In the second of our ongoing series examining the media’s “blind spot” towards gender, race and class, we ask Shenaz Bunglawala about the media’s attitudes towards Muslim women and the role social media could play in ensuring that their voices, and those of other women, are heard.
How do you define or characterise the blind spot in the media?
There is a definite lack of plurality in the perspectives and voices of Muslim women in the British media. I also think that their voices, few that they are, tend to come to the fore when stories characterised as ‘Muslim’ issues are hot topics. The recent controversy on the wearing of face veils in public institutions is one such example.
I would define the blind spot as an inability to normalise a Muslim female’s perspective on any given topical issue, be it the public sector cuts, tuition fees or climate change, as well as a tendency to select perspectives to fit in with preconceived frameworks. Take the issue of veiling. The polarity of the debate as constructed by the media posits the Muslim female for whom veiling is an exercise in liberty and self-identity in the public space, against the Muslim female for whom the concept of veiling is retrograde. The subtext to the veil debate is often the integration of minorities and the extent to which they observe the cultural idioms of the majority.
What do you think of the media’s coverage of women’s issues?
The poor media coverage of women’s issues is symptomatic of the low level of representation of women in senior positions within the industry. Much of what is ‘framed’ as women’s issues are media frames women themselves would contest. I also think for Muslim women, these frames are doubly repressive because it’s not just about the limitations of what are considered women’s issues, but also about what are considered to be Muslim women’s issues.
In the case of Muslim women, I think we’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of discussing the veil, forced marriages and sexual exploitation. I would prefer to see Muslim women discuss social mobility and employment, the barriers to career progression and the poor representation of women in political and public life. Our presence in public debates shouldn’t be prefaced by religion and culture but by our needs and requirements as women. An emphasis on the former ignores the structural problems posed by the latter, which pays a huge disservice to Muslim women who want to get on in life.
Have you encountered the blind spot in your work and if so, how does it affects the kind of issues you get to speak about?
In my work the blind spot takes many forms. It forms part of our commitment to challenging Islamophobia; Muslim women are often silent victims of hate crime because of their outward appearance and visibility. Challenging the way in which the media frames debates on Islam, Muslims and veiling is an important part of this work.
With respect to our work on improving Muslim participation in local and national politics, again the issue of women is, in my view, relegated to the margins in terms both of importance and substance. The proportion of women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who vote is something of a minority interest – it concerns women’s groups principally, but few others. And the topics on which they are engaged seem somewhat patronising.
What do you think are the challenges for women, and men, working in the media?
I think social networks are a challenge. In our media literacy classes we always impress upon local Muslim communities the importance of cultivating relationships with journalists. Few Muslims who have attended our workshops can attest to a familiarity with journalists and editors on their local paper. This cuts both ways as I think journalists also have a responsibility to get to know the Muslim institutions and communities in their localities.
Also avoiding the tendency to incorporate a ‘Muslim perspective’ into a story only when the issue resonates with Muslims would be useful. Part of normalising the Muslim identity is to present it in non-exceptional circumstances.
About the author
Shenaz Bunglawala is head of research at ENGAGE, a not for profit organisation working towards enhancing the active engagement of British Muslim communities in national life, particularly in the fields of politics and the media. Shenaz sits on the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) expert sub-panel for Theology and Religious Studies and advises on various national and international research projects. She is a member of the management board for the Economic and Social Research Council Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science at Lancaster University, and is a non-resident executive to the Razak School of Government in Malaysia.