As part of our ongoing series examining the media’s “blind spot” towards gender, faith and class, we ask Hanna Yusuf, writer and freelance journalist, about the media’s attitudes towards women and the role digital media could play in ensuring that more diverse voices are heard.
How would you define, or characterise the media’s blind spot?
I would say that the media has a blind spot when it comes to fairly representing stories about Muslims or Islam. I think the mainstream media is often quite quick to distort any story about a Muslim to fuel the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the current climate. Certain news outlets will even refuse to feature stories about Muslims which don’t fit into their narrow idea of what a Muslim is supposed to be. According to a study by researchers at Cardiff University, the coverage of Muslims in the media was mostly negative. The researchers looked at 1000 articles published between 2000 and 2008 about Muslims and they found that [the majority] of those articles were focused on terrorism and cultural differences.
How would you define the media’s blind spot with regards to women?
Many Muslim women are often very keen to challenge issues within their communities, and issues that are prevalent within Islam. Rather than being commended for speaking out about them, the media will distort whatever they say to use it against Islam, or to demonise Islam even further. They’ll say things like “a Muslim woman is saying a bad thing about Islam, so Islam must be bad”. Muslim women who speak about female genital mutilation (FGM), for example, sometimes find their stories are politicised to make Muslims look like barbaric people. It is mistakenly assumed that FGM is an Islamic practice, because some of the victims of FGM happen to be Muslim.
What do you think of the media’s coverage of women’s issues generally, and how does the blind spot operate in that respect?
I think it’s always very politicised. The media only really publish stories about particular women to serve an overall goal, rather than focusing on women’s issues, genuinely trying to help women or trying to tackle the problems women face. I’m speaking about mainstream media outlets. Of course there are other independent and smaller media organisations that try to have an alternative stance on these things.
What do you think are the challenges facing people working in the media?
For mainstream journalists, the challenge is being able to remain ethical, and refrain from any wilful misrepresentation of a story or a particular group.
What role do you think digital media plays in challenging the blind spot?
Digital media takes the power away from the leading newspapers and the leading websites. Long gone are the days where you needed to rely on newspapers to distribute your information. People who are under-represented in the media are certainly picking up on this, and they’ve been creating their own platforms on social media. Also, digital media allows people to reach out to others directly on their own terms, and social media has a huge role to play in that.
Have you encountered any negative experiences using digital media?
Yes, certainly. Most of the feedback that I got in response to The Guardian video was mainly negative. I noticed that people who are negative are a lot louder than people who give positive feedback. For example, people who did like it would contact me personally and say it to me rather than leave a comment. I think digital media does make people an easy target for abuse and online harassment. I’ve seen it with other people too, even on Twitter (especially women). Whenever women tweet about gender inequality, they are often attacked and ridiculed.
Do you have any experiences of being represented in the media in a way that has been influenced by the blind spot?
Since the video, I’ve had white non-Muslim women write articles countering what I said. They completely disregarded my views because I wear a scarf and claimed that I was the only woman wearing a scarf to say what I had said. They used that to dismiss what I was saying. People would say “Oh, it’s only her. No other woman feels that way. Every other Muslim woman who wears a scarf is oppressed. It’s only Hanna Yusuf who finds it liberating. She can’t speak for everyone else, so we must continue to speak for them”. I think that’s where the blind spot plays a role because there aren’t many women in the mainstream media who are visibly or even openly Muslim.
Interview by Lwam Tesfay, Digital Women UK’s online editor intern.
Picture credit: onislam.net
About the author
Hanna Yusuf is a writer and freelance journalist with an interest in gender issues, European-Muslim identity and interfaith matters. She has written for publications such as the Independent, the Muslim News, The Guardian and Grazia magazine. Hanna is currently working as a media advisor for an interfaith foundation and is writing her first novel.