Thursday, July 3, 2008

Group Dynamics: Muslim women on The Agenda

This is a few of months late but I just discovered this episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin, from TVO in Toronto. Having aired a few months ago, this episode asked the question "Who is today's young Muslim woman?" The panel consisted of 7 Muslim women, 4 in studio and 2 via satellite. All but one panelist would be considered young. The seventh was Dr. Katherine Bullock, author and professor in Toronto.

Paikin began the show by pointing out that one in studio panelist, a grade 12 student, looked different than the others because she did not wear the hijab. Of course, the hijab will come up when talking about Muslim women, as unfortunately this appears to be the single defining feature of Muslim women. In fact, it comes up again as a point of discussion. Varying viewpoints are presented, the majority accepting a variety of interpretations, except Bullock. She says that, although she respects others' decisions not to wear it, she would still like to convince those women that they are wrong.

Anyhow, back to the beginning of the show. Paikin begins by asking each panelist to describe the young Muslim woman and immediately Katherine Bullock's answer irritated me. According to Bullock, there are two or three categories of women. To categorize a large group into a few portions denies the diversity of a population. A diversity which is very real and powerful. However, the categorizing is not the best part. The categories themselves are:

1) "Those who embrace their traditional heritage"
She then presents two fellow in-studio panelists as examples because they wear the hijab. Yes, she points that out. These women are very committed to their religion. These women are also very committed to Canada and feel "very strongly Canadian" as well as "very strongly Muslim." They are "ambitious...intelligent...and educated."

2) Those having an "identity crisis."
Growing up in Canada, they hear negative things about Islam and so are not sure if they want to identify with it or not. They don't feel Canadian nor Muslim, living in a "nowhere land."

So immediately the hijab becomes a major point, being mentioned three times within the first 8 minutes - first as a differentiator between Muslim women, then as a indicator of embracing of religion, and finally as a qualifier by one panelist when she states that her religion is first even though she doesn't wear the hijab.

The women were then asked whether women in the Muslim community are able to hold leadership positions and whether men are comfortable with this. The majority of the women stated that yes, women can hold leadership positions and that men are comfortable with this. I had to wonder how genuine this answer was as, although women are able to take leadership positions outside the religious sphere (though still often met with opposition from some men), the realm of the mosque is still male-oriented and male-lead. Only one panelist, Saffiyah Ally, addressed this issue.

The remaining of the episode addressed issues of cultural clashes with the non-Muslim world and parents, dating and romantic relationships, and myths and realities of Muslim women. To be honest, at times the show seemed boring and redundant with points being discussed numerous times. Some of the questions being asked seemed irritating and some of the answers being given seemed insufficient. Ausma Khan, editor-in-chief of Muslim Girl magazine, presented the most coherent and inclusive message.

Both Ausma Khan and Saffiyah Ally recognized many times that varying interpretations and opinions about Islam do exist within the Muslim community and appeared to be trying to assure that they did not come across as speaking for all Muslim women. Bullock came across as judgmental though trying to recognize diversity, as skewed an attempt as it was. The others did not make as much of an impact.

However, overall, the women did represent Muslim women well and the views were varied. The diversity of Muslim women was demonstrated by the show. The women were intelligent and overall seemed educated on the issues, at times seeming understandably defensive considering recent views of Muslims, especially Muslim women. Despite the repetitiveness and redundancy of the conversation, the program did manage to portray a picture of diversity of Muslim women, something which is extremely necessary but sadly lacking in mainstream media.