"Saving" Muslim women and fighting Muslim men:
Analysis of representations in The New York
Bowling Green State University
This study analyzed representations of
Muslim men and women in The New York Times between September
11, 2001 and September 11, 2003. Stories about Muslim women living
in non-Western countries were often stories about political violence
where they were represented as victims of violence and Islamic
practices. Representations of Muslim women were also marked by a
continual obsession with the veil. Muslim women were often portrayed
as victims in need of Western liberation, which was sometimes
defined narrowly as the exercise of individual choice in the
purchase and use of consumer goods such as nail polish, lipsticks
and high-heeled shoes. Articles on Muslim men were often about
Islamic resurgence, terrorism and illegal immigration with details
about "resumes of holy warriors" and "manuals of killing." However,
The New York Times also performed a watchdog role by
highlighting violation of civil rights of Muslims living in the
United States and hate crimes committed against them after the
September 11 attacks. Such stories, however, were rarely able to
resist the dominant representations of Muslim men as violent and
dangerous and Muslim women as victims of oppression. The dominant
images of both Muslim men and women served the same purpose: They
established the need to intervene to rescue the women and control
"Saving" Muslim women and fighting Muslim men:
Analysis of representations in The New York Times.
Viewing mediated representations of both men and
women may be considered by some to be a truly feminist exercise as
it is both critical and inclusive. The purpose of this paper is to
identify and compare representations of Muslim men and women in
The New York Times between September 11, 2001 and September 11,
2003, a period that witnessed both the war in Afghanistan in 2001
and the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003. In both the wars,
saving oppressed Muslim women and fighting militant Muslim men
served as important justifications for waging war against the two
countries. For instance, First Lady Laura Bush in a radio address on
November 17, 2001 stated: "The fight against terrorism is also a
fight for the rights and dignity of women" (Bush, 2001). The address
enlisted support of women for the war in Afghanistan by pointing out
that "because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan,
women are no longer imprisoned in their homes" (Bush, 2001). Such
broad claims render it necessary to analyze how Muslim women are
portrayed in the U.S. press.
A study of media representations of Muslim men also
becomes important considering that in the two months following the
September 11 attacks, more than 1,200 non-US nationals were taken
into custody in the United States, in "nationwide sweeps for
possible suspects" (Amnesty International, 2002). Partial data
released by the government revealed that most were men of Arab or
South Asian origin (Amnesty International, 2002). The Amnesty
International report stated that the organization is concerned that
the U.S. government may be violating fundamental rights of those
arrested and detained. In another report titled "Human Rights
Forgotten in USA’s ‘War on Terrorism,’" Amnesty International (2003)
revealed that since the 9/11 attacks, more than 3,000 people who are
alleged to be "al-Qa'ida operatives and associates" have been
arrested in over 100 countries. Again, the report expressed deep
concern about people held without trials and charges.
Elizabeth Poole and John Richardson (2006) assert
that they feel a "pressing ethical and political obligation to
criticize and counteract the distorted reporting" on Islam and
Muslims as such coverage encourages detention of Muslims without
trial and racial profiling (p. 2). Apart from racial profiling of
Muslims, the raging "War on Terrorism," continuing occupation of
Iraq and escalating political violence in the region only heighten
the urgency to examine how the U.S. press represents Muslim women
and men post-9/11 and whether such images jointly justify the logic
of empire? While this article will identify dominant and alternative
representations of Muslim men and women in The New York Times
and examine how such representations are used to justify Western
intervention in Muslim societies, it must be clarified that this
study does not assume that there is a monolithic reality about
Muslims that is either represented or misrepresented in the Times.
U.S. media coverage of Muslims
A study of previous literature shows that several
scholars have confirmed the negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims
in American entertainment programs (Ghareeb, 1983; Kamalipour, 1995;
Shaheen, 1984; 1997; 2000) and news media (Hashem, 1995; Kamalipour,
1995; Karim, 2000; 2002; 2006; Suleiman, 1988; Wolfsfeld, 1997).
Edward Said (1994) pointed out that in newsreels or news photos, the
Arab is shown in large numbers without scope to portray his personal
characteristics or experiences. He argued that most pictures of
Muslim men represent "mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence
hopelessly eccentric gestures). Lurking behind all of these images
is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims
(or Arabs) will take over the world" (Said, 1994, p. 287).
Analyzing the U.S. media coverage of the Persian
Gulf War, Muscati (2002) highlighted the racial construction of the
Arab/Muslim man as existing in a contextual and historical vacuum,
"distanced spatially, temporally and morally from the West" (Muscati,
2002, p. 135). In fact, a common argument scholars make is that
media portrayal of Muslims is not grounded in politics,
international relations or historical background (Karim, 2000;
Poole, 2002, Wilkins & Downing, 2002). For instance, Wilkins and
Downing (2002) in their textual analysis of the film, The Siege
(1998), pointed out that the absence of reference to oil politics,
Western military intervention in the Middle East and Israeli
policies prevented the film from presenting "a rounded perspective"
of Arab/Muslim realities.
Research on post-9/11 media representations of
Muslims indicates that previous trends have either continued or
worsened. Sreberny-Mohammadi (1995) pointed out that stereotypes
developed during war and conflict situations continue to "play a
role in the ways we are invited to think about, and act toward,
minorities in our midst" (p. 440). Poole (2006) in her analysis of
the effects of 9/11 and the war in Iraq on British newspaper
coverage found that these events "allowed for the construction of
Muslims within a more limited and negative framework" (p. 92). She
identified a continuation of pre-9/11 themes associated with
coverage of British Muslims including their portrayal as a threat to
the security of the United Kingdom and to "British ‘mainstream’
Karim (2006) argued that the primary frames used by
the media in the portrayal of Muslims draw from "cultural
assumptions" about Islam that have survived a long time (p.118).
Since the end of the Cold War, the West has been confronting the
"Islamist challenge," starting with the 1979 revolution in Iran and
the hostage crisis (Salame, 1993). Karim (2006) thus located
parallels in the coverage of Iran in 1979 with that of the 2002 war
in Afghanistan: "Just as the journalists from the US and other
countries covering Iran in 1979 were not able to sense the impending
revolution, those reporting the overthrow of the Taliban in
Afghanistan in 2002 were too quick to predict that women in the
country would all throw off the burqa" (p. 117).
Unveiling Muslim women - again
The need to unveil Muslim women has remained a
Western obsession for centuries. In the book Colonial Harem
(1987), Algerian writer Malek Alloula analyzed picture post cards of
Algerian women produced and sent by the French in Algeria in the
period between 1900 and 1930. Alloula exposed the colonial gaze on
Algerian women by explaining the photographer’s fascination with
veiled women and the accompanying need to unveil them. He documented
the "double violation" committed by the photographer who "will
unveil the veiled and give figural representation to the forbidden"
(p.17). Thus, Steet (2000) commenting on a 1924 National Geographic
magazine picture of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca wanted to
"slap the hand entering from the photograph’s left frame and holding
open the woman’s robe, exposing her breast" (p. 7). Both Alloula and
Steet offered a critical intervention in the act of forced unveiling
of the Muslim woman by the West.
However, today like in the past, the very act of
unveiling Muslim women is represented as a victory for the West,
specifically a victory for an America victimized by terrorism (Lueck,
2003). Thus, President George W. Bush called for the "liberation" of
women in Afghanistan while American forces occupied their territory.
"Fully draped, these unseen women were ripe for interpretation. They
became the victim in need of rescue by U.S. democratic values. To
save these women would be to rescue ourselves" (Lueck, 2003).
Similarly, Cloud (2004), in her analysis of images
of Afghan women and men published on Time.com between September 11,
2001 and September 11, 2002, argued that the images of veiled Afghan
women helped the viewer assume a "paternalistic stance." The women
were depicted as being liberated only after U.S. troops invaded the
country; they then began removing their veils and shopping for
consumer goods. Cloud (2004) pointed out that liberation was defined
in the images as the "exposure of women to the consumer market and
to the mass media….shopping becomes a key indicator of modernity"
Although American media often refer to the veil while
describing Muslim women, studies show that they do not highlight the
complex meanings associated with the veil (Abu-Lughod, 2002; Cloud,
2004; Esposito, 1998; Shirazi, 2001; Wilkins, 1995). El Guindi
(1999) accused the Western media of harboring hostility against the
veil "often under the guise of humanism, feminism or human rights"
(p. xi). She argued that veiling in contemporary Arab culture is
largely about identity and privacy. It may also imply rank and
status, power, autonomy and/or resistance. Thus, modesty and
seclusion are not the only characteristics of a veil although these
two elements are most emphasized in Western writings on Middle
Eastern women (El Guindi, 1999).
Furthermore, Abu-Lughod (2002) compared veils to
"mobile homes" (p.785) and the expectation that Afghan women will
throw off their burqas as a mark of liberation to expecting
Westerners to wear shorts to the opera. She emphasized the need to
work against the "reductive interpretation of veiling as the
quintessential sign of women’s unfreedom" and opposed the reduction
of "diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to
a single item of clothing" (p. 786). However, as the review of
previous literature shows, the U.S. media often represent Muslim
women and men as "inferior" to their Western counterparts and
evaluate their lives according to Western norms. The article will
now give an account of the theoretical framework used for this
Theoretical framework: Questioning universal
application of Western norms of progress and consumerist modernity
This study will draw upon Edward Said’s critique of
Orientalism and upon feminist criticism to analyze the portrayal of
Muslim women and men in The New York Times. Referring to
Orientalism as a "discourse of power," Said (1994) identified
Orientalist discourse as a "Western style for dominating,
restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (1994, p. 3).
For Said, the Orient refers primarily to Muslim societies in Africa
and Asia. Orientalist discourses "depict Muslim Arabs as culturally
and psychologically primitive, prisoners of their emotions, trapped
in a patriarchal vise, and locked into ‘jihad’" (Wilkins & Downing,
2002, p. 420).
Said (1994) explained that the Orientalist confirms
existing beliefs of his audience without questioning them. In
the case of media coverage, news practices such as selection of
specific sources, using certain story-telling techniques, deadline
pressure and even cultural assumptions of journalists often
contribute to representing Muslim men and women in Orientalist
frames. Said (1997) argued in his book Covering Islam that
"what the media produce is neither spontaneous nor completely
‘free’: ‘news’ does not just happen" (p.48). Instead, there is a
"qualitative and quantitative tendency to favor certain views and
certain representations of reality over others" (Said, 1997, p. 49).
One of Said’s most powerful achievements, Ganguly (1992) thus
pointed out, is his demonstration that Orientalism goes beyond
"theoretical violence" and continues to be demonstrated in
"contemporary intellectual and political practice" (p. 73).
While Said’s work has been criticized by several
scholars (Halliday, 1993; Kerr, 1990; Lewis, 1982; Musallam, 1979;
Turner, 1989), other scholars have founded the academic discipline
of postcolonial studies by building on his thesis through revisions
and counter-arguments (Bhabha, 1994; Yeğenoğlu, 1998; Young 1990;
Young 2001). These scholars have reworked Said’s concept of colonial
discourse and highlighted the tension and instability within it;
they have qualified Said’s emphasis on hegemony with an account of
counter-hegemonic resistance (Bhabha, 1994; Young 2001).
Furthermore, scholars such as Yeğenoğlu (1998) have
developed Said’s arguments to include a "sexualized reading" of
Orientalism, thus demonstrating how images of women and sexuality
are critical to the very formulation of Orientalist discourses.
According to Yeğenoğlu (1998), Orientalist discourses depict the
West as the "universal subject of history" that has developed a
"universally applicable norm of development and progress" (p.
95-96). In a globalized world, the Western media propagate a
"consumerist vision of modernity" which guarantees "self-realization
and pleasure through consumption" (Murdock, 2006, p. 24). Armed with
the belief that values of Enlightenment, liberalism and Western
modernity are universal, transnational media engage in a "battle for
the hearts and minds of people the world over" (Chitty, 2005, p.
555). However, generalizations based on Eurocentric assumptions
about the living conditions of non-Western women and men only aid
imperialistic projects. Wilkins (2004) thus argued that "the U.S.
government attempts to impose a process of transition within the
Middle East based on an idealization of tradition and modernity
within a global sphere" through its development and military
projects in the region (p. 483).
Further, Mohanty (1984) accused Western feminisms of
appropriating and colonizing "the fundamental complexities and
conflicts which characterize the lives of women of different
classes, religions, cultures, races and castes" in developing
countries (p.335). She argued that power is exercised when Western
values and culture are used as a universal measure of progress and
modernity. While Western women are assumed to be secular, liberated
third world women as a group or category are
automatically and necessarily defined as: religious (read
‘non-progressive’), family-oriented (read ‘traditional’), legal
minors (read ‘they-are-still-not-conscious-of-their-rights),
illiterate (read ‘ignorant’), domestic (read ‘backward’) and
sometimes revolutionary (read
1984, p. 352).
Women in non-Western societies are thus studied
primarily in terms of their "object status (the way in which they
are affected or not affected by certain institutions and systems)"
and evaluated on the basis of how far they have reached the goal of
achieving Western ideals (Mohanty, 1984, p. 338).
In the preface to the book Beyond the Veil:
Male-female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, Fatima Mernissi
(1987) asserted that the tradition of discussing Muslim women "by
comparing them, explicitly or implicitly, to Western women," leads
to "senseless comparisons and unfounded conclusions" often limiting
the issue to "who is more civilized than whom" (p. 7). Responsible
for such misleading moves is the "application of the notion of woman
as a homogenous category" without taking specific contexts into
account and the lack of connections being made between "first and
third world power shifts" (Mohanty, 1984, p. 351-352).
Apart from accepting the premise that specific
socio-political and cultural contexts must be taken into account to
enable a better understanding of women’s lives worldwide, this study
also assumes that "the ‘feminine condition’ cannot be separated from
that of men, the family, and the wider society" (Fernea, 1985, p.
2). Based on these theoretical foundations, the following research
questions will be addressed in this study.
RQ1: How does The New York Times represent
RQ2: How does The New York Times represent
RQ3: How do the representations of Muslim women and
men in The New York Times establish the need for Western
intervention in Muslim societies?
A textual analysis of news articles (n=258) was
conducted to analyze the representations of Muslim men and women. A
LexisNexis search for the words "Muslim woman" and "Muslim female"
and their plural forms in The New York Times between
September 11, 2001 and September 11, 2003, yielded 136 articles.
A similar search for the words "Muslim man," "Muslim
male" and their plural forms yielded 122 articles. The New York
Times was selected for study because it is an eminent national
daily, respected both nationally and internationally. The Times
also sets an agenda for other news media, both print and broadcast (Lule,
The author followed a grounded textual analysis
approach to examine the articles (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). The
author identified a variety of representations of Muslim men and
women in the articles in The New York Times through multiple
readings and categorized them thematically. The method of
qualitative textual analysis enabled the author to examine both
manifest and latent meanings associated with the portrayal of Muslim
men and women.
This analysis includes both news articles as well as
commentary, such as editorials and opinion essays. Editorials and
commentary not only summarize and evaluate news events, but they
also influence how a particular news event is portrayed. Each of
these formats contribute to the overall portrayal of Muslim women
and men in The New York Times. Including a variety of texts
allows a more comprehensive description of this characterization in
The New York Times.
This section will answer the three research
questions. The first question asked about the representations of
Muslim women in The New York Times. While there was an
overwhelming portrayal of Muslim women living in different parts of
the world as victims of political violence and Islamic practices,
few articles portrayed them as agents of resistance and change
within the Islamic framework. However, The New York Times did
highlight acts of hatred committed against Muslim women living in
the United States after the 9/11 attacks. Some articles portrayed
liberation as the freedom to unveil and buy consumer goods.
Representations of Muslim women in The New York Times were
categorized into the following themes: Muslim women as victims of
violence and Islamic practices; Liberation of Muslim women linked
with consumer freedom and Western liberal ideologies; Marginal
coverage of resistance by Muslim women within the Islamic framework;
Obsession with the veil and concern with re-veiling; and
highlighting acts of hatred against Muslim women in post-9/11
America. While analyzing the themes, it must be noted that articles
on Muslim women and men did not always focus on a single theme. Some
articles drew from more than one theme making it difficult to divide
them into mutually exclusive categories.
The second research question asked about the
representations of Muslim men in The New York Times, which
were thematically categorized as the following: Stories of violence,
terrorism and Islamic resurgence; Deporting illegal immigrants from
the United States; and Muslim men and the debate between civil
rights and national security. In the case of Muslim men, the
dominant focus on violence is reflected in the fact that at least 55
percent of the 122 articles on Muslim men focused on acts of
violence and their repercussions in different regions of the world.
The following sub-sections will elaborate on the
themes toward answering the third research question, which asked how
representations of Muslim men and women in The New York Times
establish the need for Western intervention in Muslim societies.
Muslim women as victims of violence and Islamic
Stories about Muslim women living in the non-Western
world were often stories about political violence in Kashmir,
Rwanda, Nigeria, Bosnia, West Bank, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.,
where Muslim women frequently figured as victims of rape, torture,
stoning and patriarchal oppression. For example, a news article with
a Kaduna, Nigeria dateline, which was titled "Fiery Zealotry Leaves
Nigeria in Ashes Again," stated: "Nigeria’s president, Olusegun
Obasanjo, arrived in Kaduna today to begin reconciling his country’s
population, which has shown itself to be devoutly religious but also
quick to kill" (Lacey, 2002, p. A3). The article covered the
religious riots that broke out after a newspaper published a report
that was considered offensive by some Muslims. The article pointed
out that the "Shariah remains a contentious issue in Nigeria,
especially since two Muslim women were recently sentenced to death
by stoning for having extramarital sex" (Lacey, 2002, p. A3).
A news article with a Netanya, Israel dateline
narrated the story of Ashley Nasser, a Muslim woman from Morocco,
who was injured when a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated his
explosives in a hotel packed for Passover:
A year and five operations later, Ms. Nasser,
one of the more than 100 who were wounded in the bombing, lives
alone on the fifth floor of the nearly deserted hotel, her
paralyzed right arm leaving her unable to work, and bits of
jagged metal still working their way to the surface of her skin.
Two weeks ago, a sliver was extracted from her right eyelid.
That leaves two pieces near her spine, one behind her ear and
one wedged inside a molar. (Myre, 2003, p. A3)
Another news article on political violence in
Kashmir pointed out how an "exaggerated" picture of "Indian
atrocities" was used to gain support for the insurgency:
Officials here hand out purported tallies of the
victims. According to one official list, 71, 204 Kashmiris have
been killed by Indian troops, 553 children have been burned
alive in their schools, and 7, 613 Muslim women have been raped
by soldiers, among other monstrous acts….International rights
groups have documented widespread vigilante killings, rapes and
other violations by Indian forces, but involving far fewer
victims than Pakistan describes. Rights monitors say that Muslim
rebels have also targeted civilians and engaged in brutality. (Eckholm,
2002, p. A6)
While there was an overwhelming coverage of
violence, there were few stories on Muslim women’s everyday lived
experiences, their struggles, successes and failures. It may be
argued that basic news values lead to a focus on violent situations
than on everyday lives of ordinary Muslim women. However, such
portrayals contribute to the narrow framing of Muslim women as
oppressed victims in need of rescue. Further, while the articles on
political violence often offered graphic coverage of acts of
violence, few articles offered political context and historical
background of those conflict situations.
Liberation of Muslim women linked with consumer
freedom and Western liberal ideologies
While many articles in The New York Times
presented Muslim women as victims of oppression, some articles
constructed a rather narrow interpretation of liberation and
modernity. A reporter sensed "freedom" reigning in the streets of
Kabul after the United States invaded Afghanistan by noting the
number of thriving beauty salons, and the popularity of "fashionable
hairstyles and nail varnishes and cosmetics" (Burns, 2002, p. 10).
However, he lamented that the "concept of beauty remains intensely
private, for a woman’s own pleasure, and for the men in her family"
even as the reporter and his photographer "were turned away at
several salons before being admitted at Humaira’s, and there, many
of the women undergoing treatments fled to the back of the salon,
peering nervously through the curtains at the intruders" (Burns,
2002, p. 10). The news article titled "Relishing Beautiful New
Freedoms in Kabul" further elaborated that the "most visible change
in the way women in Kabul appear in public is the increasing number
who venture out without wearing the shroudlike burqa" (Burns, 2002,
In several articles, Muslim women adopting Western
attire and practicing secular values were framed as symbolic of
their liberation and modernization, whereas public expression of
Muslim religious identity was often portrayed as restrictive. A news
article described Muslim women getting a taste of freedom in Kish,
an island 10 miles off the Iranian coast, where they can show "a
little leg" and drink "a little booze," a place where there was "no
morality police to clamp down on prostitutes or the sale of alcohol,
though both are illegal" (Fathi, 2002, p. A4).
Further, an opinion column with a headline
"Liberties: Cleopatra and Osama" described the post-invasion,
liberation of Afghan women in the following words:
When the barbarian puritans running Afghanistan
began to scurry away last week, men raced to buy pin-ups of
beautiful girls. And, in a moving and amazing tableau, some
women unwrapped themselves letting the sun shine on their faces
as they smiled shyly and delightedly. A few dared to show a
little ankle or put on high heels. (Dowd, 2001, p. 13)
The article stated that the While House had begun a
campaign against the Taliban’s treatment of women and quoted Laura
Bush saying that "Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to
pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish." The columnist
concluded with the suggestion that the First Lady should extend her
campaign beyond Afghanistan to countries such as Saudi Arabia where
women are treated like "chattel."
Marginal coverage of resistance by Muslim women
within the Islamic framework
Few articles portrayed Muslim women as active agents
demanding reform in Muslim personal laws, resisting patriarchy and
challenging age-old practices. Exceptions included a news article
that narrated how Iranian female parliamentarians were demanding
"equal blood money" for women (Reuters, 2002). Another news article
with a headline "A Nation Challenged: Islam; Where Muslim Tradition
Meets Modernity" elaborated how Muslim women were beginning to
demand a reinterpretation of the Koran (Sachs, 2001). The article
quoted Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi who elaborated that
Muslim women were now using the Internet to fight extremists within
the religion, thus highlighting the use of new media by Muslim women
to assert their rights. She also pointed out that no extremist could
refer to Muslim women as inferior to men without being a laughing
stock on Al Jazeera (Sachs, 2001).
Despite the presence of a few articles that
highlighted Muslim women’s resistance against patriarchal
traditions, the portrayal of Muslim woman as oppressed victims
dominated coverage. However, the very presence of articles that
covered Muslim’s women’s indigenous struggle for their social and
political rights is a source of hope for more complete coverage in
Obsession with the veil and concern with re-veiling
Whenever the words "Muslim woman" or "Muslim women"
were mentioned in the articles, phrases such as "head covered by a
scarf" "wearing traditional Muslim head scarves" "in hijab"
almost inevitably followed. While several articles were dedicated to
coverage of the Florida court case where a Muslim woman wanted to
wear her veil in her driver’s license photograph and the headscarf
controversies in France, other articles focused on the veil even
while reporting on topics that had little do with Muslim women’s
clothing. For instance, a news article on the changing car market in
Iran began with the description of a veiled Muslim woman in its
lead: "Saleheh Najafi, a 40-year-old homemaker swathed from head
scarf to socks in layered black, stands in the car showroom looking
the very model of Muslim female virtue" (MacFarquhar, 2002, p. 4).
The article mentioned Najafi wanting to buy a two-seater convertible
because she wanted to feel the wind blow through her hair. The
reporter promptly reminded Najafi about her "mandatory head scarf."
She replied: "Oh, You’re right. Well still, it would be nice to feel
it blow around the scarf" (MacFarquhar, 2002, p. 4).
The American press imposed its own interpretation of
the veil as a symbol of oppression ignoring the fact that the veil
has different meanings in different cultural and social contexts.
Further, American journalists’ obsession with the veil was not
limited to articles on women living in predominantly-Muslim
countries. Their concern with veiling and the growing influence of
Islam also extended to American Muslims.
Highlighting concern with re-veiling among young
Muslim women in America, a news article narrated how a Muslim girl
in the United States decided to wear an "Islamic head scarf" to
school without the knowledge of her parents (Goodstein, 2001a). The
19-year-old college junior said she decided to don the scarf by
choice. The reporter argued that Muslim students were different from
For many students, regardless of their faith,
the college years are a period of intense spiritual exploration.
Young people are exposed to classes in comparative religions and
recruited by religious groups. They are also free to rebel
against secular parents. But a particular force exerts itself
on Muslim students, pulling them toward religious
conservatism -- alienation from their non-Muslim peers
[italics added]. (Goodstein, 2001a, p. B1)
Thus, not only were Muslim students depicted as odd
and mysterious due to the exertion of "a particular force" on them,
re-veiling was framed as religious conservatism and equated with
alienation from non-Muslims although the women who were re-veiling
themselves often claimed it was liberating for them.
Another news article with a Fremont, California
dateline described an all-girl Muslim prom as an attempt by young
Muslim women to adapt to the "American prom culture of high heels,
mascara and adrenaline while bring true to a Muslim identity"
(Brown, 2003, p. A1). The article elaborated on the prom venue:
The rented room at a community center here was
filled with sounds of the rapper 50 Cent, Arabic pop music,
Britney Spears….But when the sun went down, the music stopped
temporarily, the silken gowns disappeared beneath full-length
robes, and the Muslims in the room faced toward Mecca to pray.
(Brown, 2003, p. A1)
The reporter described the organizer of the prom,
18-year-old Fatima Haque, as "one of a growing number of young
Muslim women who have adopted the covering their mothers rejected.
Islamic dress, worn after puberty, often accompanies a commitment
not to date or to engage in activities where genders intermingle"
(Brown, 2003, p. A1).
Highlighting acts of hatred against Muslim women in
The New York Times performed the role of
a watchdog by highlighting acts of hatred committed against American
Muslim women after the September 11 attacks. A news article
described the impact of the September 11 attacks on the lives of
Muslims living in America in the following words: "Their [Muslim]
religion, their beliefs and their behavior are attracting
unprecedented scrutiny – from people they know, from total
strangers, from the news media and from the government" (Goodstein,
2001b, p. B10). Another news article narrated how a Muslim woman in
Brooklyn was afraid to ride a subway or a bus because she had heard
stories of veiled women being attacked and called names (Lee, 2001,
Yet another news article pointed out that Muslims
were facing a "quiet but persistent discrimination against them in
their everyday social transactions" that was not always tangible. "A
once-friendly acquaintance no longer says hello. A child is
repeatedly teased over his Arabic name. A customer calls the police
to suggest that a foreign-looking merchant might be a terrorist"
(Sachs, 2002d, p. A16). The article informed readers that the New
York City Police Department got 117 reports of hate crimes against
Arabs and Muslims between the September 11 attacks and the end of
In opinion columns, some Muslim women aired their
frustration over being perceived as outsiders. In a column titled
"Fear in the Open City," a lawyer narrated her experience after the
September 11 attacks: "Before last week, I had thought of myself as
a lawyer, a feminist, a wife, a sister, a friend, a woman on the
street. Now I begin to see myself as a brown woman who bears a vague
resemblance to the images of terrorists we see on television and in
the newspapers" (Rahman, 2001, p. A27).
By highlighting hate speech and crime against Muslim
women and emphasizing the need to put an end to them, The New
York Times attempted to educate and calm a shocked and confused
community. The New York Times also reported actions taken by
citizens to improve the situation, such as volunteering to escort
veiled Muslim women in public spaces, etc. A news article reported
that Christian, Muslim and Jewish women had come together in
Syracuse to alleviate social problems in the town and in Muslim
countries ("In Syracuse," 2003).
Several articles emphasized that many Muslims call
themselves moderates and did not strictly adhere to religious
rituals. For instance, a news article titled "Stereotyping Rankles
Silent, Secular Majority of American Muslims" pointed out that
"cultural Muslims say they have been overlooked in the portrayal of
Muslims after Sept. 11 attacks, with devout Muslims regarded as the
norm, even in the United States. Cameras have homed in on women in
head scarfs [sic] and bearded men on their knees facing Mecca"
(Goodstein, 2001c, p. 20).
Muslim men: Stories of violence, terrorism and Islamic
resurgence: Focusing on "resumes of holy warriors"
The words "Muslim men" and/or "Muslim man" were
often followed by words such as "suspects," "detained," "deported,"
"terrorism," "illegal immigrants," "suicide bombers" and "violence."
News articles about Muslim men in the non-Western world were often
stories about violence, terrorism and Islamic resurgence. These news
articles offered coverage of acts of political violence in Iraq,
Bosnia, Nigeria, Israel, India, the Netherlands, etc. Some articles
focused on Islamic punishments. For example, a news article titled
"Rising Muslim Power in Africa Causes Unrest in Nigeria and
Elsewhere" which was part of a series titled "The Force of Islam: A
Growing Influence in Africa" pointed out that "Muslims have become
an angry, organized force in several important African countries,
and it often comes with a wariness of the West – especially the
United States" (Onishi, 2001). The article further narrated the
results of implementing Islamic law: "Cow thieves have had their
hands cut off. A teenage girl was given 100 cane strokes for
premarital sex; another has just been sentenced to death by stoning
for adultery" (Onishi, 2001, p. A14). Another news article on Saudi
Arabia’s war against drug abuse in the country informed readers that
"beheadings are routinely conducted in public squares" (Sciolino,
2002, p. A3). Some articles made unwarranted generalizations. For
example, an article on challenges facing a Pakistani dancer stated,
"In Pakistan, it seems, murder is often considered a solution to
disagreements, and Ms. Kemani said she regularly receives death
threats, by telephone or written note" (Mydans, 2002, p. A4).
Several articles offered accounts of the spread of
anti-Americanism in predominantly Muslim countries, which were seen
as potential sites for recruitment of "angry young Muslim men" by
terrorist organizations. A 4555-word front-page news article with a
headline "A Nation Challenged: Qaeda’s Grocery Lists and Manuals of
Killing," which was part of a series titled "The Jihad Files,"
reported on "resumes of holy warriors," their training and exercise
regimens including the number of push-ups and sit-ups, their
espionage and explosives classes and the bureaucracy and paperwork
in the training camps (Rohde & Chivers, 2002, p. 1). The article
also referred to Osama Bin Laden’s use of the media to "fashion an
image and spread his message" and pointed out that the March 2001
issue of the Qaeda Media Committee’s monthly press packet included
news articles downloaded from the Internet.
Another page-one news article narrated the story of
a terrorist, who once studied at the London School of Economics,
threatening to behead three kidnapped British journalists in India (Jehl,
Dugger & Barringer, 2002). The article offered detailed descriptions
of his terrorist activities in Pakistan. Some articles about Muslim
men even included extremely provocative statements by Muslim
religious leaders. For example, a news article described the sermons
of an Imam who preached "murderous hatred" of the United States to
9/11 pilots and others associated with the planning of the attacks
in a small German mosque. "Christians and Jews should have their
throats slit," he apparently said in a videotaped sermon (Frantz &
Butler, 2002, p. A3).
Another article by a New York-based freelance writer
quoted a 16-year-old Filipino boy calling him "a white monkey" and
declaring: "I want to go to America, find some shiny white boy and
make him lick my boots" (Thomas, 2002, p. 78). The writer, who was
apparently traveling in the islands as they held "promise of
adventure" was shocked by the hate speech and left the island. The
boy was a fresh recruit of a militant group and the island was the
group’s home base.
Further, a news article on Mohamed Atta, described
as the "ringleader of the Sept.11 hijackers," pointed out that Atta
"had been planning for years to die for Islam" (Shenon & Johnston,
2001, p. B5). The article also quoted Atta’s death wish which
included misogynist instructions such as not allowing pregnant women
or "a person who is not clean" at his funeral. Atta’s version of
Islam was not contested or debated in the article.
While reports of terrorism and political violence
are sadly true, there are also millions of Muslim men who are
leading ordinary lives. There were few stories about such Muslim
men. The focus was instead on militant Islam.
The problem was further compounded by the fact that
in several articles covering political violence, Muslim men were
identified by religion alone. For example, a news article with a
Nairobi dateline described the "chilling encounter" between a nun
and a "Muslim man" on a bus in Kenya (Lacey, 2003, p. A14). The
Muslim man apparently told the nun he wished he were on the plane
that rammed into the World Trade Center. There was no information on
the background of the man. His only identity was his religion.
However, the nun, described as a good Samaritan, was identified as a
60-year-old who has
"lived in Kenya for most of the
last 24 years, long enough to pick up some Swahili, develop a taste
for the Kenyan cornmeal staple known as ugali and feel a bond with
the poorest of the country's poor." (Lacey, 2003, p. A14). By
identifying the "angry man" by his religion alone and ignoring his
country of residence, citizenship, educational background and ethnic
community, the press contributed to demonizing Muslims as a group.
It is possible that the nun reported the encounter to the reporter,
who may have had no opportunity to follow up with the man. However,
at a time when Muslims all over the world are being stereotyped as
dangerous and violent people, it becomes the responsibility of the
press to provide more balanced and detailed coverage.
Another article on a Kenyan bombing investigation
reported that investigators "were questioning a car dealer who sold
the four-wheel-drive vehicle used in the suicide bombing last week
to two men who he described as Arabs" (Foreign Desk, 2002, p. A24).
The reporter did not qualify what was meant by the identifier
"Arabs." Instead, he only added that two Muslim men had also been
detained. Wilkins and Downing (2002) argued that "while Muslims are
a religious and not an ethnic community, their public homogenization
and frequent fusion with Arab identity easily led toward discursive
processes and stereotypes analogous to `race’" (p. 420).
However, not all stories on violence mentioned
Muslims as perpetrators. The New York Times provided
significant coverage of the trial of former Yugoslav President
Slobodan Milosevic and those of army commanders charged in the
Srebrenica massacre, where more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were
killed in a UN-protected enclave by Bosnian Serbs in 1995. A news
article on Hindu-Muslim riots in India stated, "Here in the adopted
hometown of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the great apostle of nonviolence,
Hindu mobs committed acts of unspeakable savagery against Muslims
this spring" (Dugger, 2002, p. A1). Another news article offered
accounts of the conditions of Muslim men who had been deported from
the United States to Pakistan for entering the U.S. illegally or
overstaying visas: "They say they now find themselves stranded
between countries and cultures, their lives upended, since being
detained and deported under a post-Sept. 11 crackdown" (Rohde, 2003,
Muslims in the United States: Deporting illegal
Stories about Muslim men in the United States were
often addressing illegal immigration; they narrated how Muslim men
were on the run due to "crackdowns" by the American state machinery.
Headlines announced: "A Nation Challenged: Immigration Control; INS
to Focus on Muslims Who Evade Deportation" (Lewis, 2002); "A Nation
Challenged; Deportations; U.S. Begins Crackdown on Muslims Who Defy
Orders to Leave Country" (Sachs, 2002b); "Thousands of Arabs and
Muslims Could be Deported, Officials Say" (Swarns, 2003); "Threats
and Responses: The Investigation; Seeking Terrorist Plots, the F.B.I.
is Tracking Hundreds of Muslims" (Shenon & Johnston, 2002).
As mentioned in the previous section, several
stories that reported arrests or interrogation of Muslim men in the
United States mentioned their religion as the only or primary form
of identification. Articles also informed readers about new methods
and programs such as special registration drives and surveillance
campaigns that were being implemented to track down Muslim illegal
immigrants. An article reported the new role of local police
officers in catching illegal immigrants:
For years, most local police departments have
resisted the idea of using their officers to track down illegal
immigrants, reasoning that crime-fighting is better served by
building relationships of trust in immigrant communities. Now,
in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, a growing number of law
enforcement agencies around the country say that they have begun
to equate immigrant enforcement with protecting national
security and that they want to be involved. (Sachs, 2002a, p.
A news article pointed out, "Before Sept. 11, the
merest hint of using profiles to screen for potential wrongdoers was
widely regarded as a violation of some elementary American value.
But the debate has become more complex" (Lewis, 2002, p. A12).
Another news article reported that "Prompted by rumors of dragnets
and by new federal deadlines that require male foreign visitors,
principally those from Muslim and Arab countries, to register with
the government, families that lived illegally but undisturbed in the
United States for years are now rushing to Canada" (Sachs, 2003, p.
Articles in The New York Times also reported
hate crimes committed against Muslim men and the challenges faced by
them in a post-9/11 America. They reported criticism by civil rights
groups, lawyers and constitutional scholars against what were
perceived as draconian methods used by the government to track
illegal immigrants and interrogate Muslim men. The articles also
reported the justifications provided by the Bush government for
secret trials and widespread interrogation.
Muslim men and the debate between civil rights and
Coverage of Muslim men in The New York Times
included post-9/11 debates positioning individual civil rights
against national security interests. A news article titled "After
Sept. 11, a Legal Battle on the Limits of Civil Liberty" drew
attention to the secrecy of the trails of "special interest"
The government has never formally explained how
it decided which visa violators would be singled out for this
extraordinary process, and it has insisted that the designations
could not be reviewed by the courts. But as it turns out, most
of these cases involved Arab and Muslim men who were detained in
fairly haphazard ways, for example at traffic stops or through
tips from suspicious neighbors. Law enforcement officials have
acknowledged that only a few of these detainees had any
significant information about possible terrorists. (Liptak,
Lewis & Weiser, 2002, p.1)
Another news article titled "A Nation Challenged:
Detainees; Civil Rights Group to Sue Over U.S. Handling of Muslim
Men" reported that a "class-action lawsuit" prepared by the group
"accused the government of arbitrarily holding Muslim detainees in
prison for months on minor immigration violations, with no hearings
to determine whether the government had probable cause to hold them"
(Sachs, 2002c, p. A13). Many of these articles quoted academics,
primarily law professors, and civil rights activists and legal
experts. An editorial argued: "To slash away at liberty in order to
defend it is not only illogical, it has proved to be a failure. Yet
that is what has been happening. Since last September, the Bush
administration has held people in prison indefinitely and refused to
tell the public who is being held or even how many detainees there
are" (Editorial Desk, 2002, p. A24). The editorial carried the
headline "The War on Civil Liberties."
Despite such coverage, articles highlighting the
debate between civil rights and national security barely managed to
counter the overwhelmingly violent and aggressive image of Muslim
men portrayed in many articles. A reading of the Muslim man as
someone struggling to safeguard his civil rights was rendered
extremely difficult under the weight of the dominant negative image
of the Muslim man as that of aggressor, suspect, terrorist and
While The New York Times coverage of Muslim
men primarily included stories about violence, terrorism, Islamic
resurgence and illegal immigration, its coverage of Muslim women
frequently portrayed them as victims of violence and as oppressed by
Islamic practice. The pages of The New York Times, which form
an important part of the global media network, also provided a
discursive space where dominant U.S. perspectives that link
liberation with globalization, consumerist modernity and Western
liberal ideologies could be emphasized.
Many articles on Muslim women focused on the veil,
presenting it primarily as a symbol of oppression. Cooke (2002) thus
remarked that "politics in the era of the U.S. empire disappears
behind the veil of women’s victimization" (p. 469). The articles in
The New York Times rarely gave agency to Muslim women; they
did not adequately highlight Muslim women’s efforts at empowerment
within their specific religious, political and economic
environments. Instead, the oppressed Muslim women were portrayed as
awaiting Western intervention.
Such portrayal of Muslim women as oppressed victims
requiring Western rescue symbolized a "benevolent recuperation of
the colonialist agenda" (Ganguly, 1992, p. 74), which Gayatri Spivak
(1988) has summarized in her statement about "white men saving brown
women from brown men" (p. 297). Abu-Lughod (2002) argued that
this rhetoric of salvation, which is based on an assumption of
Western superiority, needs to be challenged. She pointed out that
when one saves someone, one saves that person not only "from
something" but also "to something" (p.788). And, it is
arrogant to assume that Muslim women want to be saved to follow
Western values. Abu-Lughod (2002) emphasized that in her 20 years of
fieldwork in Egypt, she has never met a single woman, "who has ever
expressed envy of U.S. women, women they tend to perceive as bereft
of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie,
driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely
disrespectful of God" (p. 788).
Of course, such arguments do not imply that the West
should not intervene at all in case of violation of human rights,
which include women’s human rights. However, as critical feminist
scholars have pointed out, using Western feminist values to evaluate
specific experiences of women living in other parts of the world may
not help improve their situation (Abu-Lughod, 2002; Fernea, 1985;
Hussain, 1984; Mohanty, 1984). Instead, they have stressed the need
to take account of their particular, socially-constructed and
culture-specific, individual experiences. Further, feminists such as
Freda Hussain (1984), Elizabeth Warnock Fernea (1985) and Abdelwahab
Boudhiba (1985) do not believe that Islam can be blamed for the
oppression of Muslim women. Instead, Hussain (1984) has argued that
change in the "role of Muslim women must be brought about, by the
elimination of feudal Islam through Islam…The Quranic text must be
related to the present context and used to liberate women from male
domination" (p. 6).
Furthermore, it may be considered deeply problematic
to interpret unveiling by some Afghan women or their buying of
cosmetics as liberation. While some may consider these acts of
liberation, exercising individual choice in the purchase of consumer
goods presents only a narrow view of what emancipation may possibly
mean to women all over the world. In fact, Abu-Lughod (2002) argued
that Afghan women may not be as interested in throwing off their
veils as they are in struggling to free themselves from "structural
violence of global inequality and from the ravages of war" (p. 787).
They are more concerned with finding enough to eat, ensuring their
loved ones are not killed in bombings and shootings than just
experiencing the joys of wearing nail polish (Abu-Lughod, 2002).
However, the articles on Muslim women in The New York Times
rarely offered in-depth analysis of the impact of U.S. policy
decisions on the brutal regimes and practices in predominantly
As for the Muslim men, their stories in The New
York Times were primarily about terrorism, militancy, detention
and interrogation. Foreign Muslims seem to be covered in relation to
a more limited range of themes/issues when compared to coverage of
Muslims living in the United States. Disproportionate and
decontextualized attention on acts of violence committed by Muslim
men established them as fanatics who needed to be controlled.
Several articles on Muslim men in The New York Times quoted
hate speech by Muslim religious leaders and extremists without
contestation. Such coverage only serves to inflame passions on both
sides. While many articles focused on the making of terrorists,
their sleeper and active cells, prayers and meetings, recruitment
and training and other everyday details, they did not examine the
larger socio-political forces at work.
Karim (1997) pointed out that acts of terrorism and
violence carried out by Muslims are often perceived as a result of a
"historical tradition of fanatical violence" (p. 166). He argued
that such a view "disregards the structural violence resulting from
North’s economic and cultural hegemony over the globe as well as
direct violence supported by Northern powers against Southern
interests" (1997, p. 166). According to Karim (2002), the
consequences of structural violence can be witnessed in the poverty,
repression and deprivation among people living in unprivileged parts
of the globe. However, the news media rarely relate structural
violence to acts of political violence: "Public attention is thus
kept focused on the violence rather than the politics
of political violence" (Karim, 2002, p. 104). Further, Karim (1997)
elaborated that journalists can assert such poorly supported
statements about Muslims because audiences often share their
assumptions. He pointed out that dominant discourses on Islam allow
"flights of logic" wherein one violent incident by a Muslim can be
used to extrapolate conclusions about Muslim cultures across the
globe (p. 175).
Instead of providing scope for critical
intervention, dominant discourses in The New York Times
thus confirmed Orientalist framing of Muslim men and women. The
media portrayals of Muslim men and women in The New York Times
jointly reinforced the need for Western intervention in Muslim
societies and communities, whether the declared purpose was to
liberate Muslim women or to keep Muslim men under surveillance.
Cooke (2002) explained that "imperial logic genders and separates
people so that the men are the Other and the women are civilizable.
To defend our universal civilization we must rescue the women. To
rescue these women we must attack these men" (p. 469). This strategy
legitimizes intervention by presenting Muslim men as dangerous for
Muslim women and the latter as too weak to defend themselves without
external help. When newspapers such as The New York Times,
read within the United States and outside the country, engage in
such Orientalist framing of Muslim men and women, it becomes
increasingly difficult for media emanating from other parts of the
world to introduce counter-frames. U.S. perspectives often dominate
the news media which are a global industry.
Despite the overwhelming portrayal of Muslim men and
women in Orientalist frameworks, The New York Times played a
watchdog role by providing significant coverage of hate crimes
against Muslims living in America and violation of their civil
rights after the September 11 attacks. Also, the very presence of
articles that reported on Muslim women’s resistance (within the
Islamic framework) against patriarchy and religious extremism holds
promise for more nuanced coverage in the future.
Several questions remain. Restricting the sample of
this study to articles that used words such as "Muslim men" and
"Muslim women" may be perceived as a major limitation by some.
However, the fact remains that the religion of Muslim men and women
is often explicitly mentioned in articles. Thus, a search in
Lexisnexis for the words Christian man, Christian male, Christian
woman, Christian female and their plural forms between September 11,
2001 and September 11, 2003 brought up only 24 articles. Future
studies could use a sampling strategy that searches for stories
about a place or event involving the phenomenon of interest (e.g.
Iraq or Iraq war) and examine all related stories. Such a strategy
may yield more balanced representations in the sample and many
stories about Muslims that may not mention religion at all.
To conclude, it may be emphasized that the portrayal
of Muslim women primarily as victims of oppression and that of
Muslim men as violent fanatics in The New York Times serve
the overarching objective of justifying Western intervention in
Muslim societies to "save" the women by fighting with the men.
The New York Times showed an obsession with the veil and often
portrayed it reductively as a symbol of religious conservatism.
Muslim women’s resistance and demands for rights and justice within
the Islamic framework and without Western intervention were
marginally covered. Some articles presented the liberation of Muslim
women as an exercise of individual choice in the purchase and use of
consumer goods. Although a few articles introduced alternative
discourses on Muslim men and women, they were rarely effective in
countering the dominant Orientalist framing.
In the context of the present political scenario,
this study is not just about research of media representations of
Muslim women and men. It highlights the urgency to improve U.S.
media representations of Muslim men and women. Will Western
journalists be able to question their cultural assumptions and be
open to alternative definitions of liberation and modernity? Will
they be able to embrace the fact that not everybody considers
individualism morally superior to community- and family-oriented
living? Finally, as Abu-Lughod (2002) asked, "Can we use a more
egalitarian language of alliances, coalitions, and solidarity,
instead of salvation?" (p. 789). However, it is not just journalists
who need to stop talking about salvation. We are faced with that
challenge too: How can we, as people who occupy privileged spaces
globally, shift a dominant focus on Orientalism in our cultural
ideology to a position that accepts differences and refuses to
engage in a "civilizing mission" of our cultural others?
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Keywords: Representations; Muslim women;
liberation; modernity; Muslim men; terrorists; illegal immigrants;
About the Author
Smeeta Mishra is an
assistant professor in the School of Communication Studies at
Bowling Green State University, Ohio. Her research interests include
international communication, media coverage of Muslims, Islamic
material culture and postcolonial criticism. She can be contacted at
Note: A previous version
of the paper was presented at the Global Fusion Conference held in
Chicago in 2006.