Lipstick Journalism and the East-West Divide
How accurate are the mainstream media’s portrayals of Muslim women?
June 16, 2008
In North America and Europe, politicians and the media today point to the lot of Muslim women to validate the Western consensus about Islam — namely that it is a backward, oppressive and violent faith that must adapt itself to the values of the modern Western world.
Leila Ahmad, a professor at Harvard and a leading scholar of women and veiling, points out that such Western attitudes toward Muslim women were used not only to justify the political domination of Muslims — but also to provide Christian missionaries with the basis for their general assault on Islamic culture itself.
Muslim marriage, the missionaries declared, was “not founded on love but on sensuality.” Women were “buried alive behind the veil,” reduced to mere property in contrast to the Victorian ideal of wife as companion and partner, albeit of lesser status than her husband.
Women, whose role in raising good Muslim children was central to the continuity of religious life, were explicitly targeted for conversion — missionaries encouraged many to throw off their veils in the name of modernity and civilization.
It is telling, Ahmad notes, that the alleged oppression of women under Islam only emerged as the central theme in Western thought in the 19th century — when supposed concern for Muslim women became the ideological handmaiden to colonial occupation of Muslim lands.
This “concern” paved the way for the West’s armed civilizing mission to the East, a mission that justified — even demanded — the forced spread of the benefits of European culture.
Before the 19th century, Western notions of Islam and Islamic life were often vague and based on imperfect understandings of Arabic texts and the often-exaggerated accounts of a few intrepid travelers and diarists. Many impressions still lingered from the West’s initial, adversarial contact with Islam during the crusades — almost 900 years earlier.
Against this backdrop, it was almost inevitable that battle lines would be drawn over the practices of “modest dress” and women’s seclusion.
“Veiling — to Western eyes, the most visible marker of the differences and inferiority of Islamic societies — became the symbol now of both the oppression of women (or, in the language of the day, Islam’s degradation of women) and the backwardness of Islam, and it became the open target of colonial attack and the spearhead of the assault on Muslim societies,” wrote Leila Ahmad in her book “Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate.”
Although I had lived and worked for a number of years in Egypt, where an Islamic awakening, beginning in the 1970s, had inspired a renewed interest in veiling among younger Muslim women, nothing prepared me for the vehemence of the veiling wars I encountered upon moving to Iran in 1998.
But I did have a brief foretaste. Before I moved there, I flew to Tehran to cover a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference. I slipped into the airplane’s bathroom to pull on my new black chador, which I had had tailored for me in Cairo’s central bazaar.
The long black garment, stretching from head to toe, was cleverly fitted with clasps and hidden sleeves, providing the perfect “modest dress” while still allowing me the freedom to juggle notebooks, my tape recorder and laptop. The style differed from the typical, sleeveless Iranian chador that keeps a woman’s hands busy holding it together.
As I emerged from the lavatory, a pained howl went up from the assembled Western press corps flying in from Cairo. “Take that thing off,” taunted one man, a correspondent from a major American newspaper.
Journalists often dream of being a fly-on-the-wall at important news events, but apparently any real concession to Muslim sensibilities that would allow them to blend in with their surroundings and make their hosts feel comfortable enough to open their hearts to strangers was a step too far.
Undeterred by my colleagues’ consensus, I adopted my handmade chador after moving to Iran in the summer of 1998 — it not only became a sort of trademark during my three years of reporting from the Islamic Republic, but it also helped open doors into the discreet, hidden world of Iran’s most conservative clerics and politicians.
To my interlocutors — many of whom had never spoken to a Western woman before — it was a reassuring sign that I was prepared to leave my own world behind and enter theirs.
Such was not the case for the small army of visiting foreign correspondents who regularly breezed into Tehran to observe the phenomenon of President Mohammad Khatami and his bid to introduce the notion of civil society into Iranian political life.
No matter the publication and no matter the correspondent, I knew that soon enough the story would turn to the Iranian regime’s treatment of women.
The chador was always the central image used to illustrate this phenomenon. Few reporters ever stopped to consider that the majority of Iranian women feel comfortable wearing a headscarf — most Iranian women I knew believed they would retain the veil even if the authorities stopped mandating it.
Like much Western reporting of the Muslim world — and the developing world in general — such stories tell the readers far more about the correspondents and their own concerns and culture than they do about the society about which they are writing.
This practice of reporting on the status of Iranian women became so common that I started calling it lipstick journalism. Reporters who came to Tehran to take the temperature of the Iranian reform movement would focus on the amount of makeup upper-middle-class women sported and how much hair might be showing beneath their veils.
More lipstick, eyeliner, fingernail polish, or visible hair meant more personal liberty and ultimately better prospects for fundamental democratic change.
The East-West divide over women’s rights in Islam has obscured the fact that these same issues are being debated internally among Muslims across the world. Many Muslims are aware that women suffer discrimination at work and at home, and action is being taken in many countries where Islamic feminists are demanding their rights.
In Iran, a reexamination of the sharia texts occurred in the 1990s, resulting in changes in the law. Bans on women studying topics such as mining and agriculture and on serving as judges were lifted. Even more important to women, divorce laws were also rewritten. A man’s right to repudiate his wife (talaq) was curtailed — and a monetary value was placed on women’s housework, entitling them to domestic wages.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “Mecca and Main Street” by Geneive Abdo. Copyright 2006. Published by Oxford University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher.
More lipstick, eyeliner, fingernail polish, or visible hair meant better prospects for fundamental democratic change. I call this practice of reporting lipstick journalism.
Western notions of Islam were often vague and based on imperfect understandings of Arabic texts and often-exaggerated accounts of a few intrepid travelers and diarists.
The East-West divide over women's rights in Islam has obscured the fact that these same issues are being debated internally among Muslims across the world.
Journalists often dream of being a fly-on-the-wall at important news events, but apparently any real concession to Muslim sensibilities was a step too far.
Women, whose role in raising good Muslim children was central to the continuity of religious life, were explicitly targeted for conversion.
Foreign Policy Analyst, The Century Foundation Geneive Abdo is a foreign policy analyst at The Century Foundation, a Washington and New York-based think tank. Her current research focuses on contemporary Iran and political Islam. She was formerly the Liaison Officer for the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN initiative under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Before joining […]