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What You'll Never Hear From the Media About Muslim Women

07/03/2013 12:35 pm ET | Updated Sep 02, 2013

Over the past few months, I've been repeatedly asking people the same question: What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of a Muslim woman?

Inevitably, whether I'm speaking to a group of graduate students at a prestigious university, to journalists from around the world, or to a general audience, the answers I get are strikingly similar:

Veiled
Arab/Middle Eastern
Submissive
Victim

I've been asking this question in my role as Curator for the global exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women's Art & Voices, produced by the International Museum of Women.

The answers I get today to my question are the same ones I got soon after 9/11.

Worse, the stereotypes that were emerging a decade ago seem to have only been cemented in people's minds as time has passed.

A helpless Muslim woman seems to no longer be just a stereotype. "Muslim woman" has become synonymous with "helpless victim."

Sound bites the media uses to portray Muslim women have been a large contributor in making this victim mentality a norm. For a recent infographic, IMOW partnered with Miss Representation to show the three common ways the media packages Muslim women: veiled, oppressed, and, most dangerous of all, homogenous.

Meaning: the rich diversity of opinions, appearance, spectrums of faith, occupations, cultures and even languages that exist among Muslim women is wiped clean to instead mass-produce a distorted image that is meant to sell copy and perhaps even governmental politics.

The infographic cites one study that found that as high as 91 percent of articles in national newspapers in the U.K. negatively portray Muslims.

What kind of impact does this type of angle have on audiences?

When Miss Representation linked to the Muslima infographic on their Facebook page, the image received almost 100 comments in just a few hours--and not all of them positive. In fact, a mini-storm erupted and some women, armed with a variety of examples of things seen and read in the media, aggressively reasserted the usual stereotypes of Muslim women.

Let's unpack this a bit: Even among a more progressive audience that strongly favors women's positive representation in the media, many deep stereotypes of Muslim women persisted.

I'm the last person to deny that oppression of Muslim women exists in certain parts of the world. Women can't drive a car in Saudi Arabia and are required to veil. Girls were not allowed to go to school under Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In the U.S., I marched to end the gender segregation at some mosques that forced women to enter through back doors and pray in back rooms.

But does this mean that all Muslim women, no matter where they live, don't drive, don't go to school, don't achieve?

Take myself for an example. No matter how I stretch the stereotype that exists about me as a Muslim woman, I just don't fit: I don't veil; I'm not Arab but Indian; I'm controlling, not submissive (my husband will confirm this); and I hate to listen to whining, even from my four-year-old daughter.

And that right there is the issue: my young daughter.

As a girl growing up in America, she will be facing a dual problem.

On the one hand, she will see women overly sexualized and underrepresented as leaders in film and on T.V. The extent of these troubling images is the reason why Jennifer Siebel Newsom founded Miss Representation. The sad impact on girls viewing such demeaning images of women is that they grow up with less confidence in themselves and in their abilities.

Basically, like many girls in America, my daughter will grow up focused mainly on her appearance, falsely believing that her looks are her greatest asset.

At the same time, as a Muslim, my daughter will rarely -- if ever -- see images promoting a Muslim woman who is achieving and accomplishing, is anything but the voiceless, passive object of pity and scorn.

Faced with these two sets of predominant portrayals, even unspoken expectations, I wonder how she can grow up with a positive self-image. And if she doesn't believe in herself and in her worth, how can she achieve and contribute?

In fact, if Western media is molding her Muslim identity so carefully, and any aberrations are rejected not only by those producing the image but by the many women and men who are buying into the spin, I wonder if my daughter even has a choice but to capitulate to the limits being placed on her.

And there's no doubt about where that will eventually lead her: although raised in this apparently free society, she will become yet another example of the hopeless Muslim woman.

So what will it take to counter the stereotypes of Muslim women that are held by the media, and by so many Americans?

As Curator of Muslima, I recently hosted a tweet chat to discuss this question. Prominent women joined in the conversation, such as Azadeh Moaveni, the acclaimed author of Lipstick Jihad; Fatemeh Fakhraie, who founded Muslimah Media Watch; and Shelina Janmohamed, Vice President of Ogilvy Noor.

These women agreed that the best way for people to overcome preconceptions of Muslim women is quite simple: go out and meet one.

Better yet, meet hundreds by a simple click of the mouse. Through the Muslima exhibition, Muslim women are speaking unfiltered and uncensored about the true realities of their lives.

And not one of their stories fits the mass-produced stereotype.

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