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On Women, Islam and Media: A New Teaching, Learning and Thinking Experience

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Women, Islam and Mediahttp://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/01/17/uea-introduces-women-islam-media-first-in-uk_n_1209995.html?ref=uk-universities, UEA's new final year degree module, has received a lot of media attention and for this reason I decided to write this blog and to provide a summary of what has been said and done over the last few weeks. Some may read this as a text that details how I set the module up and some may think of it as a response to some of the topics covered in the media about the module.

As the School of Film and Television Studies we are committed to trying out the new and we are enthusiastic in exploring issues that are controversial including celebrity, crime television, wild life documentaries and animal rights. As a School committed to internationalisation we explore in our research and teaching issues in world cinemas and popular television from across the world; from Turkey to Japan.

In the first session of Women, Islam and Media (which is now on its fourth week and proving to be a successful module with a group of highly enthusiastic students who are very much keen on discussing the themes and media texts of the module) I have asked the students to draw me a picture of a 'Muslim woman' by giving me some keywords. This they kindly did: and the picture that emerged was of oppressed women, in veils, in a black dress. Dark and silent were recurring words and there was nothing with any positive connotations. This is precisely the task of the module: to understand where this image in our minds come from and how this is related to the media and, more importantly, why?

My primary focus to develop a deeper understanding of the image of Islam's relationship to women and how it gets depicted in the media. My intention, therefore, is neither to darken the image nor to improve it, but rather to understand what gives rise to it. It is important to contextualise prevalent understandings of women, Islam and the media and to understand the way in which events are categorised and represented. It is all too easy for people to take sides in response to a news story - and I am not judging whether they are correct to take one side or another. I am not promoting a particular agenda, but seeking, through an academic critical intervention, to facilitate greater understanding of the issues. People will then make their own judgements.

Putting on a new a module upon such controversial and delicate topic as Women, Islam and the Media and teaching on it is a challenging task. I wanted to get to the heart of how women and Islam have been characterized and perceived in the media from around the world. Typical images or stories include the veil, which has political and social resonances varying from one country to another and 'honour' crimes, virginity tests, female genital mutilation, which are acts of violence typically justified as integral to tradition and religion.

To explore these issues, Women, Islam and Media has been set up as a Final Year optional module for students who are interested in understanding and critically analysing the complex relationship between these three topics. In putting on optional modules, the School of Film and Television Studies at UEA follows a research-led teaching process in which modules arise from the research and writing interests of teaching staff. The module is an outcome of my individual research interests particularly on two topics: the representation of 'honour' crimes in the media and the political implications of the concept of the veil in the media.

Classes cover a range of topics such as the political and religious resonance of the veil; the significance of 'orientalism' to media studies; representations of consequences of arranged marriage in television; honour based-violence and media; Islam and the representation of women in Middle Eastern film and television (covering issues like virginity testing and female genital mutilation); the representation of gender politics and Islam in television advertisements.

In exploring these concepts and issues we use documentary films by Women Make Movies including They Call Me Muslim (Ferrero, 2006) [about different perceptions on veiling in Iran and in France]; Love, Honour and Disobey (Khanum, 2005) [about domestic violence and Muslim women in the UK); Unveiled Views (Sotorra, 2009) [which questions whether Muslim women need 'saving' or whether they are in fact already independent and modern women]; as well as films including the documentary on 'honour' crimes Vendetta Song (Kaftan, 2005) and fiction films like Lemon Tree (Riklis, 2008) [to discuss the relationship between the female body and how it represents the nation]; Persepolis (Paranaud and Satrapi, 2007) [to discuss the notions of orientalism and representation of women of Iran].

The module so far has been a fascinating experience and it has proven to produce so many fruitful discussion with a great group of students. So I send my gratitude to the students on the module who are turning this into an amazing teaching, learning and thinking experience.