Victims or Terrorists: Stereotypes Against Muslim Women Originate in the Media

Region: Europe

Date: 2 June 2016

By Giulia Dessì, author of ENAR report on Italy and MDI project coordinator

islamophobia_muslim_women_front_pageThe stereotypical binary representation of Muslim women as either oppressed or dangerous prevails in the media in Europe, a new study by ENAR (European Network Against Racism) shows.

Many news stories related to Muslim women are related to violations of women’s rights, which contributes to constructing negative stereotypes within society, states the European report “Forgotten Women: the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women”.  Muslim women are perceived to embody a homogeneous group, with no distinctions, supporting domestic violence and terrorism, homophobia, gender inequality and traditional gender roles. “Such a framing of Muslims as a ‘problem’, with a particular negative attention to women, contributes to creating a fertile ground for discriminatory practices and violence on the ground,” says the European comparative report.

Eight national reports show how news media often do not consider Muslim women as having any agency. When Muslim women and girls are portrayed as individuals, with capacity to act and react, this often comes across as something remarkable and surprising.

The reports, published in the framework of a broader project, focused mainly on employment and hate crimes. The results of the research show that Muslim women suffer from the same inequalities as other women (access to employment, gender pay gap, sticky floor/glass-ceiling, domestic, verbal and physical violence, etc.) but additional factors such as perceived religion or ethnicity deepen these gender gaps.

Images of Muslim women wearing religious garments (often full-face veils, especially in some papers with an anti-immigration agenda) are often used to illustrate news items focused on the danger of an ‘Islamic invasion’, which contributes to considering Muslim women as a threat to European societies. This is reinforced by some political discourse arguing the lack of compatibility between some expressions of Islam with the so called ‘European values’ (fundamental rights, the rule of law and women’s rights in particular).

The diversity of population is not reflected in the composition of TV presenters and journalists either. In early 2015, Izzeddin Elzir, president of UCOII (Union of Islamic communities of Italy) stated that Muslims in Italy pay the TV licence fee like all residents but are not represented. “As integration is often at the centre of the public debate, it would be good if the second generation, Italian citizens and journalism graduates, would not be discriminated due to the headscarf. It would be good to make a brave step so that headscarved Muslim women can be hired”, said Izzedin Elzir, mentioning the difficulties of Muslim women in finding a job in the public sector. With regard to the Italian public service broadcaster RAI, he said that “the Islamic community has been asking RAI to broadcast a programme on Islam made by Muslims, but this has never been granted”.

The Swedish blog Nyans: Muslim (Nuance: Muslim), founded in 2014 with the goal of giving voices of Muslim women and men from a broad spectrum in the country, compiled a survey of all the op-ed articles, relating to the headscarf and the veil, in the three largest newspapers in Sweden. Between 2008 and 2015, a total of 72 articles were published on this issue. Over 95% of them (69 articles) were written by women and men who do not wear the headscarf or the veil, and almost 60% (43 articles) opposed the veil or the headscarf.

In this bleak prospect, there are some positive notes. The Danish newspaper Politiken, for example, has launched a debate on the systematic hostility and harassment many Muslim women experience as a result of their dress, giving the word to the direct testimonies by Muslim women. Furthermore, as a result of a journalistic investigation by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in 2014, trade union in the country promptly responded to condemn this discrimination. When the Aftonbladet reporter called 20 municipalities asking the assistance officers whether there was a possibility of not being catered for by staff wearing the headscarf, 16 out of 20 municipalities agreed. Trade union representatives of Kommunal and Vision stated that demands such as having staff without headscarf are completely unacceptable and ultimately affect the members of their unions: “Our trade unions are organising some 200,000 welfare workers in the health care sector. Many have a background in countries outside of Europe. They are managers, administrators, but not least, nurses, nursing assistants and personal assistants. Without them, welfare does not work, not a single day”.