The Western Lens and Breaking Away From the Stereotypes of Muslim Women

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It is through an Americanized lens that view of Islamic women is distorted and stereotyped. Common stereotypes fed to the Western Public involve the idea that Muslim females wearing the hijab are oppressed, that these women are without voice and submissive to their husbands (a sign of gender inequality), creating a victimized image of Islamic women in Western eyes.

For the women of Muslim religion and culture, the hijab is not a sign of oppression, but a sign of devotion to God and a sign of power. In the film Nazrah: A Muslim Woman’s Perspective director Farah Nousheen interviews a number of Islamic women living in the northwest on their struggles in America and their views on their religion and culture. One woman, faithful to Islam, explains to the interviewer the importance of the veil in her religion and how the hijab is a way of telling the world that the relationship with and reverence for God is more important than the body, and that covering up keeps men from sinning. That is power right there, the ability to cause or not cause others to stumble by actions. In the Muslim community wearing the hijab garners respect and honor, gives neutrality to gender (most everyone in Islamic cultures are covered), and is a choice. Yes, a choice. A symbol of one’s pride and devotion to their faith. The Way North is a documentary about North African immigrants in France, and in one family trying to make ends meet the choices in wearing the hijab between first and second generation Muslim women can be different. The mother wears the hijab daily, but her daughter, when interviewed, says that only when she is old will she wear the Hijab, illustrating that there is a choice, and the choice can vary generationally. However, the young girl is forced not to wear the hijab in school. The hijab becomes oppressive when choice is taken away, whether it be forced to wear or to not wear.

The hijab as a misrepresentation of Muslim women as oppressed can be most clearly seen in the media, and especially in the example of the Aug 9, 2010 issue of Time Magazine. The magazine depicts a young Afghan whose nose and ears were cut off by her husband:

“Shivering in the cold air and blinded by the flashlights trained on her by her husband’s family, she faced her spouse and accuser. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn’t run away, she would have died.http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2007407,00.html#ixzz1wCU2twfQ

It is through the Western lens that Muslim women (wearing the hijab) are victimized in order to make Americans the heroes that save these poor victims. This image is an example of the American stereotype of Muslim women, that they are helpless and suffering. There are abused women in America, yet we do not say that the identity of the American woman is that of an abused victim, so why are we doing this to Muslim women? Karin Albou, director of the 2008 film The Wedding Song, attempts to frame a new perspective on Islam, one that is not focused on oppression and being saved by men or other countries. In fact, in The Wedding Song best friends, one Jewish and the other Muslim, save each other. The Jewish girl, Myriam, goes to school while Nour, the Muslim girl, stays at home. In one of the scenes filmed in the women’s bathhouse, an intimate and private place for the women in this Tunisian town, guards come in looking to arrest Jews. The Muslim women grab their towels and hijab to cover themselves, but Myriam is a Jew and does not have a hijab. Nour takes off her hijab and gives it to Myriam, risking her life to save her friend, and Nour survives by saying the call to prayer. Friendship between these two girls is the saving factor in this film, not some outside hero like America, and neither girl is victimized through the lens of the camera.

In the wake of Arab Spring, there is another woman who breaks down the Western stereotype of voiceless Islamic women: Fadoua Laroui. A mother of two, Fadoua filed for divorce from her unfit husband and continued life in a small make-shift shack. Life in her home was suddenly cut short when the Moroccan government burned down her house. Fadoua filed for housing, but was denied because she was an unwed mother. Furious at the unfair odds stacked against her, she decided to light herself on fire as a serious protest to the government, to show them the state that they have left people in. Fadoua died on February 23, 2011. Compare Fadoua to the young woman on Time Magazine, Aisha. What has a bigger impact on the community of Muslims? An outside “hero”, America, saving these Islamic women and forever branding them with oppression and victimization? Or, women in this culture protesting for their own people, and maybe saving others through protesting down the line?

Stereotypes from the Western Lens limit Islamic women to voiceless, powerless, and oppressed. Yet, Muslim history tells a different story. Muhammad’s (the founder of Islam) first wife, Khadija, was a powerful and wealthy merchant and a mentor to Muhammad. She was the one that insisted he write down messages from God (later, his messages were compiled into a book, which is the Qu’ran), and is considered the mother of Islam as she was the first to convert to the new religion. Khadija was neither voiceless nor powerless in her marriage of 25 years with Muhammad, and if only the Western perspective could look for these qualities in Islamic women too, in order to break away from the negative and victimized image put on these women by outsiders. Because these women do have voices, do have power, equality, and strength.

-Kim Mapstead

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