Q & A: Representation of Muslim Women in the British Press

| June 23, 2009 | 0 Comments
UK Journalist Charlie Francis-Pape researched the ethics around the representation of Islamic women in the British press.  The following is a Q & A session between Ms. Francis-Pape and Shireen Qudosi.THE PRESS AND ISLAM

CFP:  Do you think the general British public understand Islam?

SQ: With exception, I feel they have a very limited perspective of Islam. There are the obvious two sides of Islam that are exposed through various channels and for various reasons – the politically correct version and the extreme radical version.  The media feeds only one version…then another version presents itself.  I think the British people are smart enough to realize there’s a huge discrepancy here.

CFP:  If not, do you think the press are at fault? Please explain how?

SQ: I think the press, and in part politicians, appeal to sensitivities rather than truths. So yes, I think they are at fault.

CFP:  Do you consider certain newspapers to be more at fault than others?  If so, which ones and why do you think this is?

SQ: I don’t feel I’m qualified to answer this question.  However, I would like to note that certain publications play into both stereotypes and political correctness by hiring ‘columnists’ that reflect typical expectation one would have of a Muslim woman, in both appearance and attitude.   Of note, being a columnist constitutes having considerably more to say than would suffice for a ‘sticky-note’.

Papers that continue to funnel these “representatives” of Muslim women/views are certainly at fault in that they are part of a system that peddles out the recycled waste of thought, void of genuine ideas, void of genuine controversy and criticism.

CFP:  What do you think the press should do to allow the general British public to understand Islam?

SQ: Give the platform to informed moderate progressive Muslims.  Stop circulating the status quo on this issue.

CFP:  Do you think the press misrepresent Islamic women?

SQ:Yes.  They show a very one dimensional aspect of what it means to be a Muslim woman, or even a British/Western Muslim woman.

CFP:  Muslims in general?

SQ: Here it’s not so much a misrepresentation, but a failure to reach beyond the dichotomy of good Muslim bad Muslim.

CFP:  Any minority?  Beyond Muslim?

SQ: I feel I’m not qualified to offer my opinion here at this point.

CFP:  Do you think the press use cultural relativism as an excuse to ignore abuses towards women within Islam?

SQ: Yes, and they go beyond this excuse.  Cultural relativism is a concept that is now understood in the West.  It’s not a new idea, and as such the excuse has long since dried up of any credibility.    I’m not sure what the legal precedence for it is in the UK, but in the states, it has been established that CR is not a valid excuse if the resulting act inflicts harm on others or limits freedoms in any way.

As a western democratic society with shared common law, and a fundamental belief in securing inherent freedoms, I would believe (and expect) British society to hold all citizens, residents, and visitors to the same basic standard. The press uses CR as a way to tip toe around what is clearly a highly charged subject – tying back into media/political expectation of political correctness.

These channels greatly underestimate society’s ability to deal with sensitive issues head on.  Only in dealing with Islam and all its sub issues with boldness and truthfulness, can we expect to actually achieve a level of dialogue and exchange of information that will facilitate effectiveness and progress in this area.   Anything short of this is a waste of time and resources.

CFP:  Do you think, due to a fear and demand to be politically correct; the press may ignore some Islam-related stories?

SQ: It’s not a question of they may ignore, but that they do ignore many Islam-related stories out of a fear of backlash and fear of appearing to be intolerant. How tolerant is someone if they’re bending backwards to not offend a group people? Now how tolerant are they if they do this at the cost of a greater society and at the cost of free speech?


CFP:  Generally speaking, would you say that British Islamic women are persecuted by men within the Islamic faith?

SQ: Unfortunately, this is another question that I’d be far more qualified to answer after I’ve done some proper research in Britain. However, I’ve followed British Muslim trends enough to offer a cursory response, and as I have previously indicated in other writings, there’s a connector in Islamic culture/faith that links together Muslims and develops a constant set of patterns.

These patterns create Muslims who are more alike than different even though they are worlds apart geographically, economically, and socially. So to directly answer your question1, and again there are exceptions, I would say:  yes, they are.   They’re bound and chained in ways that go far beyond what merely the eyes can see.

A British Muslim woman, even a seemingly modern British woman, can be walking down the street just as any other… No she doesn’t appear persecuted.  She may not even or ever suffer physical abuse, but the constraints of Islamic culture misread as Islamic faith, including some aspects of the faith, do indeed give men (unjustified) grounds to persecute Muslim women.

These factors create a reality in the minds of many men in which they feel empowered by religion (and twisted interpretations of God/Allah) to commit the horrors they do.  And many do not and unfortunately will never even realize this fact; they do not see it as persecution, but rather protection.

[1]  Though I feel the question you’re asking is whether they’re persecuted by Muslim men, the question could also be interpreted by some as meaning does the Islamic faith persecute women.  To clarify, I am answering the former rather than the latter.

CFP:  Do you think that the media portrays this stereotype, if so how do you think they do this?

SQ: The stereotype of Muslim men persecuting Muslim women?  With the odd exception here and there, I think the media fails to acknowledge this issue completely. They may eventually cover a crime relating to this issue, but they never explore it enough, nor do they raise the necessary questions one would expect of an authentic media agency or a genuine reporter.

CFP:  The role of the press is to perform four key functions: informing the public, scrutinising the government, staging a public debate, and expressing public opinion. Based on this definition, do you think that enough room is given to Islamic women in the British press?

SQ: Well the question is how much room is enough?  Surely we wouldn’t want to specifically allocate room out of some need for “affirmative action” in media.   However, if a genuine need arises, then that is a different issue.  So perhaps the question is, “Is there a genuine need for Islamic women to have more room in British Press?”

The answer is both yes and no. If media deals with issues of Islam and Muslims in Britain, which they are, then surely in the interest of balance and authenticity there needs to be an area where Islamic women are represented.

The “How” is another question and open to debate. Some groups have created a space for Muslim columnists.  Unfortunately this appears to be a token act.  And even more unfortunately, the Muslim women in such roles neatly fit into the stereotypes allotted to them by both Muslims and non-Muslims.  They do not challenge.  They do not step beyond their pre-set parameters.

If the media is going to allow for more room for the opinions of Muslim women, they need to get past just getting a warm body to fill the spot.  They need to encourage and (push to the surface) the opinions of informed/un-influenced Muslim women who can unhinge from the burden of bias and get past being PC. This first would require the press themselves getting past PC blocks.    This is perhaps the real issue here.  Personally I wouldn’t have a problem if no Muslim women were really given room for opinion here as long as I had confidence in the ability of the press to do their job completely here.

CFP:  Based on the above, do you think the press is failing Islamic women?

SQ: Absolutely.  Worse, the press is failing themselves.

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