Left Meriam Salem, right Mawal Sidi.
Mawal Sidi and Meriam Salem are changing the way Muslim women are portrayed in media with one weapon—a camera. Through the creation of a web-series called Not Your Average, Sidi and Salem highlight the successes and experiences of local Muslim-American women to reframe how the media portrays them.
On New Year’s Eve, 2015, Sidi and Salem found themselves frustrated with the lack of representation of Muslim women within media. While scrolling through Instagram, the Not Your Average co-founders noticed the same thing—the majority of Muslim women represented were Arab or Desi women. Both juniors at American University, Sidi, a Broadcast Journalism major, and Salem, a International Studies major but film studies minor, turned their frustrations into a creative platform that counters the common Muslim woman stereotype.
“When it comes to Muslim women, people like to think of places like Saudi Arabia and say ‘Alright, the way women are like that there is how all Muslim women are,’” Sidi said. “You know, making us all seem like this homogenous group.”
However, Not Your Average fights to show there is more to Muslim women than the narrow narrative the mainstream media gives them.
“An image of Islam that you’ll always get is an Arab woman [in the Middle East] who is meek or oppressed,” Salem said. “And if you’re more culturally aware than just the Middle East, you’ll think of Pakistan or places in Southeast Asia. So a lot of African-Muslim identities, Latin American-Muslim identities, Latin-Muslim identities, and these in general, are often overlooked and not considered as Islam, or not considered as a perspective of Islam, and we wanted to change that view.”
Salem and Sidi recognized the role mainstream media plays in the formation of stereotypes pertaining to Muslims.
“I feel like now in mainstream media, the main actors in Islam are those people that you see blowing up things. Because that’s all you see on TV, that’s all you see on the mainstream television, and that’s sort of the greater way that Muslims are viewed,” Sidi said.
According to a study by Media Tenor, a strategic media intelligence research organization, the average tone of media coverage regarding Islam has always been poor. It reports 80 percent of NBC and CBS coverage and 60 percent of Fox coverage presented Islam negatively between 2007 and 2013. After examining 2.6 million Western news stories, Media Tenor found that most coverage depicted Islam “as a source of violence and a security risk, but seldom dealt with the lives of ordinary Muslims.”
“I think from a young age I knew that the media was not a place for Muslims, or wasn’t representative of Islam or the people that I know” Salem said. “I think that as Muslim-Americans, we grow up with that discomfort but also we know that a lot of things aren’t made for us.”
This rhetoric is no different when talking about Muslim women specifically. The Global Fund for Women reports that the media commonly portrays Muslim women in three ways: fixating on their appearance, victimizing them, or making them all the same.
Because of this, Not Your Average spotlights those who are often ignored within media.They highlight poets, writers, activists, and even athletes to show that Muslim women are more than the common images used to victimize them. They interview women who are not only Muslim but are of African, Latin American, Asian, and other backgrounds commonly unassociated with the Muslim community.
For example, both Sidi and Salem mentioned their interview with Georgetown University’s first Hijabi basketball player on their women’s division one team, Kike Omowumi Salihu. Originally from Nigeria, Salihu started an organization in her home country called Girls Rise Up to promote young girls to pursue sports and an education.
“Some of us are doing things that really change this country and people chose not to recognize it, but we recognize it.” Sidi said. “We know that these things are happening and we want the world to see it.
“When we’re raising our voice on social media, on YouTube, on various sites, we can’t be silenced,” Sidi said. “The more you’re out there, the more visible you are…people can’t just say things about you.”
By humanizing Muslim women through the use of film, Not Your Average provides an alternative narrative to the one that mainstream media chooses to depict.
“Film is a tool for us to be able to tell our stories, to tell the stories of our friends, and of our peers, and of our sisters in a way where you can’t ignore,” Salem said. “Your average story of a Muslim woman does not exist, and these are your ‘not your average’ girls.”