The fact that Muslims are talked about in the media but they don’t feature in media reports troubles Georgina Siklossy, Senior Communications and Press Officer with the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) who, like Stephen Bates, pinpoints the need to build trust between journalists and Muslim organisations, leaders and Muslims themselves.
“Rebuilding trust is important,” she says. “Media bias has made Muslims reluctant to talk to journalists. I think it could be done as an initial step at national level, maybe through the journalists’ unions, putting them in touch with the Muslim and anti-racist organisations, using them to develop contact making. Also, there is a role for civil society organisations to invest in media relations. It is a matter of resources but perhaps it should happen.”
She also highlights the need to see more women talking for themselves, an important element in confronting the deeply-rooted myths about the role of women in Muslim society.
In most European countries, Muslim women are more likely to be victims of hate crime and speech than Muslim men, especially if they wear a headscarf. According to a report by ENAR Forgotten Women: the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women, in the Netherlands, more than 90% of the victims of Islamophobic incidents reported to the organisation Meld Islamofobie in 2015 were Muslim women
In France, 81.5% of Islamophobic violence recorded by the Collective Against Islamophobia in 2014 targeted women, most of them wearing a visible religious symbol. Tell MAMA in the UK reports that 54% of the off-line victims of threats and verbal abuse were women. Verbal and physical violence often mix, as well as racist and sexist insults or gestures, and incidents mainly occur in public spaces.
The report shows that prejudices and stereotypical representations about Muslim women are spread by media and public discourse, including some politicians. This negative attention to Muslim women in media and political discourse also contributes to creating a fertile ground for discriminatory practices and violence on the ground.
This is in addition to the problems Muslim women face at work where the existing gender gap is deepened as a result of perceived religion and ethnicity.
According to the report, which is based on national reports from eight European countries – Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK- Muslim women are presented mainly as either a threat to European culture, or as victims of oppression without the right or ability to speak for themselves. They are rarely seen as journalists in the media or as experts commenting on a general topic. This supports the findings of a 2010 study by Laura Navaro on the portrayal of women in Western mass media that Muslim women are simultaneously represented as ‘victims of their own culture and a threat to ours”.
The report suggests that visibly Muslim women have difficulty accessing jobs in the media because their impartiality and neutrality are often questioned. For example, the organisation Kvinder for Frihed (Women for Freedom) collected 500 signatures against Denmark’s first Muslim TV host Asmaa Abdol-Hamid in 2006 because she was wearing a headscarf in the DR2 programme Adam and Asmaa. The programme did not change as a result of the petition.
The report includes some positive examples. In Denmark, for example, the newspaper Politiken instigated a debate on the opposition and harassment many women face as a result of their dress. In Sweden, a blog entitled Nyans Muslim (Nuance Muslim) was founded in 2014 as a platform for Muslim women and men representing abroad spectrum of views. Al-Nisa, an organisation of Muslim women in the Netherlands launched a public campaign, Kent u Mij (do you know me?) aimed at countering stereotypes.
Recommendations for the media include introducing intercultural modules on journalism courses, training photographers, picture editors and graphic designers in intercultural awareness and giving proportionate space to Muslims in all public debate not just when ‘Muslim issues’ are being discussed.
The role and status of Muslim women in society cannot be separated from the role of women in wider society because women around the world of all races, religions and nationalities face inequality on many levels. Muslim women are not alone in this.
Georgina Siklossy says that women are often seen as either a threat but also oppressed and forced to wear the headscarves. It is important that they can talk about these issues themselves. The issue is complex and needs careful reporting. The headscarf is often cited as an example of oppression.
The Quran, for instance, directs both men and women to dress with modesty but how this is interpreted and carried out varies a great deal.
In some countries with significant Muslim populations, there is social, cultural and religious pressure on women to wear the hijab, but many women choose to wear a hijab, niqab or burqa on their own and do so for a variety of reasons including a sense of pride in being Muslim or a collective sense of identity.
Siklossy warns of media failures to be nuanced and careful in reporting. “All this media and political discourse does create a climate where it becomes acceptable to engage in racist speech against a community. It is not just about discourses, it does have real consequences, the feeling of constantly being in the spotlight and constantly questioning your belonging to society does have an impact. I read somewhere a British Muslim saying they don’t look at social media because they need to protect their sanity.”
 Forgotten Women: the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women, European Network Against Racism, 2016
 Navarro, Laura (2010) “Islamophobia and Sexism: Muslim Women in the Western Mass Media, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge: Vol. 8 : Iss. 2 , Article 10.