Talking to the Media about Veiling in the Middle East
By: Isis Nusair, Associate Professor of International Studies & Women’s Studies, Denison University
At a time when Arabs and Muslims are becoming the ultimate “enemy others,” how are we to talk about Islam and particularly Muslim women to the media? What happens if our quotes are misrepresented or taken out of context, and what if they are used to reinforce the same biases we aim to counter? How are we to deal with online media when racist websites can, with a click of a mouse, draw on our “quotes” to reinforce their own hateful agendas? It is part of our role as academics and educators to engage in public discourse. Yet, is talking to the media becoming too risky?
I have had unfortunate reason to consider these questions. I was contacted early in the fall semester of 2009 by Theodore May, an American journalist who writes for the Global Post, about veiling in Egypt. In the past, I have usually avoided talking about these issues to the media because of its historic sensationalist representations of Arab and Muslim women. However, May asked intelligent questions and seemed serious about studying
the subject from all its angles. I suggested the names of people he could contact and naively expected him to share the final draft of his article with me. I emphasized during our phone conversation that writing about the veil is very complex and laden with colonial, Orientalist, and stereotypical representations of both Islam and Arabs. I also said that Muslim women veil for a variety of reasons. These could be religious as well as economic or to protect themselves from sexual harassment in the public sphere. When talking about economic reasons, I emphasized the issue of class and how some young women cannot afford designer clothes when attending college. Therefore, wearing the veil could also be about income levels in addition to a variety of other factors.
The resultant story had little to do with the words I provided to the writer. The only quote attributed to me in May's article, published online in the Global Post on September 14, 2009, (“Some Women Find Egypt a Colder Place”) was: ” 'Some women can’t afford 2 million dresses,' said Isis Nusair, a professor of women’s studies at Denison University in Ohio, 'and wearing the hijab is cheap.'
Not only is May’s quote sensationalist, selective, and misrepresentative of what I said and the nuances in which I presented my argument, it also is now featured on the Islamophobic website “Bare Naked Islam - It isn’t Islamophobia when they really are trying to kill you.
In my attempt to contact the Post and complain about the quote attributed to me, I received the following response from the editor, Barbara Martinez: “What Theo did was not cherry-picking, but choosing the most interesting and lively quote for an 800-word overview of the topic, the only thing Dr. Nusair said that he hadn't heard from other sources. Had she not said anything original, he would not have quoted her at all. The story itself puts the quote into context and presents the veil issue as complex.” The editor's implication was that I should feel grateful to have been quoted. “Grateful” hardly describes my reaction.
I am hesitant to conclude that the right solution is to avoid talking to the media. There is abundant misinformation in my field of study, concerning women in the Middle East and North Africa, and I'm sure the same is true for those who concentrate on areas all across the academic curriculum. I'd like to think that if we, as academics, spoke out more frequently in public arenas on issues of importance, then perhaps the charade of misinformation could be lifted. But how are we to feel comfortable speaking out when digital proliferation practically guarantees that an irresponsible use of our words will live forever online and might even be used to bolster ignorance? Is there a tyranny of silence brought about by the threat of misrepresented ideas? How many dedicated scholars refuse to share their expertise in the public media because it's just not worth it? These are the questions that I’ll be thinking about next time the phone rings and it's a reporter calling.