Over-generalisations in the media fuel racist stereotypes about Muslims

Subtle vilification, negative portrayals and over-generalisations of Muslims in the US media are fuelling Islamophobia.

A recent article in The Washington Post by Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Abigail Hauslohner’s, “Leading imam quits as debate over women’s ‘hypersexuality’ boils over at major U.S. mosque”, covers the extremely complex issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) in a way that overgeneralizes and feeds into predominantly racist stereotypes about Muslims (albeit, unintentionally).

Crucially, they miss the chance to bring out the voices of those leading the fight from within the Muslim community to end FGM and protect girls against this extreme form of human rights violation and gender based discrimination, practised in many parts of the world, including the USA.

As a start, and contrary to what is suggested in the article’s misleading title, there is no indication that women’s ‘hypersexuality’ (and by extension, FGM) has been a subject of heated debate at Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center or within the Muslim-American community at large.

The main point of contention in this case has been over the type of punishment that Imam Shaker Al-Sayed should receive - to be fired or to be suspended - for his outrageous statements in support of FGM. Al-Sayed is clearly a lone voice and there is no precedent at the Center or in the few thousand mosques across the US of religious leaders condoning such a criminal act.

Nowhere do the writers give any details about Muslim-led activism against this practice. In fact, notwithstanding a reference to the Center’s board and some “young Muslim activists”’ condemnation of FGM as un-Islamic, the reader might easily be left with the impression that the Muslim community is generally passive.

The writers should have included, at the very least, information about the widely circulated strong statement that Muslim organizations, FGM survivors, scholars, and leaders in the US issued in the wake of the ill-fated video of Imam El-Sayed.

Also regrettable is that the historical narrative advanced in the article about Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center and its members, revolves firstly around its “connections” to terrorists (and with that, indirectly feeding into an Islamophobics’ fixation that mosques breed terrorism), and secondly, the defensive behavior of its “mostly immigrant” community (and as such, projecting an image of its members - and by extension of Muslims in the USA - as reactionary outsiders).

The lone female voice featured was Maryum Saifee’s, who has be en subjected to FGM. She was introduced at the very end of an online publication of the article in a rather deflated after-thought manner, only to be removed later from the updated print and online version.

The writers did, on the other hand, make sure to indicate that Imam Juhari Abdul Malik – presented as the only active and decisive figure in this problematic situation at the Islamic Center - is an “American-born convert”. Such insertion alludes to an underlying notion that the fight against FGM is not only Western-led but also a reflection of Western morals.

While still underscoring the commendable stand of Imam Abdul Malik, the writers could have also highlighted the tireless efforts of community-based activists from FGM-infected countries throughout the world attempting to push back against FGM and other harmful practices (including organization such as Sahiyo; We Speak Out; WADI and to name a few). At the heart of this activism are women who have turned their own FGM experience into a force for change through awareness campaigns, education, social media, documentaries, among various tools.

One example can be seen in “Jaha’s Promise”, a documentary about Gambian FGM survivor and anti-FGM campaigner Jaha Dukureh, produced in collaboration with human rights organization Equality Now.

In the U.S., these women often suffer from the double burden of having to deal with the reprehensible elements within their own communities – as the case of Imam Al-Sayed illustrates – as well as the emboldened and hostile forces of racism and anti-Islamic sentiments.

At a time when Islamophobia has become dangerously intense and ubiquitous in this country, informed reporting is a social obligation - a necessary weapon against hatred and violence, including all forms of violence against women. The Washington Post could have done a much better job in this article to live up to its responsibilities.

About the author:

Samira Atallah is a Senior Advisor at human rights organisation Equality Now. She is an international development expert with over 20 years of international experience in research, management, teaching, and programming, within academic and research institutions, and within the UN system.

About Equality Now:

Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as FGM.

Equality Now is dedicated to creating a more just world where women and girls have equal rights under the law and full enjoyment of those rights. For details of our current campaigns, please visit www.equalitynow.org and find us on Facebook at facebook.com/equalitynoworg and Twitter @equalitynow.

Comments (5)
No. 1-5

Girls are a symbol of pride we must protect them !


I am impressed with Equality Now - a great organization!


Imam Shaker Al-Sayed should be fired. A 'leader' promoting FGM should never be a leader.


We must protect girls against this extreme form of human rights violation and gender based discrimination... and to know this is happening in the US is mind boggling!