Propaganda, Feminism, and Muslim Women

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I am a feminist.

Throughout the years, particularly in 2019, the feminist movement has become strategically dependent on the development of media networks, as many other social movements have, as a key component to their political mobilization. However, and more importantly, there has been inattention to the media produced within feminist movements, as well as the intersection of various political movements both within and with the media. A political movement would hold very little ground in the 21st century if it could not further its political agenda through circulation and broadcasting to a wide audience. It is also important to consider the gender norms and stereotypes that ironically play an immense negative role in mass media and are constantly being perpetuated in various shapes and forms.

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UN Women produced a series of advertisements in 2013 to help bring attention and awareness to sexism and discrimination against women. In 2010, UN Women was formed in the United Nations to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. The idea for this advertisement campaign, titled “The Autocomplete Truth,” was developed by Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai. Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai is a communication company that helps company’s build their brands based on their needs, specifically using data insights to track their unique consumer’s buying patterns and behavior. Thus, the idea of placing Google search bars over women’s mouths was born as a way to showcase prevalent ideals and narratives concerning women, as well as to insinuate that there is still a lot of work to be done in the fight for gender equality.

There are many things that must be considered when looking at this piece of propaganda:

(1) Google algorithms. Although this advertisement was meant to showcase common negative Google searches pertaining to women and that women are being silenced, both metaphorically and literally, as a viewer and consumer of the media we must first consider how the media operates. The question I am getting at is: Can we rely on a Google algorithm to tell us that these ideas about women are prevalent and are hegemonic ideals? Essentially, was this the best and most effective method to create discourse and discussion around sexism, which is a serious issue in our current world? Although the campaign does reflect prevalent stereotypes of women’s rights and gender inequality, and although the results of the campaign were a resounding success and gained a ton of attention, it relies on the viewer’s ability to think simply and to not over-complicate the idea of a Google search. To what extent does the public let generated algorithms complete our thoughts? Instead of slowing our brains down, and relying on a Google algorithm, I would argue that we need to instead be using our brains; which is something this propaganda does not promote. Similarly, although seemingly holding a positive viral impact in the media, as discussed in the book Propaganda and Persuasion, journalists reactions to public propaganda, “… should not be mistaken for the target audience’s attitudes in opinion polls and surveys reported in the media” (Jowett and O’Donnell 285). This is to say, just because this advertisement was welcomed with open arms in the news, which I agree is a great measure of success to the advertisement itself, it not a direct reflection of the impact of the universal public’s feelings. The way the Google algorithm functions, what appears in the autocomplete search bar that is designed to give our fingers a break from typing, is not necessarily connected to what that person may actually be looking for. Therefore, while sexism is a real and pressing issue, Google search suggestions can be misleading and misinterpreted. This is by no means to say that I do not get what UN Women was trying to do: using language to “manipulate sacred and authority symbols,” AKA Google, and using “[i]nnuendo” by directly putting these phrases over the women’s mouth to reference the silencing of women’s voices (Jowett and O’Donnell 284). I get it. Speaking a so-called ‘universal’ language means utilizing so-called ‘universal’ tools and explicitly showing the words that are forcefully put in our mouths as women. However, this brings me to my next point.

(2) This issue is NOT simple and the message is NOT universally inclusive of all cultures and places. Particularly in the single ad above showing the woman wearing the hijab; a head covering worn by some, not all, Muslim women. The automated Google search text covering the mouths of all the women featured in the advertisement campaign is different. However, the text covering the mouth of the seemingly Muslim woman is somehow even more different than the rest. Whereas the ads concerning three other women are more forward and directly linked with stereotypes, such as, “Women shouldn’t have rights” and “Women should stay at home,” the text over the mouth of the Muslim woman reads: “Women need to be put in their place/know their place/ be disciplined/ be controlled.” The problem here is that while trying to be inclusive and recognize intersectionality within a feminist issue, UN Women is perpetuating a stereotype that, to simplify, Muslim women need saving by the US/UN. There is no mistake of placing these words specifically over the mouth of a woman with a hijab. As we know, when analyzing propaganda we must look at the, “messages to examine the visual symbolization of power. Do visual representations have an iconographic denotation of power and ubiquity?” (Jowett and O’Donnell 282). Communication Studies majors learn that words are far more powerful when paired with images and symbols. We also learn that advertisements are extremely purposeful in every. Single. Decision. They. Make. Period point blank. The specific historical significance and context of this advertisement also differs from the rest because of the reference to the cultural and religious meanings of Islam, and Muslim women in general, to find reasoning behind the horrific attack on the New York World Trade Center in September of 2011. This focus was used as a mode of explanation as opposed to taking a closer look at political and historical explanations; thus creating an us versus them mentality, and using the excuse of freeing Muslim women as a justification for the War on Terrorism (Abu-Lughod 874). My point being: the text covering the mouths of these women is not the only insinuated sign of oppression. My fear is that some of the universal audience will see a woman wearing a hijab with these words displayed and think of the hijab as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim women, which is entirely an issue in today’s world. These are topics beautifully outlined in a favorite article of mine, titled Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod. She writes,

“Finally, I need to make a crucial point about veiling, Not only are there many forms of covering, which themselves have different meanings in the communities in which they are used, but also veiling itself must not be confused with, or made to stand for, lack of agency…we need to work against the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s unfreedom, even if we object to state imposition of this form,…What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and historical contexts and belonging to particular communities that shape their desires and understandings of the world?…Second, we must take care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing, Perhaps it is time to give up the Western obsession with the veil and focus on some serious issues with which feminists and others should indeed be concerned (Abu-Lughod 786).

Author Abu-Lughod makes a point in her article of respecting, at its rawest form, the differences of women as key to their equality. Circulating the idea that Muslim women are in need of saving is damaging in that it continues to reinforce the superiority of Western culture.

I am a feminist and these ideals are important to me. I love that this piece of propaganda was so widely received and circulated; it did have a positive impact when you look at it on a broad scale. Nevertheless, we must also consider the effect on the smaller populations. The feminist movement is already ignored in the media enough. It is fighting a complex issue: it must be antagonistic in nature to fight hegemonic ideals, but does not want feminism to be seen as a non-hegemonic ideal. I hate to reduce this concept to binaries, but you get the point. We must not confuse what it means to simplify ideals to speak a universal language with respecting differences between cultures; differences between women. In the words of Edward Bernays, “[p]ropaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos” (Bernays 168). Although, if I could make one edit, I would change “intelligent men” to “all.”

 

Works Cited

Bernays, Edward (1928). Propaganda. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing.

Jowett, Garth and O’Donnell, Victoria (2012). Chapter 6. How to Analyze Propaganda.

Propaganda and Persuasion. 5th Edition.Thousand Oaks: Sage.

LILA ABU-LUGHOD Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York, NY

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