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Pop art representation of Muslims still falls short of expectations

In 2017, Emmy-winning actor and activist Riz Ahmed gave a speech in Parliament about diversity on screen. “Representation is not an added thrill [because] what people are looking for is a message that they belong,” he said. Soon after, the Riz test – the equivalent of the Bechdel test for the representation of Muslims in the media – was established. Its criteria ask whether the characters in a TV show or film are identifiably Muslim, and then whether they are a terrorist; irrationally angry; anti-modern; a threat to western values; or a misogynist (or in the case of a female character, oppressed by male characters). If any of the answers are yes, the test has been failed.

In his speech, Ahmed went on to ask: “Where’s the counter-narrative? Where are we telling these kids that they can be heroes in our stories, that they are valued?” While more Muslims are represented on our TV screens than ever, it seems that representation isn’t the easy utopia that many imagined it would be. Nuance is lacking, and the representation that does exist leans towards a male-oriented presence. As diversity boxes are ticked, and hijabs scattered here and there, the nuance of Muslim identities is strangled further.

Indeed, one of the most notable roles for a Muslim woman on the BBC in the past few years was in the hit Jed Mercurio thriller, released in 2018. The series initially establishes Nadia as a victim who needs to be saved from her husband, a terrorist, but a twist reveals that she is in fact the terrorist mastermind. The show won a Bafta and was nominated for two Emmys, the acknowledgment from both these institutions further legitimising the regressive stereotypes it employed. In a country where hate crime is on the rise [Tell MAMA’s annual report for 2017 recorded rise in Anti-Muslim or Islamophobic attacks with 1,201 verified incidents, a rise of 26% on the year before, while in 2018 there were 1,072 verified attacks] shows such as Bodyguard risk fuelling such Islamophobia by failing to build on Muslim women’s identity beyond dangerous stereotypes and “othering”.

Netflix’s Bard of Blood, produced by Bollywood-royalty Shahrukh Khan, also features Muslims in the default role of terrorists. Even Amazon’s fantastical superhero show The Boys, where vigilantes fight against those who abuse their power, overbearingly presents Muslims as a threat to western values. In the recent ITV production, Honour – based on the real-life story of 17-year-old British Iraqi-Kurdish Banaz Mahod, who was the victim of an “honour” killing by her family in 2006 – the narrative focuses not on Mahmod but on the white police officer who investigates her case.

‘Hijab removal is shorthand for a rejection of faith’ ... Mina El Hammani as Nadia, alongside her Elite co-stars.

‘Hijab removal is shorthand for a rejection of faith’ … Mina El Hammani as Nadia, alongside her Elite co-stars. Photograph: Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/NETFLIX

One persistent trope is that of empowerment coming solely from distancing oneself from religion, with a hijab removal scene now a shorthand gesture in film and TV to show a Muslim woman’s rejection of faith and adoption of western freedoms. Netflix’s Spanish teen drama Elite used this trope; in a key scene, we see one of the show’s leads, Nadia, walk into a club having removed her headscarf, before going on to drink alcohol and have sex with a white classmate. Instead of a nuanced approach to her identity, the once-oppressed teenager must make a statement.

Representation is dependent on who is in control of the narrative, and it often does not seem to involve Muslim creators. Apple TV’s Hala faced similar backlash last year despite being written by Minhal Baig, who based the film on her own experience as a Pakistani-Muslim teenager. The film attempts a more complex portrayal of the life of a Pakistani Muslim hijabi, navigating her faith and culture. While it is it a good effort, the film falls somewhere between trying to overcome these tropes, and playing into them. At the end of the film Hala decides to remove her hijab – though there has been no buildup to this decision, or a sense that she has been struggling with wearing it.

Ultimately, much of this misrepresentation comes down to the power structures behind the TV we watch. As Amna Saleem, the screenwriter and broadcaster behind Beta Female, a BBC Radio 4 sitcom about a Scottish-Pakistani woman trying to navigate family, career and a white boyfriend, says: “Sometimes we have to start with the stereotypes to hook the audience and then undo them”. As for her experience in the industry, she says that “homogenous” portrayals still prevail and have shown her the need for diversity behind the scenes: “Maybe we need to write out these cliches so a new class of writers can come in and make their mark.

Women on the periphery ... Ramy.

Women on the periphery … Ramy. Photograph: Hulu

“Much of the representation of Muslim women, even by Muslim men, will need to be undone … to be in this industry there are steps, there are things you need to do before you can have complete creative autonomy. That’s just how it works. From the outside, many believe writers have more power than they do and this can often lead to a reactionary approach from communities towards new writers, instead of affording them space to work and develop.”

There are, of course, some shows which go against the grain, among them Hulu’s comedy Ramy, about a first-generation Arab-American Muslim man struggling to balance his faith with his identity as an American, post 9/11. However, for all of its thoughtful storytelling, the show has been criticised for not affording the same level of character development to its female characters as it does its male ones. Ramy’s sister Dena (May Calamawy) is constantly frustrated by her parents’ overprotective nature, while her brother is allowed space to grow and explore. As viewers, we don’t see past this frustration, while minor male characters are allowed room for growth and complexity. Culture writer Shamira Ibrahim reflected in The Atlantic in 2019: “Muslim women are indeed varied and complicated, but portraying them as largely absent of agency, or somehow wholly separate from the temptations or crises that Ramy himself navigates, excludes them from the modern millennial existence in a way that rings false”. While the portrayals here are obviously worlds away from Bodyguard, there is still room for Muslim women to do more than sit on the periphery of male lives.

Maybe in years to come we will look back at these shows and see how things have improved in terms of Muslim identities being more complex and more than two-dimensional, but right now we can’t – especially while the television industry remains as it does, with just 1% of TV industry professionals describing themselves as Muslim, according to Ofcom, versus 16% who identified as Christian.

Real representation will be here when Muslim characters and stories can be more than just overtly good or bad. It will be complex and messy and unpredictable, and for that we need more Muslim writers and creatives, and certainly more women who have greater creative autonomy. But, right now, as Ahmed said back in 2017, people are “looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard, and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued. They want to feel represented. In that task we have failed.”

Source: The Guardian

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