Antiracist Pedagogical Strategies for Disrupting Gendered Islamophobia

by Mehra Shirazi

I teach an undergraduate women, gender, and sexuality course about women in world cinema. In this course, we explore films and other media produced by women and/or about women’s lives and experiences in order to analyze constructions and practices of gender in a transnational framework. In particular, we analyze how race, gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, and nation are strategically represented and how difference is socially constructed in the media.

Given that Muslim women are predominantly represented as passive victims in need of saving and the prevalence of negative representations of Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, and South Asians, it becomes vital to think about how to respond to and counter these portrayals, especially because they have real, material consequences. Since 9/11, with the increase in the number of hate crimes against Muslims, in particular Muslim women, there became a need to form a critical pedagogical response in antiracist classrooms to address and challenge the widespread Islamophobia affecting Muslims. Imagining curriculum in a critical way means decolonizing mainstream knowledge. This approach re-examines how we have come to know the world and asks us to consider the historical and sociopolitical context in which we have come to understand it. Hence, I created a framework for critical pedagogy to address Islamophobia with a focus on gendered Islamophobia that incorporated the notions of orientalism, Muslim identities, and media representations of Islamophobia into the curriculum. I took into consideration: a) methods that would name and define the experiences of Muslims as the result of Islamophobia from a critical educational standpoint; b) the need to examine alternative ways of knowing and how we engage with intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and so on, in the global context.

To provide background information, I draw on Edward Said’s theory of orientalism and how historical construction of knowledge about the third world has always been imbricated in power and racial discourses.1 In Orientalism, Said analyzes how the West creates knowledge about its oriental “other.” As Said describes, in the Western imagination, the third world has been historically represented “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.”2 Said explains that colonial discourse was not just about constructing the colonized other. Colonial discourse was “ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’).”3 Orientalism demonstrates how a Western conceptual framework sees the world in terms of binary oppositions that establish a relation of dominance and how these binaries allow a powerful master narrative to circulate through other state and non-state actors in mass media and on the Internet.

As Christina Ho points out, “anti-Muslim racism is articulated in a paternalistic nationalism that seeks to protect women, whether they are Muslim women ‘forced’ to wear the veil or non-Muslim women as victims of sexual assault by Muslim men. This paternalism draws on a long history of colonial feminism, which for centuries has used the discourse of women's rights to condemn ‘inferior’ cultures.”4 Ho argues that such negative representations of Islam are “part of a broader history of colonial feminism” that validate “Western supremacy through arguing that colonised societies oppressed ‘their women’ and were thus unfit for self-governance.”5 Jasmin Zine uses the term “gendered Islamophobia” to refer to the discourse that represents Islam as inherently oppressive to women and Muslim women as miserably oppressed by their religion.6

For the next part of the curriculum I employ a combination of exploratory as well as specific approaches examining representations of Muslims, in particular Muslim women, in the mass media. Media discourse is a field in which the debate concerning representations of Islam and Muslims has played out. We examine a variety of films, texts, images, and news clips to see how meanings are constructed and understood by various audiences. An example of one of the main videos we screen in class is the 2006 documentary Reel Bad Arabs.7 The distributor, Media Education Foundation, includes the following description in their press kit: “Reel Bad Arabs takes a devastating tour of the American cinematic landscape, moving from the earliest days of silent film to today’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters to reveal an astonishing pattern of slanderous Arab stereotyping.”8

Through such sources we discuss the ways in which (re)constructed orientalist imagery in the aftermath of 9/11 has saturated the representation of Muslims in media and popular culture. These often dehumanizing images have led to legitimized fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam. As stated by Zine, for “girls who adhere to Islamic dress codes, such as the hijab or headscarf, that visibly mark them as Muslims, issues of ethno-religious oppression in the form of Islamophobia are particularly salient.”9 By analyzing Muslim women’s representation I deploy the notions of in/visibility to advocate a transformative framework. This framework is transformative in a sense that students are asked to challenge their own stereotypes, deconstruct the politics of these representations, and interrogate the systemic mechanisms that reinforce Islamophobia, which could propel them to advocate for change within local/global contexts.

Having spent time discussing Islamophobia and Muslim women’s representation in mass media and politics of antiracism and social justice, I introduce a TED Talk as a story-telling pedagogical tool by focusing on the use of language and imagery to further disrupt assumptions and stereotypes about passive and backward Muslim women. The TED Talk is by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a young Muslim woman born in Somalia, who, according to her website is also “a mechanical engineer, social advocate, writer, and petrol head.”10 She advocates for the empowerment of youth, women, and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Yassmin is passionate about diversifying public voices, connecting people, and catalyzing change. At sixteen, she founded Youth without Borders, an organization focused on enabling young people to work for positive change in their communities.

In her TED Talk, “What Does My Headscarf Mean to You?” Yassmin begins her narrative by addressing the audience with questions.11 She speaks about the fact that in popular culture Muslim women are routinely represented as passive rather than active agents in their lives and about how the dominant anti-Muslim master narrative conflates the Islamic faith with terrorism and constructs all Muslims as dangerous:

Someone who looks like me walks past you in the street. Do you think they’re a mother, a refugee or a victim of oppression? Or do you think they’re a cardiologist, a barrister or maybe your local politician? Do you look me up and down, wondering how hot I must get or if my husband has forced me to wear this outfit? What if I wore my scarf like this?

I find this video has a powerful impact in opening up critical dialogues that begin to interrogate why there are so few counterhegemonic narratives that represent Muslim women in more complex ways, as opposed to the narrow orientalist imagery of backwardness and victimization. Yassmin addresses these issues in an accessible, humorous way:

I was telling one of the guys, “Hey, mate, look, I really want to learn how to surf.” And he’s like, “Yassmin, I don't know how you can surf with all that gear you've got on, and I don’t know any women-only beaches.” And then, the guy came up with a brilliant idea, he was like, “I know, you run that organization Youth Without Borders, right? Why don't you start a clothing line for Muslim chicks in beaches? You can call it Youth without Boardshorts.” [Laughter] And I was like, “Thanks, guys.” And I remember another bloke telling me that I should eat all the yogurt I could because that was the only culture I was going to get around there.

Leila Abu-Lughod calls out the continuing colonial appropriation of indigenous and third world women’s voices. She argues that what is needed is an appreciation of differences among women in the world: instead of saving “others” we need to work with them and “consider our own larger responsibilities,” particularly first world women’s implication in the maintenance of global injustice.12 In her talk, Yassmin discusses how “unconscious bias is a prevalent factor, causing us all to make assumptions based on our own upbringings and influences. Such implicit prejudice affects everything, and it’s time for us to be more thoughtful, smarter, better.” Yassmin calls out these prejudices, and “how it’s something that has to be recognized, acknowledged, and mitigated against.”

Use of such powerful counternarratives is an example of how antiracist pedagogy helps to re-center gender and Muslim women by disrupting and talking back to mainstream hegemonic discourses. Moreover, such counternarratives present a complex multifaceted portrayal of Muslim women that resists and interrogates the expectations and stereotypes that white, middle-class student bodies may bring into the classroom.

1 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). See also Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” Feminist Review 30 Autumn (1988): 61-88 and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271-313.

2 Said, 3.

3 Said, 43.

4┬áChristina Ho, “Muslim Women’s New Defenders: Women’s Rights, Nationalism and Islamophobia in Contemporary Australia,” Women’s Studies International Forum 30, no. 4 (2007): 296.

5 Ho, 290.

6 Jasmin Zine, “Anti-Islamophobia Education as Transformative Pedagogy: Reflections from the Educational Front Lines,” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 3, no. 21 (2004): 110-19.

7 Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, directed by Sut Jhally (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2006), 50 mins.

8 The press kit.

9 Jasmin Zine, “Unveiled Sentiments: Gendered Islamophobia and Experiences of Veiling among Muslim Girls in a Canadian Islamic School,” Equity & Excellence in Education 39, no. 3 (2006): 239-52.

10 The bio.

11 Yassmin Abdel-Magied, “What Does My Headscarf Mean to You?” TED video, 14:01, May 2015.

12 Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783.

Mehra Shirazi was born and raised in Iran. She is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. She researches and teaches about transnational feminisms, violence against women, critical media studies, and health inequities. Her research explores health disparities through a lens of social justice with particular regard to class, race, gender, immigration, and environment, and with an emphasis on immigrant and refugee Muslim women’s health using a community-based participatory approach.