The Portrayal of Arab Women in the Media
For decades, the media has shown that Americans have a skewed public opinion of Arab women. The countless stereotypes and misrepresentations about us that are around today are still the same ones that were around years ago. Rather than displaying an accurate representation of Arab women, media tends to portray an artistic expression for the sole purpose of entertainment, which creates an unrealistic view of the Arab culture and teaches us anything but the truth. Diane Watt, author of The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in Our Post-9/11 world: Reading Images of Muslim Women in the Print News Media, states that, “we learn more about issues related to our society and the world from media discourses than from all other sources of education, making media literacy a key to negotiating our relationships with difference, both locally and globally. Most are unaware of the ways we are being educated and positioned by the media because their pedagogies tend to be “invisible and absorbed unconsciously”” (32). Therefore, we cannot rely on the media to gain an educational and historical context of Arab women when popular culture constantly perpetuates various untrue stereotypes. The most common stereotypes of Arab women in the media include the portrayal of physical appearance based off of cultural dress, the idea that we need to be saved by the West, and we are all violent and harmful.
As children we never seem to fully digest messages from the shows and movies we watch. We are so easily entertained by the simplest things that we don’t take the time to think about what we feed our brains. The saying, “a child’s brain is like a sponge,” is spot-on and children will take into account everything they hear and start acting accordingly. When Arab students are projected with only negative stereotypes about themselves and their culture, it starts to take a toll on them. It creates a low self-concept of themselves by making them believe they are inferior to other races. They start convincing themselves that they can never amount to anything and eventually stop trying in school (Karaman and Wingfield). This will lead the child down the wrong path in life and removes any form of motivation to succeed.
Although people may applaud Aladdin for being one of the few Disney films to feature Arabs, it becomes clear after some deep analyzing that the film actually represents disturbing messages about Arab women by eroticizing them and making them inferior to men. The women in the film are either over sexualized or covered up with a hijab. The women who are over sexualized wear belly dancing costumes; a universal theme of Arab women in the media. These costumes are worn by many women in the film, including Jasmine. They sometimes wear a veil over their faces to make it seem as if they are somewhat into the religion of Islam, but all these veils do is make the girls more mysterious and sexualized. The city in which the movie is set in, Agrabah, is a predominantly Muslim city. Based off of this fact, it does not seem to make much sense as to why the majority of the women are in the belly-dancing outfits because Muslim women are supposed to be covered up. What I mean by this is that you do not mean you have to wear a hijab but you still have to respect yourself by not wearing revealing clothing. Putting a veil over a woman’s face does not make her any more Muslim if she is already disobeying the clothing guidelines.
If women are not being sexualized, they are displayed by wearing a hijab, a major staple of the Muslim religion. This is a major misconception of Arab women; that people assume all Arabs are Muslim, when in reality fewer than 15% of Muslims are Arab. The women who wear hijabs or veils never seem to have a speaking role. This contributes to the mainstream ideas about the confined existence of Muslim women. Elizabeth Marshall and Özlem Sensoy suggest this “reinforces existing ideas about their silence and that we in the West (conceptualized as “free” and liberated”) need to help unveil and give them voice” (Marshall and Sensoy, 122). The media has a way of making it seem like the lives of Arab women are depressing and they have no enjoyment. The cultural inconsistencies here generalize Arab cultures and perpetuate pan-Arab stereotyping.
When women are not portrayed by their physical appearances, they are being talked down on by men. Arab males are understood to be the dominant ones in Arab culture, so it is no big deal if a man tells a woman what she can and cannot to do. In the scene where Jasmine and her father, the Sultan, are arguing, he tells her, “heaven forbid you ever have a daughter,” simply implying that women are difficult to handle. Jasmine does not stay quiet like expected, she grows angry with her father and is appalled when he tells her he is going to try to find a man who will take care and provide for her. She rebels and tells him that she wants to marry out of love and wants to move out immediately because she has never done anything for herself, which causes her to run away. This indicates that men do not believe women are able to provide for themselves; that they need a man in order to live a comfortable lifestyle. Jasmine’s replies to her father advocate the constant fight women have to put up for their freedom of choice, again, shedding a negative perception of Arab women.
An American remake of an original Israeli television series, Homeland, has become an award winning show and a top favorite for President Barack Obama. A show that revolves around CIA agents, the fight against terrorism, and reflective of American’s dreams of an anti-Muslim world is our president’s favorite TV show. This alone says a lot about the society we live in. The show holds countless misrepresentations of the Arab culture and the women in it, making it appear as an environment of islamophobia. Roya Hammad, a beautiful, successful female television reporter and journalist, is trusted and well-respected for what she does because she is able to arrange meetings with members of congress and other officials. She does not portray the “typical Arab woman,” so when she reveals that she is Palestinian and she knows Abu Nazir, a terrorist, because their families were refuges from Palestine together, it comes as a shock to everyone. Due to her modernized style, people had not made assumptions about her ethnicity. She wears tight skirts and does not cover up with a hijab. When Roya reveals herself, it makes the audience assume the worst of Arabs by thinking they are all somehow associated with a terrorist network. Another implication that Americans can attain from this is seeing that no matter how successful or educated a Muslim is, they are still a danger to Americans.
The roles that the Arab women play in the show are very limited. These roles consist of being a terrorist or being a “good Muslim” and working with the state. The active Arab collaborators with the CIA are two women, who are abused by their husbands. This complies with the example stated earlier regarding how Americans think Arab women need to be saved by the West. The CIA in this case receives all the attention from saving two women, who in their eyes, could have been in a lot more trouble if they had not jumped in and taken action.
The ad campaign for season 4 of Homeland displays racial representations before even needing to watch the show. The cover of the campaign displays the main character, Carrie, a white, blonde female wearing a red headscarf surrounded by a group of women wearing black colored burqas. Burqas are worn by Afghan women, so this automatically makes a knowledgeable viewer assume this season will take place in Afghanistan. However, Carrie goes to Pakistan for a mission during this season, so this highly misrepresents the cultures it is depicting.
In the ad, we can see that Carrie is looking back and making eye contact with the audience. She stands out from the crowd of women in black burqas with their backs to the audience because of her lighter features and red scarf. The position of the women reference the idea that Arab women do not have a voice. Over time, burqas have become a trademark for women’s oppression. The media constantly reinforces the idea that Arab women are oppressed in ways that Western women are not, making Americans become comfortable with the stereotype that Arab women cannot work, vote, or even walk around without the threat of violence (Marshall and Sensoy, 125). After taking a close look at the ad, it becomes clear that the campaign is just one big misrepresentation of Arab women in general, combining various illustrations of Muslim women’s dress code into a single image without thinking about the historical context of what is being represented.
Recently, another movie about a war between Americans and Arabs was a huge hit in the American community. American Sniper, staring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, is a film about a United States Navy Seal, who is also the most successful sniper in American military history. While at war in Iraq, Kyle witnesses a mother telling her young boy to throw a grenade at the American troops. In this particular moment Chris feels that he is left with no choice but to kill them both. When he kills them, the focus is all on how he copes with the misery of being at war, but the camera fails to capture any emotions from the mother and son. Our point of view is skewed by the lack of emotion from Arabs, creating a distant feel. This displays how Americans view Arabs as being a danger to their lives and makes Arabs look like they are cruel animals. If an American woman were to make her son do such a thing, it would be perceived as cruel and we would think poorly of the woman, but not all Americans. When the story involves an Arab, however, society seems to put the blame on the whole community and think poorly of them.
There is not one time in the film where there is a positive focus on the Arabs. The lack of presence of Arab women in the film give off an idea that women in the Arab culture are not important. Both, Arab women and men, in this case can be viewed as “other” from how Chris Kyle and other Americans refer to them as if they are not humans, calling them, “savages.” Kyle sees all Muslims as being “savages” and their only purpose is to provide him with another kill. Through his eyes, all Arabs are unworthy, evil, and lack a sense of humanity. The director of the film wants its viewers to be able to connect with Kyle and appreciate his sacrifices, but most of all he wants us to look through Kyle’s lenses and think the way he thinks. The real question here is, “why?” There should be no reason to recognize Kyle’s humanity when the film does not once let its viewers recognize the humanity of the Arabs. Kyle’s view on Arabs is common amongst many other Americans and it is because of films like American Sniper that keep distorting the way people view the Arab community.
Popular culture and the media have long depicted Arab women in a negative light. We have been strongly misrepresented for years and due to society being highly influenced by media, people start believing everything they see, resulting in false knowledge on the historical context of Arab women. As Dianne Watt says, “there is no single fixed, Muslim, female identity (or any other identity) out there in the lived world, yet we live our lives as if there is” (33). So, next time you meet an Arab female, think twice before asking ignorant questions like, “Why aren’t you covered if you’re Muslim?” or “Are you forced to wear that?” However, we understand that people who ask these types of questions are not to blame; the blame is to be put on the media, which relentlessly prolongs the misconceptions of Arab women solely as a way of entertainment.
Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. 1992.
American Sniper. Dir. Clint Eastwood. 2014.
Harem Girls. Digital image. Harem Girls (Aladdin). Wikia, n.d. Web.
Homeland. Digital image. Framing Muslim Women: The Problem with Homeland’s Season 4 Campaign. The Postcolonialist, n.d. Web.
Homeland. Showtime. 2011-2014.
Marshall, Elizabeth, and Özlem Sensoy. “‘Save the Muslim Girl!'” Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2011. 120-28.
Mother and son in American Sniper. Digital image. American Sniper Perpetuates Hollywood’s Typical Arab Stereotypes. The Conversation, n.d. Web.
Watt, Diane. “The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in Our Post-9/11 World: Reading Images of Muslim Women in the Print News Media.” Journal of Media Literacy Education 4.1 (2012): 32-43.
Wingfield, Marvin, and Bushra Karaman. “Arab Stereotypes and American Educators.” American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (1995).