Fundamentalisms and the Media
In the global North, news headlines frequently play on deeply-rooted prejudices. For example, following the Oklahoma bombing in the US in 1995 or, more recently, the post-9-11 Washington sniper attacks, the media were quick to blame Muslim "terrorists." In both cases, the perpetrators turned out to be disaffected US nationals with no links to the Islamic world or faith. In Britain, and in Europe more generally, the media most often portray minorities as homogeneous groups, frequently represented by religious 'leaders'. Differences based on class, nationality, political beliefs or gender are ignored.
This assumption within the media of homogeneity of communities encourages the racist labeling of whole populations who then become easy targets of abuse. This process is reinforced when Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or any proponents of fundamentalism, seek to impose immutable, religious definitions of identity on communities that in reality complex and constantly changing, both internally and vis-a-vis the wider society.
This reality has many implications for women. If they oppose the dogmatism of religious 'leaders' they are dismissed as 'westernized' - and their struggle against bigotry within their communities is ignored. Women who speak out or who live their lives outside the dominant cultural 'norms' of the community are treated as 'exotic', are trivialized by the press, and are targets of abuse by both fundamentalist leaders and racists. They are also viewed by some anti-racists as less 'authentic' representatives of their communities than the authoritative fundamentalist political 'leaders'. Women who are members of communities where fundamentalist trends prevail, therefore, must engage in a struggle on multiple fronts. They must combat media demonization of the communities to which they belong, racism in the wider society, and sexism and ostracization in their own communities.
Arguably, the role of the media in shaping understanding and affecting the dynamics of fundamentalist movements and related politics is growing. Importantly, the globalization of the media has had a centralizing effect due to an increasing reliance on 'international' news sources, which effectively are Western/Northern dominated. As a result, there has been a steady decrease in the variety of media portrayals available around the world. This is especially the case following September 11, 2001 - an event that is generally constructed in the 'international media' as bringing the world together as one, traumatized community - where events in the United States became 'global' ones about which audiences the world over were assumed to share identical responses.
Further, in such 'global media' as CNN, a growing reliance on 30 second sound bites and limited interest in in-depth reporting has lead to a news style that focuses on "headlines" and only occasional "in-depth" reporting. CNN exemplifies this mode; an entire news network channel devoted to headlines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To the degree that "in-depth" reporting occurs, the average report lasts 5-10 minutes. Very little can be covered in-depth in 10 minutes, especially the multifaceted issues surrounding fundamentalist trends and complex political environments. Such trends in news production, therefore, can only fuel over-simplification, misunderstandings, and tensions between communities that are crudely represented.
These trends in news production underline the fact that issues of media access and representation entail complex and sensitive political and cultural dynamics. For women seeking to use (and challenge) the media in struggles against fundamentalisms, media visibility comes with risks and dangers, as well as transformative potential. For example, discussions of women's rights in Afghanistan ostensibly gained more attention after 11 September 2001. Instead of being largely ignored, women in Afghanistan were transformed into highly visible subjects. This 'rediscovery' by the media of gender in Afghanistan, however, was not accompanied by a deeper account of the historical context and women's agency. For example, long-time women activists on the ground were rarely given space in news reports. Instead, Afghan women were 'spoken for' and used to symbolize the rationale for, and legitimacy of, declaring war on Afghanistan. Subsequently, the attention given to gender proved fleeting and rapidly moved elsewhere.
This purely symbolic manipulation of gender is very dangerous for women, especially those living in situations of conflict; as they become part of the vocabulary for more powerful sectors to engage with one another their bodies and lives are turned into concrete battlegrounds. So, in Algeria and Afghanistan, for example, schools that teach girls are targeted for attack.
While Western or Northern dominated 'international media' play a disproportionate role as gatekeepers in the construction and flow of information and images globally, local media are increasingly being used by fundamentalist forces to advance their political causes. The Gambia offers an important example of the way in which abuses of the media need to be monitored as warning signs of burgeoning fundamentalist political control.
Until recently, the national broadcasting services in the Gambia - Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) - broadcast religious programmes for both its majority Muslim and minority Christian audiences. However, in 1994 the Military government approved the building of a mosque at the State House, which some viewed as a license for the State House imam to stage a war against women's rights and empowerment. In particular, Friday sermon broadcasts condemned women's self determination with respect to the right to use contraceptives and the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM). The State House imam's views, which frequently contravened government policies on women's empowerment, were relayed widely, free of charge, over both national radio and television.
However, such misogyny is not always shared by other scholars and imams who include women's empowerment as part of their Islamic vision. The difference is that these voices were not accorded the same privilege of mass media broadcast and, at times, certain imams more favorable to women's rights were portrayed as opponents of the State House imam or were accused of being paid by women's groups or of being critical of the government sermons. While women activists were banned from discussing FGM on national state radio and television, conservative Islamist scholars were allowed to continue their broadcasts on the issue. Other private radio stations did give women activists the opportunity to share their views on FGM and other issues. However, these stations have also participated in the trend of popularizing so-called 'Islamic' knowledge more generally while partially observing some basic journalistic principles of balanced reporting.
Importantly, when issues are discussed in English, the authorities are less concerned than when activists advocate women's rights in Gambian national languages. This denial of information to non-English speaking women on issues of great concern to them is being contested in the Gambia. It is important to note that there is resistance from a variety of sectors of the community (private media, NGOs, members of the judiciary) to ongoing attempts to promulgate extremist islamist discourses, especially with regard to women.
Nonetheless, it is also clear that the use of media and communications technology amongst modern Islamist scholars is a priority for them to be heard and seen and there is a consequent scramble for airtime on radio and television. Women's rights activists in and outside the media cannot afford to ignore this warning sign of rising fundamentalisms. However, given that national and local broadcasting is being increasingly commercialized, and that there is a dearth of women-owned media houses, women are faced with greater challenges to reach their constituency, most of whom cannot read or write and need programmes in languages they can understand.
Michelle Stewart, Media and the Creation of the "Other": When the Enemy is Terrorism, Anthropology and Resistance (n.d.)