Reporting Diversity
Case Study One

Media representations of the hijab - Julie Posetti, University of Canberra


Introduction

Over the past decade, the appropriateness of traditional clothing worn by some Muslim women, particularly the head covering known as the hijab, has been the focus of often fierce media debates. The hijab debate has come to symbolise the clash of cultures fanned by links between Islamic extremism and 21st century terrorism. While in several Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, the full covering, known as the chador or burqa, has been mandatory, a backlash against Muslim culture has seen such clothing banned, along with the much more common hijab, in the interests of secularism. In this context, Muslim women are portrayed by the Western media either as veiled victims in need of liberation in foreign lands because of a lack of free choice, or a threat to the Western societies in which they reside because of their choice to adopt traditional Islamic dress.

The hijab is essentially a scarf-like piece of cloth worn by Muslim women in some Islamic cultures to cover the hair as an expression of piety, based on interpretations of Qur’anic directives for modesty. It has been branded a threat to the notion of the separation between church and state and banned in schools and government institutions in some secular states, including Germany, France and Turkey, as a form of inappropriate religious identification. It has divided the feminist movement with conflicting claims that it is a symbol of both oppression and freedom of expression. It’s seen as an act of non-conformity and defiance by conservative Western political opponents and even portrayed as a terrorist threat in itself because of its potential use by suicide bombers to disguise their intentions. The coverage of these debates – which have become front-page news and have dominated talkback radio whenever they arise - has in turn sparked controversy about racism and ignorance within the media.

In the Australian context, news stories about the hijab have been triggered by politicians bringing the matter into the public arena, by the actions of schools or community organisations which have sought to regulate the wearing of the hijab, through the demonisation of Muslim women by talkback radio hosts and by the vilification of Muslim women following terrorist attacks such as those in the US, Bali and London. There was also the anomalous personification of the debate in the form of Michelle Leslie, a swimwear model who claimed to be a Muslim convert and temporarily adopted traditional Muslim dress including the hijab and cover-all burqa after being charged with drug possession in Bali.

While the media can’t be held solely responsible for the construction of national identity nor blamed for societal attitudes towards minority cultures and religions, they play a significant role by providing “the lens through which reality is perceived” (Henry cited in Bullock & Jafri, 2000). While the Western media sees itself as a democratic institution, it is often held accountable for legitimising and spreading racism and bias against religious communities such as Muslims (Bullock & Jafri, 2000).

Most Australians source their information from the news media, with television news the primary source (http://www.roymorgan.com/news/polls/2004/3789/). Thus the news media are the main source of information on Islam for the Australian community. According to the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria: “…for many Muslims residing in Australia the question, and indeed the possibility of their acceptance into Australian society, is profoundly connected to how the media portrays their place in Australia.” (Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria, 2005, p. 4)

In recent years, there has been a shift in the reporting of issues relating to Islam and Muslims in this country, with the framing within news and current affairs coverage shifting from politics to religion (ibid). This trend has been accompanied by the homogenisation of diverse cultural groups, resulting in widespread and damaging application of generalisations and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. As the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council notes, “Media representation of Arab and Muslim communities has long been of concern and a source of much distress among Australian Muslims. It is clear some media outlets and journalists have portrayed Muslims accurately and sensitively; it is also clear the great majority of Muslims feel that the representations of Australian Muslims has been problematic.” (ibid, p. 50)

As the controversial report on the Australian media’s coverage of multicultural Australia, “Race for the headlines”, recognised, the media have the power to “…shape public opinion in a positive sense and affect change and understanding” (McCausland, NSW Anti Discrimination Board, 2003, p. 6). The same study observes that “today’s media is now more pervasive and more persuasive than ever. With that power comes great responsibility. We are not convinced that this responsibility is always exercised as maturely and as wisely as we have the right to expect that it will be” (ibid, p. 5). It argues that it is “critical to challenge the everyday discursive practices of the media around the racialisation of debates and the pillorying of racial or ethnic minority communities” in order to “highlight the impacts of institutional racism in the media, and the implications for the entire Australian community” (ibid, p. 6).

This case study will focus on ABC Radio Current Affairs programs’ treatment of the issue through coverage by AM, PM and The World Today. These programs are regarded as agenda-setting and influential among fellow journalists and the nation’s policy-makers and power brokers. The context of the coverage will also be explored via a timeline of related events over the past decade.

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