Reclaiming history and imagery

In the ever-changing modern world, the importance of media and its portrayal of the history and narratives of marginalized groups has increased dramatically. As more people turn to social media and online sources for information about the world and the people around them, the need to address misconceptions has become more apparent.

Aisha Amijee, executive director of Voices of Muslim Women (VMW), and Professor George Elliot Clarke of the University of Toronto outline some of the challenges and opportunities facing those confronting this new need.

Spreading awareness

Amijee is well aware of the ways online media can negatively impact the representation of groups that may not make a common appearance in some people’s lives. With that knowledge in hand the objective could be simple and direct.

Voices of Muslim Women is a nonprofit platform that actively looks to disrupt media misrepresentations of Muslim women. We do this by making Muslim women who lead and live big in Vancouver more visible. We host a range of events including an annual awards gala for the professional accomplishments of Muslim women in Vancouver as well as a professional development conference called the Ringleaders Conference,” she says.

Amijee understands the importance of showcasing the diverse and dynamic realities of Muslim women in a way that is both truthful and eye-opening.

“VMW is interested in creating bridges by working together with non-Muslim and Muslim community stakeholders. We host a space for Muslim women to tell their stories in a digital form and in their own words to become visible mentors for other women,” explains Amijee. “These programs are also open and inclusive to non-Muslim women. This is probably our leading strategy to overcome old media stereotypes of Muslim women. Also, getting to know Muslims in your neighbourhood is often a better source than reading online media content.”

History is the people’s own story

Clarke, who spoke last year at Kwantlen Polytechnics University’s Anti-Racism Day, is a full and vocal supporter for communities to self-determine who its own historic role models
should be.

“We need to know for ourselves who should be upheld and venerated as a great writer, leader or role model. Radical and revolutionary figures in black and African diasporic history have never been favoured by the empowered,” says Clarke. “[The empowered] have shown, over centuries, little interest in extolling the virtues of those who have challenged the system and challenged their rule.”

Without shying away from the thornier edges of its use, Clarke makes both sides clear in his analyses of African cultural heritage.

“On the positive side yes, Black History Month has helped us all to focus on the contributions and challenges people of African heritage and descent have experienced during our 500 year odyssey on Turtle Island, the so called ‘New World.’ On the negative side, as opposed to extolling the virtues of those who have been less famous, less wealthy or less lionized, what tends to happen is that an emphasis is placed on the notable greats and the one in a million who have become president of the US or have won a Nobel prize as opposed examples for everyone else to aspire to be,” he says.

Watching what we teach and what we know

Amijee delivers a clear path for addressing the way ideas have been used to obfuscate Muslim women.

“Understanding that language constructs realities, allies of Muslim women can make a conscious effort to unlearn the general media biases in order to better understand media misrepresentation and combat it,” she says.

Meanwhile, Clarke is clear when delivering his assessment of how we can protect and enshrine the legacies of those who fought to free themselves and their descendants.

“It’s incumbent upon us to not just accept the totems and figures of achievement that capitalist society is comfortable with because they will always parade those folks out,” he says. “Unless we deliberately seek to resuscitate and preserve the memories of the people we consider to be the real champions of progress and opposition to white supremacy, it’s easier for those figures to be erased, obscured or forgotten. This is our responsibility.”