Muslim women are both highly visible members of one of the most marginalised groups in Western society and the most vulnerable to vilification and media stereotyping. Ubiquitously portrayed as veiled, they are represented as concurrently oppressed and radical non-conformists; threatened and threatening; as passive sex-slaves and exotic, erotic beings.
These problems were on stark display in the ABC’s Tuesday night screening of its much-hyped and highly controversial documentary, Jihad Sheilas. If the title alone didn’t suggest sensationalist coverage of Muslim women, the inflammatory promo the station ran to attract an audience to the documentary certainly did.
Billed as ‘unmissable’, the advertisement implied the two women featured, Raisah bint Alan Douglas and Rabiah Hutchinson, were directly involved in terrorism. But while they were clearly adherents to a fundamentalist brand of Islam and have been closely associated with terror suspects, the inference that they were themselves terrorists failed to stack up against the evidence presented.
On high rotation, the promo evoked reactions of fear and loathing through careful editing and use of a dramatic soundtrack and voiceover which made the women appear both threatening and alien. It also employed patriotic discourses as a tool for reinforcing the theme that these ‘Aussie Sheilas’ had rejected Australian culture and values in favour of extremism.
The documentary itself provides a perfect case study for analysis of the media’s coverage of Muslim women – a culturally and linguistically diverse group united by a rich faith but symbolised generically by the distinctive religious clothing some choose to wear.
While this clothing makes them a clearly identifiable group, Muslim women are almost invisible and voiceless in news coverage. When they do appear, they’re almost exclusively cast as the outsider – alien to Australian culture and social experience.
Jihad Sheilas employed high quality production values for dramatic effect to reinforce the themes of danger and difference. It also raised serious ethical questions about the way in which the women’s participation was negotiated by the program makers. They claim they were tricked into appearing in the documentary, insisting they were told by the producers that they would feature on the highly regarded Australian Story (claims the ABC denies) which is renowned for empathetic, narrator-less coverage of sensitive issues.
But while the women’s behaviour on camera indicated that considerable time had been invested in establishing rapport between the interviewers and the subjects – consistent with an offer of sympathetic portrayal – Jihad Sheilas was as far removed from an Australian Story as television gets.
The opener set the scene for a set-up. With narration delivered in dramatic tones, the documentary’s subjects were introduced as "two Australian converts to Islam" and we heard one of the women say "we’re Aussies at the end of the day…she’s from Wagga and I’m from Mudgee." This introduction was intercut with images of the September 11 attacks, vision of Osama Bin Laden and George Bush’s divisive "you’re either with us or you’re against us" call to arms.
A selection of heavily edited, de-contextualised quotes from the women were then presented against threatening music: "I would defend Islam with my life…so that makes me a filthy dirty terrorist"; "It’s not a bad thing for Islam what Osama Bin Laden has said"; "You have just asked me a question that could very well have me put away for a long time," they are heard saying before the narrator opines: "They believe they are innocent victims of the War on Terror." The sequence concluded with a staged image of a beautiful, pale skinned woman with enormous blue eyes – peering out from a full hijab. The words "Jihad Sheilas" were stamped over her face.
When the truncated quotes featured in the opener were shown in context much later in the program, it was clear they’d been manipulated for dramatic effect.
When the interviewer asked Hutchinson, "Would you die for your faith?" this is what she said: "Of course. The same as if you ask me would I die to defend my children. Does that mean I’m going to go and lob grenades out of a bus in Lakemba? No, it doesn’t. But you have just asked me a question that could have me put away for a long time." Her point was clearly intended to illustrate how her words could be taken out of context and that’s precisely what the program did by the focusing on last part of this quote in the opener, implying that she may be guilty of criminal activity.
In the opener, Hutchinson was also heard saying, "I would defend Islam with my life, so that makes me a filthy, dirty, subhuman terrorist." But in context she said, "I would defend Islam with my life, so that makes me a filthy, dirty, subhuman terrorist that deserves anything and everything that anybody and everybody wants to do to them… but at the end of the day it doesn’t deter me from my faith and it only makes me stronger." Her point was that she was judged unfairly because of her adherence to a hardline version of Islam, judgement which was only encouraged by the ABC’s mis-representation of her comments at the beginning of the program.
The script also repeatedly highlighted the women’s multiple marriages and many children. They were portrayed as promiscuous and rampantly fertile, feeding time-worn stereotypes surrounding Muslim women. But these women suffered a double whammy – they were also portrayed as traitors to their culture, the religion they were born into and their country of birth.
The ABC’s uncharacteristic resort to tabloid storytelling techniques in this program highlights their particular vulnerability to negative, stereotypical representation.
This is a theme familiar to international researchers considering the portrayal of Muslims in the post-September 11 environment. European and North American researchers have noted the same trend identified in Australia, pointing to ideological roots in ‘Orientalism’, Edward Said’s theory that the Muslim world and its inhabitants are considered backward, barbaric and outsiders – or ‘others’ – to Western society.
In 2005, the journal Anthropology Today commented that "…images of Islamic dress are increasingly used in the media as visual shorthand for dangerous extremism, and … Muslims all over Europe are suffering from the consequences of such associations". And Canadian academics Bullock and Jafri have observed that: "Muslim women are often presented in mainstream Canadian media as outsiders and members of a religion that does not promote Canadian values… such as indiscriminate violence and gender oppression."
Reactionary and disempowering media representations of Muslim women have significant implications, both for the women themselves and for the sustainability of Multiculturalism, as such coverage inflames xenophobia. They also imply a need for a re-examination of journalistic practices, standards and ethics surrounding the coverage (or lack thereof) of Muslim women, including at the ABC.
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