Media, Islam and Gender- An Indian Experience
Syed Ali Mujtaba
Islam has made India its home more than 1400 years ago. The footprints of Islam could be found in India as early as seventh century. Islam since then has been interacting with Hinduism uninterruptedly. Such interactions have made India house the second largest Muslim population in the world next only to Indonesia.
However, going by the fact of long association of Islam with India, if we look at the media discourse in this country, Islam is portrayed as the 'other’ 'exotic', 'different', 'obscurantist', 'backward', ‘extremist' form of creed.
These stereotypes are apparent in the so called mainstream media particularly when it comes to portrayal of Muslim women and in that context Muslim community in general.
Indian media is found of reporting a host of controversial issues dealing with Muslim women. Issues like polygamy, rape, divorce, maintenance, alimony, veil, child marriage, forced marriages, women praying in mosque etc are reported with great juice and spice.
It comes as no surprise when Muslim women are discussed only in terms of controversies in the Indian media. This is perhaps to reinforce the bigger picture that Muslim men and Islam are irredeemably anti-women.
Take for instance 'Imrana rape case.’ The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) issued a statement alleging that over exposure given by the media to the Imrana issue and taking it to the streets was aimed at defaming Islam and Muslim personal law.
AIMPLB general secretary Maulana Syed Nizamuddin had said; "to bring such a local issue to the streets and defame Islam and the personal law is totally unjustified and incorrect.”
“Had the media and some intellectuals not unjustly interfered in the episode, Imrana would not have suffered so many difficulties, he said, adding, the board feels that taking such social evils to the drawing rooms by the print and electronic media would in no way reform the Muslim society but on the contrary will help in spread of such evils.”
One can site several other cases and quote any number of media reportage to suggest that there is a tendency in some section of influential Indian media to portray Islam and Muslim men as anti-women.
One wonders why there is so deep-rooted bias even though Muslims have long been part and parcel of the Indian social life.
Seeking reasons to it would divert the focus of this subject, suffice would be to say that there is a tendency to sedulously cultivate certain stereotype that the Indian media wishes, unconsciously or otherwise, to reinforce.
Indian media discourse seems to convey that Muslims are a monolith community and their identity solely rest on their religion. Its portrayals of Muslim women reveal a marked tendency to homogenize all Muslim women and to present them as uniformly oppressed creatures.
The media reportage is based on the views of conservative clerics reared in a tradition of patriarchy and are seen as representatives of all the Muslims in the country. Their views that are guided by the strict precepts of religious tenets are used by the media to argue that Islam is by definition 'misogynist', 'patriarchal', and 'cruel.'
The debate on Muslim women then gets transformed into one on Muslim personal law and its impact on the Muslim community. Here the attempt is to castigate the personal law as archaic and outdated, fit to be scrapped.
Seldom one encounters positive images of Muslim women in the Indian media, their rights and privileges within the Islamic faith, their struggles to achieve them from their own community. There is little reportage of Muslim women who could speak for themselves and offer their own argument about their understanding of Islam.
Indian media carefully ignores the fact that Muslims are divided in terms of class, caste, region, language and so on. Muslim women like any other community too have complex and multiple identities.
The views of Muslim reformists who use Islamic arguments to counter the views of the conservative clerics and to present more gender-friendly understandings of Islam on these issues are often given little attention.
All this feeds into the negative thinking of the Muslims community as whole that’s faced with a growing sense of insecurity and threats to their identity in India.
Indian Muslim community’s faith in the secular credentials of their country certainly feels shaken when media images of the community is built around negative stereotypes.
These ideas on "Media, Islam and Gender- an Indian Experience” is to be further developed.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org