Media Savvy Arab Girls Respond to the Mainstream

Across the country, young media producers are creating works expressing their perspectives on and experiences of immigration, often directly combating negative portrayals put forth by mainstream sources.
For example, a radio documentary, “The Migration Project,” produced by KUOW (a Riverton, WY radio station) and Generation PRX (a project of the Public Radio Exchange to support, connect, and distribute youth-produced radio), focuses on issues of identity in the lives of young immigrants, while Global Action Project recently launched a video detailing the military recruitment of immigrant youth. Both these pieces challenge mainstream media narratives. But what happens to a youth media organization when directly attacked by a powerful media source not because they cover immigration, but because their own immigration status marks them as a “terrorist threat”?
Arab Women in the Arts and Media
This is precisely what happened to Arab Women in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), a community organization in Brooklyn, NY that offers media training to young women ages 14-18. AWAAM also makes the “Intifada NYC” shirts that received much media attention in fall 2007.
In brief, when New York Post reporter Chuck Bennett asked Deborah Almontaser, founder and then-principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (a new public middle school offering studies in Arabic and English), about the meaning of the word, intifada, Almontaser responded that the word’s Arabic root meant “shaking off” (The Post, August 9 2007, “City Principal is ‘Revolting’”). She acknowledged the word’s negative connotation, arising from its use in the Middle East, and explained: “I don’t believe the intention [of the shirt] is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society . . . and shaking off oppression.”
The Post then published a series of articles linking Almontaser to AWAAM, which was depicted as an extremist and Muslim organization (AWAAM is in fact a feminist, Arab American, but not necessarily Muslim, organization). The Post claimed that AWAAM was “hawking T-shirts that glorify Palestinian terror,” and accusations echoed across the right-wing blog-o-sphere. Although the only connection between Almontaser and AWAAM is that the (now) ex-principal (Almontaser resigned as principal of the school in August) is a board member of a Yemeni-American organization with which AWAAM shares space, with one loaded interview question, the Post was able to weave AWAAM into the web of anti-Arab/immigrant feeling mounting in the city in opposition to the Khalil Gibran Academy. Quite suddenly, the women of AWAAM found themselves the target of media attention.
Hostility Unmasked
The anti-immigrant feeling revealed by the confrontation with the Post was not news to the young women of AWAAM—indeed they encounter such attitudes daily. A radio piece that the teens produced a year before, entitled “The War At Home,” documents such encounters. In the documentary, one young woman discusses strangers’ prolonged gazes at her hijaab—the scarf worn by many Muslim women. Another recounts an incident on the subway where a woman threw her coffee on a group of Muslim high school students. Throughout the piece run the kind of comments these young women hear all the time: “Take that stupid rag off your head, you terrorist,” or “Go back to your country.”
The Post incident occurred at the end of AWAAM’s summer media program. Young women organizers had spent several months preparing to inaugurate the Brooklyn chapter of the Coalition for Muslim Holidays, a diverse initiative working to include Muslim holy days as official New York City Public School holidays. With the publication of the Post article, reporters began gathering outside the doors of the building where the summer media workshops took place to get the story on the organization that had made the “Intifada NYC” shirts.
In another context, it would have been a singular opportunity for showcasing youth work, but the environment was anything but a safe space. Spelled out by the Post and amplified by rightwing bloggers, anti-Arab sentiment was now aimed directly at AWAAM and its youth media constituency. When the organization’s website was hacked into, the threat became even more intense.
Safety and Expression
AWAAM Director Mona Eldahry was put in the difficult position of having to negotiate between the safety and free expression of the young women she served and “outing” them as producers on the website. After conferring with parents, colleagues, and the girls, she decided that the environment was too dangerous for the young women’s work to be published online. AWAAM removed the names of the young female producers from work on the organization’s website. In addition, an entire summer’s youth media work was not posted, and the screening to accompany the Muslim holidays coalition was cancelled. Says Eldahry, “I felt like it seriously handicapped us because our asset is the media youth produce.” The organization faced further challenges as educators had to shift their focus from programming and fund raising to coordinating press releases, participating in interviews, and monitoring the website.
In spite of the strain on the organization, the youth media-makers were resilient. They were enraged, according to Eldahry, but defiant. Their response was, “We cannot be silenced.” Taking action into their own hands, the young women of AWAAM did exactly what they had learned during the summer—they made a video, countering the attacks, documenting the truth, and reclaiming their voices. Manipulating the constraint of anonymity, they shot the video, entitled “Silenced by the Media,” without including their faces, resulting in chilling images of decapitated bodies and dissociated voices telling the truth about the scandal and Almontaser’s resignation.
Conclusion: Combating the Negative Images of the Mainstream Media
The spirited response of the young AWAAM women to the media’s uninformed and negative portrayals of their work is one encouraging example of how alternative media can and must respond to the mainstream news outlets.
Another example occurred at an October conference in New York entitled “Building Bridges: How African-Americans and Immigrants Can Create Social and Economic Justice Together,” where Hugh Hamilton, host of “Talk Back,” a noncommercial call-in radio show, discussed how mainstream media’s negative and false representations of African-Americans and immigrants reinforce stereotypes and foster fear, contributing tensions between the two groups who have many similar interests and face similar challenges. In response, an educator in the audience spoke passionately about the important role youth media could play in challenging those stereotypes and helping reframe the immigration debate, in particular.
With the 2008 presidential race gaining momentum and with immigration reform increasingly central to the campaign, there will no doubt be many opportunities in the coming year for youth media organizations to mount projects and campaigns to counter the mainstream media and present a more balanced view of this important issue.
Note: On October 15, 2007, Debbie Almontaser reapplied for the position of principal at Khalil Gibran International Academy. AWAAM is currently seeking mentors and space for their weekend media trainings this fall.
Grace Smith is interning as Assistant Editor at the Youth Media Reporter. Born and raised in Baltimore, Smith lives in Brooklyn where she makes queer performance art and tends chickens.
For more information:
Khalil Gibran International Academy
Islam and Media Stereotypes
The New York Immigration Coalition