Silent meaning: a cover photo of Muslim women

Diane Watt

Two years ago Maclean’s magazine published a book excerpt by Mark Steyn which warns that the future belongs to Islam. Steyn’s text provoked heated debates related to human rights and free speech. In October the B.C. Human Rights Commission rejected complaints against Maclean’s filed by two members of the Canadian Islamic Congress. However, as far as I know, nobody has commented on the images accompanying that article and the silent meanings about Muslims that they generate.

I am particularly troubled by an image of covered Muslim women on the front page of this edition, “Why the Future Belongs to Islam“, used to draw the consumer’s attention to the Steyn article. It provides an example of the anonymous covered woman yet again being called upon by the news media to stand in for all Muslims, with seemingly little consideration of possible effects.The caption reads: “The Muslim world has youth, numbers and global ambition. The West is old, barren and exhausted. Mark Steyn maps the new world order.” In the table of contents the cover story is highlighted with these captions: “Eurabia . . . In an excerpt from his new book, Mark Steyn rings the alarm on the Isamicization of Europe.”

Maclean's coverMy analysis of the Maclean’s photograph and headlines and captions provides insights into how inclusions and exclusions are structured in public discourse. In the case of the image used on the cover of Maclean’s, there is no direct connection between Steyn’s article and the women in the photograph. No information is provided with regards to who these women are, where they are located, why they are dressed in black burqas, when the photo was taken, or why they have gathered together in this way. Anyone who knows little about Islam and is not inclined to ask questions may rely upon orientalist stereotypes in their reading of these individuals, who are actually Turkish Shia females observing Ashura – a holy day of mourning – in Istanbul.

Maclean’s presents a simplistic view of the world as consisting of an “us” and a “them.” It naturally follows that those who are not “us” do not belong “here.” When a particular group is repeatedly represented as being outside of what is considered “normal,” everyday acts of discrimination may be justified.

Research confirms that the North American media generally produce overly-simplistic understandingsof Islam. The roles of Muslim women in particular are very narrowly interpreted. In my research with young Muslim women, they observe that they seldom ever see anyone like themselves when they turn on the television, watch a movie, or open up a magazine or a newspaper.

Anthropologist Leila Abu-Lugold asks us to consider this scenario: Imagine if newspapers and magazines were to use images of bikini-clad women or of Madonna on their front pages to draw attention to any piece related to North America. That would be ludicrous, wouldn’t it? Yet the voiceless, covered Muslim woman is routinely conjured up to represent a limited number of meanings related to Islam, including terrorism, oppression, backwardness, and the failure of multiculturalism.

The problem is such meanings may become attached to the bodies of Canadian Muslim females.

It would be difficult to establish a simple cause and effect relationship between media representations and exclusionary practices. However, stereotypes – even if only in the form of an image – can have significant consequences. They may affect the self-esteem of those being depicted and strongly determine the ways that some people think and behave toward members of the groups being stereotyped.

It is common for minorities to feel offended by particular depictions in the media while those who identify with the dominant culture see no problem. One reason for this may be the power relations implicit behind any stereotype. To put anything into a category – such as “Muslim woman” – is an act of power. This begs the question: who has the power to represent whom?

How did these particular women end up on the cover of Canada’s national news magazine? For Maclean’s purposes, it doesn’t really matter who they are because they represent something other than themselves.

When we repeatedly see Muslim females depicted in stereotypical ways we may fail to appreciate the uniqueness and diversity of individual women’s lives. When we see a covered woman in the supermarket or walking down the street what meanings come to mind?  

Western discourse relating to Muslims is highly gendered and veiled women receive a great deal of media attention. Gender issues have historically been one of the foundations of the racialization of Muslims in western contexts.

We gain a great deal of information about others through our visual perceptions, and discrimination is often inflicted solely on the basis of what someone looks like. While we tend to equate seeing with believing, few recognize that vision is socially constructed. In other words, the meaning of an image (or the hijab on a woman’s head) is not inherent in that image but is a process of exchange between the image and the viewer, whose beliefs inform one’s interpretation.

Canada is considered an accepting, multicultural society, and yet many Canadian Muslims cite Islamophobia and negative media stereotyping as concerns for their communities.

In 2007, The Canadian Federation of Students conducted a task force on the needs of Muslim students in Ontario and found that discrimination against Muslims in university contexts is systemic. The Ontario Human Rights Commission contends that since the attacks of September, 2001 Islamophobic attitudes are becoming more prevalent in society and Muslims are increasingly the targets of intolerance. A recent poll confirms that negative feelings towards Muslims are on the rise in Canada. Thirty–six percent of respondents across the country expressed anti-Muslim sentiment, compared to 27 percent a year ago.

In her recent study of Islamophobia in the United Kingdon, Lorraine Sheridan of the University of Leicester lists a number of experiences as stemming from racist attitudes and behaviour, including being treated with suspicion, being stared at by strangers, being treated in a rude and disrespectful manner, and being left out of activities or conversations.

Even though cultural racism rarely manifests itself in violence or overt racist behaviour, its consequences for minorities are just as severe – it limits and constrains their life chances. An increasing body of research suggests that Canadian Muslim girls and women face many challenges in their daily lives.

Maclean’s presumably chose this image to attract the attention of potential readers in order to sell more magazines. In other words, it was likely a simple business decision. However, I wonder if any thought at all was given to how the use of this photograph (and many others like it) may feed into stereotypes which perpetuate the notion that Muslims don’t belong in Canada?

I would hope that as unofficial public educators, those working in the media remain cognizant of the crucial role they play in defining otherness and the possible effects this has out in the world.

I also hope that journalists and editors who have the power to put meanings about others into the public domain would take the time now and then to critically examine their own assumptions. We all see the world through a particular cultural lens and the work of unsettling habitual ways of seeing ourselves and others is a difficult, lifelong process, but a necessary one. 

Diane Watt is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education at the
University of Ottawa. Her research interests include curriculum, media
literacy, and intercultural education. She spent much of the 1990’s
living in Islamabad, Damascus, and Tehran