Consequences of Misrepresentation - by Bazigah Murad

We are all profoundly aware of the power media has procured over the years, and thousands of manuscripts are available that warn us of its impacts on the construction of one’s mind over a particular objective, or rather, lots of them. It is thoroughly influential and eminently subversive to cause a drastic shift in perception. Media comes in several formats, including, print media (books, magazines, newspapers), television, movies, and the Internet. Each of these plays a significant role in the representation of different parts of the world and its stories. We must recognize that when we talk about representation, we are not talking about an opinion or an intention; we talk about the statement of fact. Although, it is a sad reality that this statement of fact is often exploited when it comes to the representation of marginalized cultural groups. This results in misrepresentation, misuse, theft, and manipulation of stories of people around the world.

Misrepresentation is an umbrella term. It is everything from under−representing a culture to suppress its direct effects on your image, completely excluding major apartheid of a nation from your bulletin, to publicized discriminating of communities based on shared stereotypes. It is implicit bias and a general lack of will to explore the stories of less dominant people and their cultures. It is the patronizing portray of a community that deserves more than its whole representation based on a single story. So, where does misrepresentation stem from? Who could possibly manipulate a story of a single nation so deeply, that it changes our whole perspective on it? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer, explains it very eloquently in one of her TED Talks. She explains how the power structure of our world has influenced our media and it controls what story needs to be told, how it is told, and when it is told. She says, “Power is the ability to not just tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Over the years, the governments of powerful countries have successfully constructed a society that thrives on half−true stories of a nation, repeatedly disregarding the idea of authenticity of cultures and races through media. It is offensive, it is harmful, and it is hard to correct. It lacks diversity and context. This distortion of culture has many consequences. It leads to segregation among populations, and segregation leads to something even worse: social and cultural isolation.

In every corner of the world, there is a helpless marginalized group isolated from the very population it has grown to call home. Some refugees would rather be in their own country, yet they cannot be, which makes them a fitting candidate to be subjected to political injustice and discrimination. I will not go too far to explain my point, rather I will stay close to home, and give you an example of how our very people of Pakistan has repeatedly isolated around 1.4 million Afghan refugees who came here to seek shelter amidst the Soviet invasion in 1979. During these 20 years, these Afghan refugees have faced so much hatred, so much repulsion for merely trying to survive without the fear of war looming over their heads. Talking about now, most of the Afghans that live here are second−or third-generation refugees who were born here, in this country, yet they are still not considered Pakistani citizens. They are rejected from accessing necessities, such as housing, medicine, education, employment. Despite having a historical, ethnic and linguistic connection, these refugees have constantly been blamed for the issues arising throughout our country, including, poverty, terrorism, unemployment etc. Our people in power, instead of being on their sides, have also always spewed disregard against the refugees who were initially welcomed. I would understand if you thought that Afghans are stiff-necked, cunning, and unfaithful people or that, they are the reason behind the APS attack in Peshawar 2014, along with countless other terrorists’ attacks that occurred in Pakistan over the years. I would understand because that is Pakistan's you have been dictated all your life. This is what you have read in the newspapers whenever there is a mention of an act of violence. That is what I had been told as well. And that is what I thought too. Until it was scorching hot one day and I was waiting for a bus at a stop only with the fare for the bus in my pocket until a rickshaw stopped in front of me and gave me a ride back home in the same fare as a bus, and while I sat in the back seat scared for my life, the rickshaw driver shared stories of his family and the daughter of my age who loved studying but couldn’t because their people are barred from attending public schools and he couldn’t afford to send his children in the private one.

At that moment I realized what I had been feeding off for years. I was feeding off the shared hatred against my fellow citizens. I realized that I had given into their story; the story that was manipulated and remoulded throughout the years and I associated every single Afghan with it. At that moment, I felt ashamed. Because when you deliberately spread hateful information against a group of people based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion or socioeconomic status, you not only violate their story but also risk it become their only story for the rest of their lives. It distorts their identity and targets their individuality, dehumanizing or demonizing them.

Segregation in the religious network is one of the most vicious forms of social and cultural isolation. It stems from the inability of people to accept people of other faiths. It is most often correlated with the minority groups that are subordinate and do not have a powerful government to back them up. The stories of these people are deliberately manipulated to turn the dominant part of the society against them, enforcing false vendetta in the name of protecting their religion. They are brutalized to turn them away from their beliefs, and if this tactic goes in vain, every possible effort is made to take away their freedom of expression and stop them from practising their religion. You can take it from how we treat the minorities —not only non-Muslims but also different sects of the same religion— in our country. Almost every politician has contributed to promoting secularization through media and general politics. Every ruler of the state has tried endorsing and propagating their narrative, regardless of what is collectively best for its people. Our state is a breeding ground for religion-based isolation. It is constantly divided between Islamists and Liberals. Our hatred from one sect to another sect —be it ethnic-regional or religious groups— is the product of false stories that have been circulating for years. We criminalize the acts associated with a religion that is not ours, desecrate their places of worship, encourage state-sanctioned genocide and thus, rob them of their identity. We, as civilians, help the people in power perpetuate the malformation against the people of its state by refusing to stand against the misrepresentation and show the complete story of those marginalized communities that continue to suffer under the wrath of their identity.

On the other hand, the depiction of the Muslim community in the international media has also isolated Muslims in the countries where they are in minority. Islamophobia is the correct term for cataloguing inaccurate assumptions concerning Muslims and Islam. It has been going for centuries; in the form of verbal abuse, physical violence, emotional and mental savagery. So many legislations have been implemented only to indirectly target the faith and freedom to practice their religion. Internationally, female autonomy is so encouraged and so glorified, yet this autonomy is severely violated when it comes to a woman wearing a hijab in public places. Freedom of expression is desecrated when Mosques are attacked amidst the hour of worship. Muslim children are bullied in schools for merely sticking to the teachings of their religion. Yet we are the ones dictated as terrorists all around the world and this has gone as far as to become the only role we play in the foreign world. This form of misrepresentation has incessantly gnawed on our image throughout the years and have become the reason for scepticism against our whole religion.

Gender disparity has also become a key factor that leads to social isolation in the communities where the potent gender (read men) feeds off the vulnerability of the weaker ones. The orthodox and misinterpreted traditions have led our society to assign gender roles where women must only be isolated within the four walls of our home while a man must oversee everything else. Talking about genders, we sometimes overlook the most oppressed gender in our society. Transgenders in our community are constantly subjected to ridicule, abuse and violence. The unacceptance and mistreatment precede them to lead a secretive life and cover their identities as if they are not created with the same mud as everyone else. And no, I am not only talking about the ones on every street signal in Pakistan. I am also speaking on the behalf of the ones who are your age, living among you, being your friends, yet are not being true to themselves because of us; the society.

Misrepresentation is detrimental. It "metastasizes like cancer,” as social epidemiologist Sharon D. Jones-Eversley explains, like the feathers in the wind, it briskly blows away, circulating through media and no one could really pinpoint its origin. Almost all the racial bigotry, xenophobia, sectarianism, religious fanaticism is the product of misrepresentation. It has malign side effects which could lessen as a result of our awareness and objection against the stereotypes that have been incorporated into our minds, controlling our perspective on the people whose beliefs and cultures do not align with ours.

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