As part of our ongoing series examining the media’s “blind spot” towards gender, race and class, we interview journalist and author Azadeh Moaveni about the media’s attitudes towards women and the Middle East, and ask her to reflect on the role social media has played in ensuring that more diverse voices are heard.
How would you define or characterise the media’s blind spot?
From where I sit, I seem to be surrounded by blind spots, so it’s hard to know where to start. Because I cover the Middle East and Iran, a lot of the problem areas I see concern the coverage of women and religion in that context. One major problem area is the coverage of sectarian conflict in the Middle East; this idea that we’re witnessing a seventh century holy war between Shias and Sunnis with so little attention paid to how very contemporary political, economic and regional strategic rivalries have shaped the situation we see today in Syria and Iraq. There is also an enormous blind spot around the role Saudi Arabia and Qatar – traditional Western allies in the Persian Gulf – have played in fuelling this sectarian conflict. It is truly an unexamined and under-acknowledged dimension to what we’re seeing. I would call it a wholescale underestimation of Saudi Arabia’s systematic drive over the past decade to spread jihadi extremism from North Africa all the way to Pakistan. It is perhaps the gravest threat to global security we are witnessing today, and yet the conventional narrative in the Western media holds that Iran’s nuclear program is what is really pushing the world to the brink of destruction.
What do you think of media coverage of women’s issues generally and how does the blind spot operate in that respect?
Mainstream media in the West is very much preoccupied with covering women in the Middle East through the lens of Western cultural trends or platforms, so while there is an abundance of actual coverage, it stays on the surface and examines this very complicated region through fashion or honour killings or other stories that play into A Thousand and One Nights stereotypes. For example, there was a spate of coverage around Iranian fashion this past year, but little of it examined the social and cultural context for the liveliness of the Iranian fashion scene or what it meant that Iran had a sizeable, globally-connected middle class. That women were overtly challenging dress codes while at the same time voting in the elections held by the clerics who mandate the full hejab, and the shifting nature of the Iranian economy and workforce in which women are increasingly functioning as breadwinners.
It’s particularly frustrating because I feel the Middle East is somehow still perceived as ripe for this kind of coverage, while at the same time there’s been some real progress in how journalists and editors engage with similar transformations in places like China and India. There’s a real obsession with the hejab, either as misogyny or fashion, and a serious lack of focus on more structural problems, like the struggle over modernising Islamic family law, which underpins so much of the politics around the hejab.
How have your experiences of the media been affected by the blind spot?
For years I found reporting for the mainstream media rather soul-destroying, especially as a junior journalist as I didn’t have the clout or confidence to push for the type of coverage I knew we should be doing. There was a long stretch where I almost felt like some algorithm, programmed to produce a certain slant of news, in a certain style, that preferably involved acerbically covering some backwards fatwa over some insignificant Western faux-pas. It was very demoralising. But following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a great deal changed in both the media and publishing landscape. It became clear that the media blind spots were entirely deadly. That they had helped propel us into war on false pretexts, and that careless or inexpert reporting on complicated societies wasn’t just poor journalism, but also morally and politically costly. If I compare now with 2002, it is an entirely different climate in which to exist as a journalist, specifically in relation to media blind spots. There is a great deal more self-representation, some of it quite journalistic, by the communities and people who suffered most from being invisible – Muslim women come to mind in particular here. It seems like in the last five years even they have found a voice in media and publishing and are challenging all these insipid notions about their autonomy and agency as young practising Muslims.
What are the challenges for people working in the media?
In the media environment, in Britain, I see reporting on Muslim Britons as a real challenge. A lot of the coverage I see veer from Daily Mail alarmism to overly gentle, overly qualified liberal press coverage. Neither of these extremes do any service to the complexity of what Muslim immigration in the UK has come to mean, and I, for one, feel a real shortage of stories and coverage that deal intelligently and candidly with the difficulties posed by assimilation-resistant Muslims, or the underlying social barriers to authentic ‘Britishness’ that exacerbate this problem. I find the level of racism in Britain quite remarkable. It is far more openly acceptable to be prejudiced and air those prejudices publicly than it is, in my experience, in the United States. Perhaps this is a cross-cultural perspective, but I see the nuanced, fluid nature of racism people of colour here face as a blind spot. The challenge is to cover this beyond and outside of the debate over Islamic extremism.
What role does digital media play in challenging the media blind spot?
This is where things get interesting because digital media throws the field wide open to a broad array of voices, and the debate, though more free-wheeling and voluminous, does include perspectives and news that we wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to. There is, of course, the accompanying problem of verification and accuracy, but that mainly relates to hard news on breaking stories. When it comes to more systemic problems, digital media offers this amazing space where citizen journalists can start trying to produce news in a way that can have an immediate local effect in a town or a community. Twitter also then functions as this indispensable place where coverage is immediately critiqued and discussed, and where even the tired old news and the conventional blind spots are more open to scrutiny. It is a place where news coverage can be challenged and the missing context of many of those stories identified.
About the author
Azadeh Moaveni is a former Middle East correspondent for Time magazine, and the author of Lipstick Jihad, Honeymoon in Tehran and co-author, with Shirin Ebadi, of Iran Awakening. Now based in the UK, she is an editor at IranWire, a new media project that seeks to empower Iranian citizen journalists, and is working on her first novel.