions within itself based on beliefs, whereby the stereotypical and staunch Muslims often view the non-conformist Muslims in an extremely negative way. For some of these staunch Muslims, the non-conformist Muslims are worse than non-believers. Malala Yousafzai became a Muslim girl superhero for a reason. She defied some norms and paid the price with a bullet in her head. All Muslim non-conformist superheroes and wonder women are aware of the perils of raising their voice and being heard by a world that needs to hear their fearless voice. Needless to say, we need to support them for the hope of peace in this dangerous world that we have meticulously curated with policy, politics and instillment of fear and hatred.

Muslim women (and men) who don’t fit the stereotype are all around us and some of them might be the role models responsible for the new, emerging face of the modern Muslim who does not fit in a box. This brave breed of Muslims is silently and continually breaking stereotypes, playing in the shadows and the lime light, and enjoying every moment of blurring and stepping out of the boundaries that the world tries to draw around them.   

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