This text featured as part of the "Dangerous Women" project run by the University of Edinburgh in September 2016. More information about the project can be found here.
The images of women in the below film are from the Saudi Cables data dump from wikileaks.
The photographs are grainy. Coarse. Unflattering. Undetailed. They are found images, taken and scanned and blown up. The women in this film are wearing the hijab or the niqab, possibly Middle Eastern, possibly Muslim.
Knowing their source, there is some expectation in the viewer’s mind that these women must be dangerous and transgressive in some way. The images might be mug shots or taken from police files or a newspaper headline. The women are terrorists or on their way from Syria or some kind of illegal activity.
Western media tends to portray women in hijab almost exclusively a negative context, playing into a wider simplification of the conflict in the Middle East as being a narrative of good (the West) versus evil (the Middle East). There is very little nuanced coverage. These “types” of women are bad and dangerous and in the UK to do damage, either in an implicit (e.g. bombing) or explicit (e.g. stealing jobs) way. Parts of the British press in particular have been so inflammatory that in 2015 the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement calling on British authorities to take steps to curb hate speech found in the media against minority groups. The media portrayal is incredibly important: it not only transfers information and ideas but also shapes opinions and presents particular versions of reality (as in “Culture, Society and the Media”, ed. Michael Gurevitch, et al, 1982 (1995 edition)). Because of this, for many people the concept of a woman in a hijab or niqab will always be linked that of a “bad” otherness.
However, this is not the case. As this short film progresses and pans out it shows that the grainy images are merely passport photos and that all of these women are diplomats’ wives, subverting our expectations of what might have initially have been expected.