Evelyn Alsultany’s “Simplified Complex Representations”

“Part of Everyday, Popular Culture”

“I became aware of the politics of culture at a young age… and I slowly came to realize that such assumptions about [Arab and Latinx] identity were not just the result of particular news stories being repeated but part of everyday, popular culture.” – Evelyn Alsultany, “Untapped Stereotypes”

TEDxUofM

Arab and Muslim Representation

Whereas Jack Shaheen’s landmark text Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People focuses on film, Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 focuses on television. In the text, Alsultany introduces the concept of “simplified complex representations.”

NYU-Book-Cover“This [representational mode] has meant that if an Arab/Muslim terrorist is represented in the story line of a TV drama or film, then a ‘positive’ representation of an Arab, Muslim, Arab American, or Muslim American is typically included [after 9/11], seemingly to offset the stereotype of the Arab/Muslim terrorist” (Alsultany 14).

Positive or “good” representations of Muslims, Alsultany continues, are developed around their perceived allegiance to the state (here, the United States) rather than their religion. They are presumed “bad” until proven citizen. This mode of representation operates on the assumption that the United States is post-race while simultaneously racializing Arabs and Muslims (moving them out of the category of “white” and into a category of Other). Simplified complex representations appear to complicate “bad” representations by introducing “good” ones, such that they appear to challenge stereotypes but instead introduce a binary opposition between “bad” and “good.”

BAD

  • Terrorist
  • Oil sheikh
  • Oppressed woman

GOOD

  • Citizen that forfeits their rights for the good of their country
  • Government or military employee
  • Woman that gives up her headscarf/hijab

The “good” representations look more complex, but they are still grounded in or against stereotypes and offer little room for Arabs and Muslims to operate in between. They also lend themselves to the conflation of Arab and Muslim: it can become difficult to differentiate between the two when they often appear to be the same thing in media and simplified complex representations do not perform the work of distinguishing them.

Jack Shaheen spent the better part of a lifetime advocating for more complex representations of Arabs in American media and Evelyn Alsultany’s work is, in many ways, a continuation of his. It would be almost impossible to write about the latter without writing about the former; however, Alsultany’s critical work, especially that presenting the evidence for simplified complex representations, situates critique of Arab and Muslim representations in American media in Cultural Studies and in a greater body of Media Studies.

Arabs and Muslims in the Media is limited in the kind of media (television and advertising) it critically analyzes; however, it has far reaching consequences, especially as media production moves farther in time from 9/11. Alsultany identifies simplified complex representations so that they might be made different, but different how? To complicate representations of Arabs and Muslims in media, would one have to completely remove that media from the context of 9/11? Is that even possible when creating contemporary media concerning Arabs and Muslims? What would more complex representation look like? And does it matter whether or not Arabs and Muslims play Arabs and Muslims on television and in film? What would it mean to simplify representations? What role might new media forms play in differentiating representations produced by their predecessors? One might, as I have, ask these questions after engaging with Alsultany’s work; it does not provide a conclusive answer to any of them.

If Alsultany’s work is a continuation of Shaheen’s, then it is part of a fledgling body of scholarship concerning representations of Arabs and Muslims in American media. There is more work yet to be done as representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Arab and Muslim Americans move beyond the binary of “bad” and “good” and move into more complex categories, including that of race. As Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent consider checking off a new box on the census, we might consider just how much of an impact media has on the ways we perceive ourselves and the ways we are perceived by others and we may do so, in part, through Alsultany’s work.


Professor Evelyn Alsultany currently serves as the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where she has taught since 2005. She is also the co-founder and director of the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program in Michigan’s Department of American Culture. An alumna of the University of Michigan, Alsultany received her Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies and Political Science from the college before completing her Master of Arts at the New School for Social Research in New York and Doctor of Philosophy in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. Alsultany’s research addresses representations of Arabs and Muslims in American media.

More about her approach to media studies may be read here on her website.

Her CV may be found here.

Works that she has written or edited may be found here.

– Adrienne Resha

Works Cited

Alsultany, Evelyn. Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. New York University Press, 2012.

“Untapped Stereotypes: Evelyn Alsultany at TEDxUofM.” Performance by Evelyn Alsultany, TEDx Talks, 3 May 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4J1Gaz3ByU.

Hijab as Media

Creating Context

Hijab, the Arabic word for “curtain,” takes its original meaning from the root ح-ج-ب (h-j-b) “to veil, cover, screen, shelter, seclude” (Cowan 184). The first use of the word hijab in the Qur’an is in book 33, “The Joint Forces” (“Al-Ahzab”), verse (ayah) 53, which M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translates to,

When you ask his [the Prophet Muhammad’s] wives for something, do so from behind a screen [hijab]: this is purer both for your hearts and for theirs. (426)

An alternative translation may be read here, alongside the Arabic text.

Understood in this historical, theological context, the form of the hijab, if analyzed as a kind of media, would have been a partition and one message it would have conveyed would be that the women behind it were the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and therefore ineligible for marriage to any other man. These women were not just married to the Prophet Muhammad, they helped establish his connections with politically influential families as Islam took root in the Saudi Arabian peninsula.

From Curtain to Covering

The shift in the meaning of the hijab from “curtain” to the tradition of veiling or its particular form as a style of headscarf, as it is popularly understood today, would most likely not have occurred until after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. A timeline of Islamic history may be viewed here.

Islamic studies scholar Leila Ahmed argues in Women and Gender in Islam that the practice of Muslim women employing the hijab as a means of seclusion was unique to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad during and for a period after his lifetime (55). She writes,

It is not known how the customs spread to the rest of the community. The Muslim conquests of areas in which veiling was commonplace among the upper classes, the influx of wealth, the resultant raised status of Arabs, and Muhammad’s wives being taken as models probably combined to bring about their general adoption. (56)

As Islam spread outward from Saudi Arabia in the time after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, it changed. So, too, did the form and message of the hijab. Although it is unclear exactly when the transition from curtain to covering occurred, one can see the ways in which the tradition of veiling that would come to be known as hijab has manifested throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Continental Shifts

MuslimGirl produced “100 Years of Hijab Fashion in One Minute (MENA/Asia)” and “100 Years of Hijab Fashion (Africa Pt. 1),” viewable below. The videos demonstrate the ways in which the hijab has taken on different forms, as well as political and non-religious meanings, from 1910 up until the present.

 

In different places, at different times, the hijab has taken into its form a multiplicity of meanings.

The hijab can be

  • imposed upon a woman’s body by her government or her family,
  • practiced by a woman as an expression of religious belief and display of modesty,
  • taken off as a political statement against oppressive institutions, or
  • worn as a fashion statement.

None of these meanings are exclusive of one another and these examples are not exhaustive.

Further, the materials constituting the hijab or any of its particular forms (such as the abaya, burqa, chador, hijab, or niqab) reflect the localities in which they are both produced and worn. In the United States, one can see the hijab in its multiplicity of forms among groups of refugees, immigrants, and citizens, such that it cannot be used to distinguish one group from the others. As a medium, it cannot convey or confer citizenship.

However, the hijab can signal change over time, as Muslim women in the United States might choose to veil or choose not to veil in response to personal, local, national, or international events. The hijab is also part of an ongoing conversation taking place within Muslim communities. For example, in the summer of 2017, model Halima Aden appeared on the cover of Allure magazine wearing a Nike brand hijab, which, while celebrated in some circles, has also encouraged intra-community discussion over the commodification of Islamic culture in the Western world.

The hijab makes Muslim women who choose to veil one of the most visible representations of their faith. The forms and meanings of the veil are as different as the women that give them form and meaning, whether or not they choose to wear the hijab, and the contexts in which they do so. As a kind of media, the hijab stores, in its form, and disseminates, through its meanings, information.

– Adrienne Resha

Works Cited

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University Press, 1992.

“حجب hajaba.” The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Edited by JM Cowan, Spoken Language Services, Inc., 1994.

Haleem, M.A.S. Abdel. The Qur’an: English Translation and Parallel Arabic Text. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.