What Really “Keeps Girls in Their Place”


http://www.flickr.com/photos/pimthida/5258413805/Despite the unfortunate realities of abuse and oppression faced by Muslim women and non-Muslim women alike, women are an easy target for negative propaganda feeding anti-Islamic agendas. Having heard the old rhetoric on how “women in Islam are oppressed” and how the religion “forces women to stay at home,” it’s refreshing to hear a different perspective on the challenges women face on a global scale.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2007 Report on the Taskforce on the Sexualization of Girls, females suffer greater challenges with self-esteem, are more susceptible to depression, and are held back in terms of learning math, sciences and athletic skills due to the sexualization (and objectification) of girls.  This phenomenon, caused by over exposure to images of females in sexual poses, clothing, and roles in the media including, movies, music, videos, magazines, advertisements, etc. is the basis for this study reported in 2007.  A very interesting and eye-opening conclusion was made in this report:

“Taken together, the work …suggests that sexualization practices may function to keep girls ‘in their place’ as objects of sexual attraction and beauty, significantly limiting their free thinking and movement in the world.”

Take the statement in for a moment.  Ponder.  Repeat.  This study was not conducted by a right-wing Christian group or by radical “Islamists.”  This research was conducted by a group of American Psychologists concerned with how the well-being of girls is affected by the process of making girls view their worth in terms of their looks.

Oftentimes Islam and Muslims are accused of suppressing women’s potential.  What’s refreshing about this report is that the reality behind these societal problems is spelled out in clear letters.  No more blaming foreign ideologies, religions, or followers of a particular faith.  “Keeping girls in their place” and “limiting their free thinking and movement in the world,” is a massive home-grown problem channeled through the media.

Sexualization in the Media

Toys marketed to girls such as “BRATZ” with puckered lips, miniskirts, and fishnet stockings during Saturday morning cartoons demonstrates the pervasiveness of sexy images in the media.  Images of women, or even just their body parts, are used to sell everything – from frozen vegetables, to air conditioning services and alcoholic beverages.  The exploitive use of women is not limited to commercials and advertisements, but also music lyrics, clothing, and video games.

The byline for an article in USA Today on January 24, 2013 speaks to this very phenomenon: “Super Bowl XLVII auto advertisers hope to drive up sales with humorous and sexy ads.”  This casual analysis of the use of women to sell cars points to the sexist and hedonic trends of the advertising industry.  Advertisers want one thing: to promote their product.  The result of how the promotion of their product affects their audience, unfortunately, is not a part of their concern.  The negative impact of the use of sexualized images of women is our concern as the public.

Girls, pre-teens, and young adults begin to internalize these images as something they should emulate.  Various studies show that the sexualization of girls leads to an increase in anorexia, low self-esteem, and sexual promiscuity, to name a few.  The ill effects of this trend not only affect girls and women, but also boys and men.  From a young age, boys also learn that girls and women are to be judged on their physical appearance.  These detrimental attitudes translate into problems in adulthood, when men fail to find the “perfect woman.”  The inundation of sexualized images creates an unrealistic mental image of what an ideal woman should look like and how she should behave.

What Parents Can Do

So what does this mean for parents, family members, and the community at large?

  1. Limit children’s exposure to sexualized images.  Filter what movies, television shows, and other videos your children watch.  Have you ever heard yourself or your peers say, “But what else are we supposed to watch?!”  If we are to blindly watch entertainment without monitoring its value, then we would be like cattle, following the masses without using our intellect.
  2. Talk to your children, especially your girls, about the importance of education, being a good friend, and keeping physically fit.  Having girls understand from a young age that their intrinsic worth comes from exhibiting positive values, not how well their looks emulate those on the screen, is vital to their healthy development.
  3. Teach your family about media literacy. Pointing out these negative trends to our youth allows them to see the world with discerning eyes.  Just as we would teach our youth not to get suckered into fraudulent advertisements meant to scheme unsuspecting customers out of their money, we should educate them on the damaging effects of sexualization.  Visit informative websites such as www.medialiteracy.com and www.projectunmask.com, a youth-led initiative educating youth on the damaging effects media plays on teen self-perception.

By taking a proactive approach to combatting the negative portrayal of girls and women in the media, we can begin to change the way the world treats and views the female gender.

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19 Comments

  1. Barbara Shoffner says:

    Thank you very much for the article. It was very informative with excellent advice. People around the world fell to understand we all face the same problems both men and women regardless of our religion and way of life.

  2. lateefah says:

    As salaamu alaikum,

    I would add one more item to what we can do as parents which I feel is extremely important: tell our daughters that they are beautiful the way Allah made them, from their hair to their skin color to their toes. We can’t ever say it enough with so many images of what perceived beauty is.

  3. Fatimah says:

    I would add that parents need to talk to both their sons and daughters, equally, about this issue. Men, in addition to women, play a role in the perpetuation of hypersexualization of women, and both groups are needed to combat this issue. It’s not a women or girls issue, it’s a societal one.

    • Sarah says:

      I completely agree with Fatimah. If anything, parents need to talk more about this problem with their BOYS. If you look at any masjid in the Bay Area, teen/young adult age females are in abundance, outnumbering their male counterparts, sometimes 10:1. Popular culture no doubt affects them, but since every gender issue is usually portrayed as affecting our “girls”, parents are more careful about our “girls” and they are more successfully connected to the community.

      Hit marriageable age and now we see that though we have “good” girls in our community, it is hard for them to marry. Matchmakers everywhere will tell you that though everyone has unrealistic expectations, the boys more so, and more superficial. Enter the phenomenon of our young women removing or modifying their hijabs or tightening their clothing to be more “marriageable”. It’s sad, but true.

      • Reyhan Hoq says:

        Ameen to that sister Fatimah.

        As a man, I believe it’s kind of a circle that ultimately harms society. Men desire luxurious items that other men value, such as beautiful women. This is how much society has objectified women. We prefer the fleeting pleasures of this Dunya over what Allah (swt) has permitted and our prophet (saw) has recommended.

        • Ameer says:

          Brother, I agree with what you are trying to say but try not to define women as “items.”

        • Hamidah says:

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what the Brother is saying, I believe. *he* is not objectifying women, he is recognizing that we have been turned into objects not only in one society but in many, and it’s not a new phenomenon, either, if I may add.

        • Reyhan Hoq says:

          sr Hamidah,

          That is exactly what I meant.

          Boys/men need to be taught modesty when dealing with the opposite sex. A consistent modesty with all females: non-mahram, classmates, hijabi, non-hijabi, Muslim, non-Muslim, and every girl in between. Too often brothers don’t hold themselves accountable but complain about sisters being immodest.

        • Clare madden says:

          You, objectify and belittle all women when you refer to us as ‘items’.

  4. Saima Riyaz says:

    Informative and timely. Jazakillaahu Khair!

  5. Alien says:

    If only the world understood this. Islam liberates the women.

  6. Yasmin says:

    Jazakallah khair for writing a post about this very important topic.

  7. Speaking to children, just like we teach them manners and etiquette is indeed the key to raising emotionally and mentally healthy children.

  8. Jennifer says:

    In addition to monitoring their media consumption- whether online, television or movies, we parents need to actively breakdown gender stereotypes. Boys are not the only ones interested in tools. Girls are not the only ones interested in cooking. We need to break out of the confines of the “blue” and “pink” aisles in the toy store. We also need to be mindful about the clothing our children wear- whether it is avoiding slogans emphasizing appearance for girls, or avoiding slogans about being “rough and tough” for boys. Parents of young Muslim children these days certainly have our work cut out for us. May Allah protect the innocence of our children and help us to raise them as modest, pious Muslims. Ameen.

  9. Nora says:

    Alhamdulillah for this article. Really the concern belongs to all of society. Media is effecting the future generation in such a terrible way. Many youth have so many problems because of what they have been seeing and hearing. These are things we have to guard eyes and ears.
    Brilliant advice to parents, the last three points; Limit, talk and teach.
    Jazakallah khair

  10. Aaron says:

    very interesting article, there is a lot to be said about sexualisation of women in western society and the article sheds a lot of light on that, thanks for sharing.

    However, the reality that you describe in your article does not mean that women in Islam are not oppressed. One oppression in one (western) society does not erase it in another (islamic) society.

  11. Mother of One says:

    I note that the author does not expand on how to expand on opportunites for Muslim girls in terms of learning math, sciences and athletic skills. I am disheartened to continue seeing activities for Muslim Youth that are specifically targeted for our young men and not our young women. Sister, you almost exclusively focus on outward appearances and sexualization. Aye, that’s a problem, but that isn’t our only problem. To counteract that negativity, we MUST imbue our daughters with self-esteem, assertiveness and positive competitiveness. All these values, and more, can be found in the Mothers of the Believers (RAA). When they are mentioned, they are mentioned for their character, their outspokeness and their piety. When have you seen the color of their hijab mentioned? Rarely.

  12. Sister says:

    Assalyamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhi! Great article and very important topic as everything in our modern society revolves around sexualized images. It starts from innocent Disney cartoons (princess kisses prince…) and continues through children’s movies and tv series (boyfriend and girlfriend themes at an early age) . I strongly advise to stop or limit watching Disney cartoons and movies as they promote promiscuity at an early age. If you analyze many Disney movie from an islamic perspective you will be shocked how much unislamic things are presented there to our kids at an early age.
    Also, please paents do not buy Barbie dolls, Brats dolls for your little girls as this dolls’ appearances and clothes are extremely sexualized. Instead, stick to old fashion dolls with basic body image. I know barbi dolls are colorful , cheap and available everywhere and your girls will ask for it, just be strong and do not buy it. I hate barbies and regret buying these dolls for my daughter.
    Another aspect of our daily life is TV. This is a real threat to all people’s innocence. Its an easy tool of Iblis. Do not leave TV running unattended for even a second in front of your children as many images and advertisement are shown between the programs are truly inappropriate for kids and us altogether. Alhamdulliah in our family we limited our screen time to a minimum because of the amount of the extremely sexualized images comes from the TV.
    When you watch youth movies with your kids discuss it right away whatever you saw there, because today youth movies set many bad examples for our kids. There is no emphasis on character anymore but cheap ideology of looking pretty and cool so kids can have girlfriend or boyfriend. Its so sad.
    Another really serious aspect in our kids life is iPads and smartphones. I think this is #1 tool of the Iblis today. Please educate your kids about dangers of digital devices. Do not leave your kids no matter how small or grown up they are unattended with iPads or smartphones . This portable devices are real danger to our kids. Your kids could be exposed to inappropriate images or videos within seconds through their friends or by themselves and you won’t even know about it. Please do not leave your kids unattended with an iPad instead buy an old fashion computer and place it in the leaving room where everyone can monitor our kids screen time. Talk to the parents of your kids’ friends to supervise their use of iPad when your children playing at their friends’ houses. As I said many parents trust their kids and do not realize dangers coming from the ipads.
    Sorry for my poor english and JazakAllahu Khair

  13. Kirana says:

    Media portrayal does shape the self-perception of the emerging generation. In the West, this study identifies media portrayal of women and girls as impeding their learning in math and science, and athletics. The *form* this portrayal takes in the West (and some part of the East) is via sexualisation.

    I emphasise the distinction between the identified cause, and its *form*, because the same cause in a different *form* affects women and girls in many conservative cultures. sometimes we fixate on the wrong part of a study because of confirmation bias (it suits our pre-existing view), and so miss the wider insight from the study.

    For instance, if the media always portrays women as the students, never the teacher, the accused/defendent but never the judge or lawyers, the clerk, never the boss, the one sitting on the park bench, never the parent playing frisbee or soccer with her son/daughter in the field, listening to a man’s opinion, never offering valuable input of her own, the lab researcher, never the field researcher, the scholar, never the sporstman, the team member, never the team lead, etc etc this also projects an implicit cultural expectation of what women should be, that still probably impedes math, science and athletics, not to mention authority and leadership, even if it is not a sexualised expectation.

    ultimately it is a matter of what the culture really wishes for its members, both men and women, and whether its cultural expression – of which media portrayal is a key part – matches that aspiration.

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