Reporting Diversity
Case Study One

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

Depictions of Muslim women

Against this background, Macmaster and Lewis identify the shift in the European media’s portrayal of veiled women from exotic to a danger to society (Macmaster & Lewis, 1998, p. 121). They point out the juxtaposition of representations of Muslim women as concurrently oppressed and threatening, while Kolhatkar highlights the depiction of Muslim women as “shapeless blue-clad forms of Afghan women” (Kolhatkar, 2002, p. 34).

The identification of Muslim women in the media via traditional Islamic dress has been noted by Begum, who argues that “images of Islamic dress are increasingly used in the media as a visual shorthand for dangerous extremism, and … Muslims all over Europe are suffering from the consequences of such associations” (Begum, 2005, p. 1). In France, a hotbed of media and political debate about the hijab, the issue has had a polarising affect on the Muslim community and a divisive impact on society and feminism, according to Ezekiel. She writes about the effect of the French Parliament’s banning of the hijab (and other “conspicuous signs of religion and politics”) in February 2004. In the first year of its operation, the legislation saw the expulsion of 48 Muslim girls and three Sikh boys from government schools. The capture of two French journalists by terrorists in Iraq who demanded the French Government lift the ban fanned the debate in August 2004. When the hostages were taken, hijab-wearing French women took to the streets demanding their release, reportedly saying “send me instead” and “I don’t want my hijab stained with blood”. The media’s portrayal of these women went from sinister symbols of Islamic extremism to brave heroines of the republic overnight (Ezekiel, 2005). But since then, the French media have reported on the suspension of a Muslim meter reader who wore a hijab under her hat, the banning of a fashion show of veiled women, the prevention of hijab-wearing mothers from volunteering in schools; the refusal of service to a student wearing a hijab by a university cafeteria and the banning of a witness to a civil service wedding from signing the documentation because her hijab prevented her from being formally identified (ibid). Clearly, the hijab story remains newsworthy in France, and Muslim women’s identities are inextricably linked to the headscarf as a result.

Ezekiel cites research which identifies a total of 10 articles in French-language newspapers in 1989-90 which make reference to the hijab or “Islamic headscarf”. By comparison, there were 150 such articles in 1993-94, with an exponential increase in 2003-2004 to 1000 articles about the same issue, with Google identifying 45,000 hits for hijab.

Ezekiel argues that a resurgence of secular French republican identity and nationalistic sentiments including staunch anti-Americanism have seen the construction of the hijab as a “dire threat to this identity and the ban as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism and American-style multiculturalism” (Ezekiel, 2005, p. 231). She argues that the resurgent Far Right in French politics contextualises the hijab debate. Accompanying this has been a re-framing of racism by the French intelligentsia seeking a justification for cultural oneness: “The rejection of international utopias and of revolution, the rise in the neo-fascist right, the rise in anti-Americanism, the rejection of multiculturalism … The veiled girls singularly embody these historical processes.” (ibid, p. 232)

According to Ezekiel, sexism and racism intersect in this debate. On one side of the feminist debate about the hijab, there are those who demand veils be banned from French streets as they encourage the harassment of unveiled women. But at the other end of the spectrum, feminists advocating a Muslim woman’s right to choose to wear or not to wear a hijab have aligned themselves with fundamentalist Islamic leaders, arguing that it’s a Muslim woman’s obligation to wear a hijab and demanding the ban be overturned.

In Canada, the hijab has also been the subject of intense national debate and media scrutiny. Manji and Clarke argue that the Canadian media’s focus on women as oppressed figures in far-off lands undermines the plight of all women in Canada, which has the second highest rate of “woman-killing” in the world (Manji & Clarke, 1992, p. 35). “There’s a journalistic jihad afoot in Canada … In recent editions of the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette or the Vancouver Sun in the space of just three weeks, each ran features ‘unveiling’ the horrors of woman abuse in the Muslim world.” (ibid) These authors suggest the focus on the hijab, for example, stems from the development of a “new Cold War” in which Islamic fundamentalism has replaced Communism as a rallying point for opponents of Western society.

Drawing on a study utilising focus groups of Muslim women, Bullock and Jafri found that: “Muslim women are often presented in mainstream Canadian media as outsiders and members of a religion that does not promote Canadian values.” (Bullock & Jafri, 2000, p. 35). They conclude that Muslim women’s identities will continue to be excluded from the construction of “women” in the broader context until there is a better understanding of Muslim cultures and Islamic beliefs. “Our argument is that Muslim women are presented as outsiders: as foreign, distant ‘others’, and as members of a religion (Islam) that does not promote ‘Canadian’ values but anti-Canadian values such as indiscriminate violence and gender oppression.”

A review of five Canadian daily newspapers between 1993 and 1997 found 96 articles on Muslim women, with 73 (76 per cent) about Muslim women in foreign countries and only 23 (24 per cent) relating to Muslim Canadian women (Jafri cited in Bullock & Jafri, 2000). Twenty of the 23 articles (87 per cent) were specifically about the issue of women wearing the hijab in Canada. “Whether in the guise of the exotic Oriental beauty, the veiled and oppressed victim, or the scarf-wearing, gun-toting fundamentalist fanatic, this constant linkage of Muslim women to hijab, and hijab to oppression/violence, reinforces the Orientalist paradigm of Muslims as un-Canadian.” (ibid, p. 38)

The authors argue that because of the media’s cultural fixation on Muslim women’s dress as a symbol of oppression, Muslim women often have to focus on that aspect of their identity as well, even if they would rather discuss something else. They suggest that even responsible journalism about Muslim women tends to relegate them to the role of a reactionary source in the hijab debate. “In sum, it is clear that Muslim women are predominantly presented to the Canadian public as foreign, ‘exotic’, oppressed, or threatening ‘others’ rather than as one’s ‘unexotic’, unthreatening next door neighbours.” (ibid, p. 7)


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