Tuesday 25 May 2010

How Western journalists reported the ban on burqa

Two weeks ago I was interviewed on an Australian television news program about the wave of proposed burqa bans in Europe, Canada, and now, apparently, in Australia. No one should be surprised about my opinion of the whole thing: It’s dumb.

My argument to George Negus, the interviewer at SBS, was simply that someone in a position of authority should have the wherewithal to ask a woman who wears the burqa whether she is forced to wear it and if she feels oppressed. If she is forced to do something that she doesn’t want to do, then it’s a symptom of possible domestic violence and there are existing laws to deal with that.

I also noted I didn’t see much difference between the Taliban forcing women to wear the burqa and some old white guys passing laws forcing women not to wear it. It’s all the same to me.

Mr. Negus, much to my surprise, had a good grasp of the burqa issue. Except for the briefest of moments when his staff asked me to if it is possible to wear the abaya and niqab for my appearance – as if it were some sort of costume I put on and take off when it suits my mood – I must say they didn’t have hint of Western bias in the way the interview was conducted.

This made an impression because the following week I attended a journalism workshop sponsored by the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations and Search for Common Ground in Beirut. Search for Common Ground is a group that’s been around for nearly 30 years with the goal of dealing with global conflict though collaborative problem-solving instead of taking an adversarial approach. The group uses the media, specifically print, television and radio, to resolve conflict in a constructive manner.

Many of the attendees at the workshop were journalists from Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Although the burqa ban was not discussed specifically at the workshop, the SBS interview could have been held up as an example for Western media of intelligent reporting. The engine that drives the issue of the burqa is the Western press.

European and North American journalists, mostly white males with a sprinkling of their non-hijabi Muslim sycophants, are shaping the public debate surrounding the issue of whether the burqa is an oppressive symbol of Islam.

Commenting and reporting based solely on the Western concept of freedom (and forgetting the basics, such as freedom of choice), pundits and columnists have molded the issue into a battle between civilizations, Christian versus Muslim values, and modern ideals versus culture and tradition. Who’s going to win this argument?

Western media, of course. The West has the resources to use as a sledgehammer to make their point, while the Arab media shrink from the thought of confrontation.

But here’s a thought: The only journalist lazier than an Arab is a Westerner. I can’t think of a single reported instance of a Western newsperson asking a burqa-clad woman her opinion until someone bothered to ask Afghan lawmaker Shinkai Karokhail for a comment. Not surprisingly, she said the only thing she finds more “appalling” at being forced to wear a burqa is a law banning it.

All of this brings me back to the Beirut journalism workshop, which was filled with young, university-educated Muslim women. Many of these ladies wore hijabs and many wore the burqa, or abaya, in their native countries.

These women are visible and have an opinion worth considering. Yet they are virtually ignored by the media. These women simply don’t exist when lawmakers consider punitive laws affecting them and the cultural traditions they hold close to their heart.
The nature of journalism is to tell a story of conflict. No better example can be served than the burqa ban. Yet journalists can serve the international community better if it employed just a few of the goals of Search for Common Ground by seeking collaborative solutions to issues, and at the same time hold lawmakers and the Taliban accountable for the oppressive measures they force on Muslim women.


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