Oh, the American media — so problematic, but oh-so-necessary. As Bill Gates says, the media is crucial in order to “give a voice to people who would have never been heard,” and it seems to be doing just that so far (at a very leisurely pace, but all the same).
And indeed, we have come a long way in terms of representation in the media. It’s now easier for people of color and queer people to find someone to relate to on television. Though there is still plenty of room to grow, thankfully we’ve shifted a little from the previously typical image of pretty, young, skinny, white women. Women are (slowly) making the shift from objects and props to subjects.
And thankfully, Muslim women, specifically hijabis, are not excluded from this growing trend of media representation. However, progress always comes with bumps in the road. This initial representation is good, but today we seem to have halted at two main types of Muslim women: fully-covered evil niqabis who could steal your life or stunning, model-worthy hijabis who could steal your man.
Hijabi women are portrayed as representations of danger and oppression, or they’re seen as models of empowerment and beauty. And in Western media, we only see the extremes. Very rarely in the media do we see an average-looking hijabi doing normal things or a woman in a niqab who is not oppressed by a totalitarian theocracy.
I promise, I’m not making this up. They do exist.
That being said, we’re not all Arab Covergirls. India and Indonesia rank first and second in terms of Muslim population of the world, but the Muslims we see on television are almost always of Arab descent. They’re either gorgeous “role models” or guerilla fighters.
The image of a Muslim woman in the media always has the hijab at the center, and that is why it gets so much attention in real life. A hijabi woman is seen as just that: a hijabi. Nothing else is really discussed, because the hijab embodies her entire existence.
Hijabs are statements, yes. However, though they’re seen to many as symbols of oppression, they really are just symbols of our religion. While the point is to protect ourselves and maintain a sense of dignity, some women wear hijab as something to remind themselves of their faith. Hijab can be something Muslim women use to proudly defy the standards of wearing less to attract more. You can still be beautiful while covering up, and there are many Muslim women who take pride in that every day.
And yes, there may be niqabis out there who live their life covered head-to-toe because they’re forced to. But there are also a fair share of women who wear the niqab because they deeply value their religion and take their safety seriously.
It’s also very easy to side-eye people when no one can see where you’re looking. A major step up from sunglasses, the niqab is a perfect one-way window.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very beneficial to have stories of the hijab as a sign of empowerment out there. But remember when the only women seen in Western movies and TV were the really beautiful ones, meant to emphasize the image of femininity? Hijabi representation is still stuck in that stage.
You can still make a statement of empowerment with an average day-to-day hijabi — maybe even a stronger one. Or better yet, sometimes the hijab doesn’t have to be a statement at all.
I know we’re a long way from having a girl in a hijab on a Disney show or having a niqabi character in a movie who has more to their personality than either “oppressed damsel in distress” or “co-conspiring terrorist.” But it would be really nice to see someone like my mom or the girls at my mosque on TV and for once not have to see their hijab as their whole story.
I’ve been around long enough (17 whole years, so you know I’m speaking from loads of experience here) to know that people are heavily influenced by what they see in the media, and I do think that normalizing a woman in a hijab on television without using her hijab as a big plot or character device could do wonders for how people perceive hijabi women.
Just as LGBTQ+ people and people of color are slowly getting their screen time with fewer and fewer stereotypically homophobic or racist roles, I think we have some room for hijabi women up there. The Western perspective is that a Muslim’s whole existence revolves around being a Muslim, and it really doesn’t have to.
Sometimes our hijab is just a covering. We can feel empowered later, after we finish our grocery shopping.
Subaita writes the Monday column on Muslim identity. Contact her at [email protected].