Title

Muslim women in Australia and the Netherlands: A multimodal enquiry into television documentary representations

Date of Award

2018

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Arts & Humanities

First Advisor

Associate Professor Debbie Rodan

Second Advisor

Dr Christine Cunningham

Field of Research Code

2001

Abstract

Almost two decades after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the Western media continues to portray Islam and its people negatively and within the dominant knowledge and ideology of the superior West. These media representations remain largely unquestioned. Hereby the appearances of veiled Muslim women continue to be used by the media as a visual symbol confirming Islam’s difference in norms and values with the West.

Framed within the understanding that television documentaries provide audiences with ‘unscripted’ realities of both Islam and Muslim women, this research looks at representations and perceptions of how Muslim women are portrayed within two television documentaries – Halal Mate (2006) from Australia and Meiden van Halal (2005/2006) from the Netherlands. The research draws upon questions of objectivity and subjectivity which are interwoven into discussions of documentaries and their ability to portray this ‘unscripted’ reality. This includes an exploration of how such documentaries may affect viewers’ ideologies of Islam and Muslim people, in particular those of Muslim women as the ‘other’ in Western societies.

The Western media uses stereotypes of Muslim women to assist audiences in the understanding of the portrayed images. Stereotypes are used by audiences to decode both media messages and real-life experiences within a preferred reading. Positive readings of Muslim women are often overshadowed by – existing – negative readings. As evident in this research through questionnaires and focused interviews, stereotypical representations of Muslim women in the media therefore affect the understanding and perception of audiences in Australia and the Netherlands.

This research used multimodality as an overarching research methodology, supported by a mixed method approach. Firstly, a social semiotic multimodal analysis of the two television documentary series was undertaken. This provided important insights and understandings on how television documentaries are inclined to put familiar layers of Western ideologies over the depiction of Muslim women, yet how these layers do not change the communication of Western ideological and stereotypical concepts of Islam and Muslim women to audiences.

An exploratory online questionnaire was then carried out with respondents from both Australia and the Netherlands. In addition, focused interviews – and a corresponding pre-interview questionnaire – were conducted with Australian and Dutch participants to elicit comments after having watched one of the documentary episodes. Together with the results from the questionnaire and multimodal analysis, the data from the interviews were analysed and organised into three themes – the stereotypical representations of Muslim women, perceived social distance towards Muslim people and the hijab as a symbol of ‘otherness’. Data from these themes form the three findings chapters.

This research illustrates the imperfect relationship between media expressions and meaning. That is, norms and values associated with media images of Muslim women and Islam are deeply embedded in the Australian and Dutch society. However, it is noted that, if stereotypes are a matter of perception, the attributes allocated to Islam and Muslim women in Western media representations can be changed, although this will be challenging. This research project will contribute to a better understanding of and insights into the role of the media as a provider of universal and particular values related to Islam and its women for Western societies.

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