Reporting Diversity
Case Study One

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


Australian perspectives

The representation of Muslim women in the media is regarded as a problem by
Muslim Australians.

… the absence of Muslim women in the coverage of Islam and Muslims is as
striking as it is unjust. The capacity and role of Muslim women exceeds
comments on the hijab or issues of gender oppression. It is crucial that
women’s expertise be recognised in all matters relating to Islam and their
contribution should be sought beyond the “women’s perspective” approach.
Until the role of women is acknowledged, it will not be possible to understand
Muslims or Islam. (IWWC, 2005)

The media guide to reporting Islam and Muslims produced by the Islamic Women’s
Welfare Council of Victoria identified seven characteristics of concern about the
portrayal of Muslims:

  1. A constant association between Islam, Muslims and conflict/violence,
    particularly since September 11;
  2. The frequent identification of race/religion when the story is about individuals
    of Islamic faith. In many instances such references are not relevant to the story
    and run counter to journalistic codes of conduct;
  3. The stereotypical representation of women as veiled, even though a significant
    number of Muslim women do not use any form of veiling. Muslim women are
    typically portrayed as submissive, oppressed and abused. Similarly, Muslim
    men are regularly portrayed as bearded, although the majority are not. The
    representation of Muslim men in the media typically runs a narrow gamut from
    conservatism, misogyny and violence to militancy and terrorism. In general,
    Muslims appear to be portrayed exclusively through their religion as a one-
    dimensional identity (e.g. portrayed as kneeling in prayer, hijab issues, halal
    food), and are otherwise largely invisible in the media;
  4. Absence of Muslims in the media as speakers on issues of concern and their
    relative absence as experts, even on issues in which Muslims might be actively
    involved. Connected to this is the overuse of key organisations or public
    figures on all issues about Islam, even when those individuals/organisations do
    not necessarily have sufficient expertise on the issue in question;
  5. The diversity of Muslim life is not adequately represented. This includes issues
    of sectarian and ethnic diversity, but also diversity in ideology and other forms
    of political affiliation;
  6. Inaccurate reporting. There have been numerous instances in which
    communities have been frustrated by the misinformation or misrepresentation
    of issues associated with them. Some of these instances have been minor, but
    others have been quite significant.
  7. Muslims and Islam appear in the media only to the extent that they are
    assumed to be of interest to a non-Muslim audience, whether as a threat, an
    object of concern or an object of exotic interest and curiosity. Further, Muslims
    in the media are typically required to act in their own defence, to respond to
    and often apologise for issues put on the agenda by mainstream media. Very
    rarely are they represented in their own terms as presenting issues and stories
    that most concern them.

The impact of media coverage of Muslim Australians is also being felt among school children. A study of Victorian secondary school students in years 10 and 11 found that most view Muslims as terrorists and a third believe they are "unclean" (Leung, 2006). Waleed Aly from the Islamic Council of Victoria described the results as troubling:

What it demonstrates is that Muslims are being viewed in a way that is really subhuman . The only way you can combat this kind of prejudice is on a personal level - it's much harder to hate people when you actually know someone in that social group. (ibid)

And this may mean a need for participatory journalism or advocacy journalism from well informed reporters with cultural connections to or at least excellent contacts within Muslim communities – these are issues the author intends to explore further. But early results from qualitative research underway on this issue indicate this is a perspective favoured by Muslim women. As part of her PhD studies on the representation of Muslim women by the Australian news media, the author has conducted preliminary interviews with four Muslim women of differing ethnic backgrounds and divergent opinion on the significance of the hijab and all expressed concern about the way Muslim women are portrayed and the disconnection of journalists from their collective experiences. The comments of one woman in particular, Sarah Malik, a recent journalism-law graduate from the University of Technology in Sydney are pertinent to this case study.

Malik wore the hijab throughout most of 2005 as an expression of her developing faith, and she says many of her friends were shocked by her decision. She was one of a growing number of young Muslim women seeking to express their faith externally in this way, often at significant social cost and in contravention of their parents’ wishes. She decided to remove the hijab after forming the view that she had learned to overcome her fear about being publicly identifiable as a Muslim.

And she blames her pre-existing fear of being a recognisable Muslim woman in a hijab in part on the media’s portrayal of Muslim women. “You feel defined by representations you see in the media … it affects your self-esteem” (ibid) and “that’s why (as a journalist) you need to be responsible. Not uncritical, but sensitive”. (Posetti, 2006)
Malik has particular insight into the issue of media representations of Muslim women and ways by which reporting standards can be improved:

. It's about exposure - it's weird because I'm the media and I'm Muslim. Muslims need to get into the media and help demystify the situation . there aren't many good Muslim spokespeople . it's actually hard for journalists to get the right information . there's so much crazy stuff out there. (ibid)

And she has some simple advice for non-Muslim journalists: “Make a Muslim friend … be open minded and take the time to talk to people and really understand them … it’s like knock and you will find.” (ibid)

If Ms Malik succeeds in breaking into the mainstream media she will be one of the very few practitioners identifying as Muslims in that realm. (Forde, S 2005). As noted by Green, an increase in ethnic diversity within newsrooms may assist the development of more balanced and informed reporting on issues affecting and involving minority groups, such as the hijab debates. “This is not tokenism or political correctness. This is about good journalism”. (Green, K 2004)

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