MODESTY IN MEDIA
The demand for diversity in Western news media.
by Mariam Jheran
Growing up, I would watch the news with my parents and dream of being in the anchor chair. But as I entered my adolescence, I came to the belief that there was no way a Canadian news station would hire a hijab wearing Muslim woman.
Flash forward to 2019, and I now have a plethora of inspiring hijab-wearing journalists to look up to, women like Noor Tagouri, Tahera Rahman and Ginella Massa. As a girl growing up in Western society with a Middle-Eastern background, I was not represented in mainstream media, news or otherwise. The closest connection I had to an Arab woman in popular media was probably Princess Jasmine.
However, I was in search of a different kind of fairytale. One where the Arab woman is centre-stage. As a child of immigrants I feel a huge responsibility to represent my heritage and beliefs and carry on the legacy of my parents. I feel so lucky to be able to have different perspectives and points of view, having been raised surrounded by two fairly opposite cultures. Mine is a perspective that I feel needs to be seen and heard by Canadians.
Although I’ve seen the progress that’s been made, especially over the last decade, there’s still so much work to be done. With the recent legislation of the hijab ban in Quebec and the rise of Islamophobia across the country, my personal dreams are tainted.
Haneen Al-Hassoun a 22-year-old journalism student and editor-in-chief of her campus newspaper at Carleton University feels the pressures of being a hijab wearing journalist in western society. “My hijab doesn’t limit my abilities, but it does make me insecure.”
As a hijab is a visible symbol of Islam, the insecurities Al-Hassoun feels go deeper than vanity. When she walks into a room wearing a hijab, everybody knows she is a Muslim and she becomes a representation of Islam as a whole. This is especially true when you are in a space other hijab wearing women or Muslims in general haven’t occupied before, like news media.
“I feel like there’s no room for screwing up,” says Al-Hassoun. “If I say or do something wrong it might make all hijabi journalists look dumb.” Al-Hassoun says many hijabi women may feel heightened anxiety when it comes to being on television or in the public eye. “News anchors are very much in a public position and have a big following. The idea of facing that kind of scrutiny is troubling for a lot of Muslim women who want to go into broadcast,” says Al-Hassoun. Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram encourage everybody to voice their opinions and feelings, which can be dangerous when online trolls attack people based on their religion or their appearance—or, in my case, the combination of the two.
This raises the question: is Canada ready to see a hijab wearing woman on the 6 o’clock news?
The conversation around the hijab is still particularly taboo and the only way we can open up these discussions is if hijab wearing women are able to access opportunities to voice our thoughts. In the past, hijabi women have been consistently reduced to the image in which the Western media has represented us. When a Muslim woman is given a voice on television or radio it’s often centred around the fact that she is Muslim or wears a hijab—in other words, she is often asked to speak for the entire Muslim community, or to comment on issues directly related to Islam.
We want to be able to tell stories that aren't only our own. We want the opportunity to be versatile and adaptable to all kinds of subjects that need to be discussed, just like our non-hijab-wearing counterparts are automatically given.
Women like Tagouri, Rahman and Massa are working to do just that. At 24 years old, Libyan-American journalist and motivational speaker Noor Tagouri has already been featured in many different mainstream news and media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, BBC, Fox News, and even Vogue. Tahera Rahman became the first hijab wearing reporter on American television last year, after constantly being told by potential employers that she wouldn’t be able to get a job unless she took off her scarf as she revealed in an interview with Megyn Kelly. Ginella Massa, Canada’s first hijab wearing reporter for CityNews in Toronto and an anchor on the 11 o’clock news has been a victim of the wrath of online haters in the past, it has never deterred her from doing her job—a struggle she has been open about on her social media.
These pioneers are pillars of strength, determination and hard work for many women, and a reminder that things are slowly changing and progress is being made. But it’s still not enough.
“There’s diversity behind the scenes, people are getting hired but not seen,” says Al-Hassoun. “Diversity brings so much to the table in a newsroom.”
The truth of the matter is that being the first in something or making changes in our society can definitely be hard and often times seems impossible. But focusing on the work and making sure you're too good to be ignored can ultimately get you where you want to be.
I imagine that my journey might be easier if I packed up, moved to the Middle East and worked on television in one of the gulf states, considering that seeing a woman in a hijab on television is much more commonplace there. But what does that do for our future? If we don't take the uncomfortable but necessary steps to contribute to the development in western media that we so desperately want to see, we can’t expect there to be a big change in how we’re represented.
Stereotypes and labels will follow me around wherever I go, I know this. And being an image of Islam on national news is a lot of pressure especially in today’s political climate. But as a hijabi, I have a responsibility to make sure my voice is heard. Though I do feel insecure at times, I know that I deserve to have a shot at my dreams and I deserve a seat at the table, just like everyone else.