Sara Cheikh Husain (Alsheikh) little dreamed that her interest in children’s picture books, motivated by her Visual Communication background and her position as a mother, would lead to a PhD scholarship with the UNESCO Chair for Cultural Diversity and Social Justice.
Mrs Cheikh-Husain, who previously worked as an illustrator and designer, migrated to Australia with her family from the United Arab Emirates around 3 years ago.
Mrs Cheikh-Husain’s search for children’s literature representing migrant Arab children, like her own, was unsuccessful. So, she decided to explore the problem though studies.
Her Honours research with Deakin University was awarded a high distinction and titled: Reading Arabs: A Critical Multicultural Analysis of the Representation of Arab Minorities in Picture Books.
“Out of the 80 picture books in the sample, I only found 10 that were about Arabs as a minority group,” she said.
“Of those few, four were about Arab migrants fleeing Lebanon and Somalia as a result of their civil war, while 60 years of Israel-Palestinian conflict resulting in millions of Palestinian refugees were unrepresented.”
Her review of the books for her honours project also found that Arabs were mostly portrayed as inferior and misfortunate through subliminal stereotypical depictions either in the visual narrative, the verbal narrative or both.
Mrs Cheikh-Husain said Multicultural picture books mirroring one’s-self were crucial for young children as they helped to assert their differences as well as their belonging.
“At the moment, the fictional picture books available depict Arabs as belonging to a sector of the world that it either unstable and frightening, or inferior and frozen in time” she said.
“My sample had one book only that was free of echoed stereotypical representations. It was written by a Muslim American mother as a respond for the dearth of books representing minority Arabs as normal people in healthy relations with non-Arabs,”
The confronting old and prevalent stereotypes she encountered in her honours study, besides her personal challenges as a Muslim migrant, led her into examining Islamophobia for her PhD.
“At a certain point, you cannot flip the page,” she said.
“Current events and my position as a Muslim, migrant and as a mother requires action, and what is a better action than acquiring knowledge and to later Implement a change?,” she said.
Mrs Cheikh-Husain believes that Islamophobia if not diagnosed and alleviated will damage the multicultural social fabric of our society.
“Islamophobia is a loaded phenomenon with various sociological segments, historical and political reasons, and multicultural challenges,” she said.
Her UNESCO Chair PhD Scholarship will help her to implement her PhD proposal.
“The UNESCO Chair provides me with an exalted platform and intellectual support to empower my research,” she said.
While it is early days, Mrs Cheikh-Husain wants to examine the various segments of this phenomenon. Later, her research will analyse the role of Australian Islamic organizations towards advancing social understanding and cohesion to counter fear of Islam and mistrust towards Muslims.