There’s another woman in the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. Do you see her?
We meet the headscarf-wearing photographer when she looks seriously at the camera, before the scene shifts to her impatiently sorting through contact sheets. Upset that she cannot find the perfect shot, she takes her camera out onto the streets, joining a crowd marching in protest. She’s there at exactly the right moment to catch the shot of Jenner handing a can of Pepsi to the benign police officer. That’s the first time we see her smile.
The hijabi photographer in the now-banished Pepsi ad is a spectator to someone else’s story.
That was perhaps the most disturbing thing about that ad – it used the symbols of different communities in service of a narrative that was not authentically their own.
In this polarized time, it is a cultural imperative for us to share our stories, to try to understand each other more deeply.
The representation of Muslim women has always been fraught with tension. There is a long history of the western world orientalizing the Muslim woman – casting her as submissive, oppressed, meek. In Disney’s version, Jasmine is a beautiful, young woman who is quite literally trapped by her father.
In reality, there are more than one and a half billion Muslims in the world. Muslim women live in Somalia and Malaysia and the island nation of the Maldives and the United States. They come in every shape and hue. Some cover their heads; some bare their midriffs. Yet, if you were to ask yourself, what comes to your mind when you think of a Muslim woman? Where does she live? How does she dress?
For many people, the image will be of a covered woman in a war-torn region, either the victim of her circumstances or the villain in someone else’s story. This is because, for many years, the mainstream media’s coverage of Muslim women has been relegated to this narrative. Muslim women are rarely the protagonist of their own stories.
Like all women, Muslim women are often objectified. They are the object of the other’s gaze, rather than their own fully dimensional selves. This started with the fairly stereotypical trope of the oppressed, submissive woman. Think burqa. Think Afghanistan.
With the rise of terrorism, there has been a shift in the national narrative. With incidents like the shootings in San Bernardino, a new trope began to emerge – the violent terrorist. Stereotypically a male, we have seen this trope expand to include women as well. These women are not like other women. Of the accused in San Bernardino it was asked, “How could a mother leave her children that way?”
Many believed it must be a “Muslim” thing.
In the Pepsi ad, the photographer is quite literally a spectator to the action. She’s not truly part of the protest; her most significant role is signaling approval to the viewer by smiling and taking a photo of Jenner. Throughout the ad, she is searching. It is as if the Pepsi ad executives did not quite know what it was a Muslim woman would stand for.
Liz Medicine Crow from the First Alaskans Institute said, “The shortest distance between two people is a story.” Muslim women are not a one-dimensional image, whether as an oppressed woman or a violent terrorist. We have our own stories to tell; stories that are rich, complex, messy – human.
It does a disservice when we relegate a Muslim woman to a stereotype, whether as an oppressed woman, a terrorist, or a spectator without a real story of her own. Muslim women are the protagonists of their lives. Listen to us. Learn our stories.
Marya Bangee founded SILA, a social impact firm that believes in the power of connection and storytelling to drive social change. She is a Ford Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.