From mute to menacing: why TV’s portrayal of Muslims still falls short

In 2017, Emmy-winning actor and activist Riz Ahmed gave a speech in Parliament about variety on display screen. “Representation is not an added thrill [because] what people are looking for is a message that they belong,” he mentioned. Soon after, the Riz take a look at – the equal of the Bechdel take a look at for the illustration of Muslims within the media – was established. Its standards ask whether or not the characters in a TV present or movie are identifiably Muslim, after which whether or not they’re a terrorist; irrationally indignant; anti-modern; a menace to western values; or a misogynist (or within the case of a feminine character, oppressed by male characters). If any of the solutions are sure, the take a look at 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 extra Muslims are represented on our TV screens than ever, evidently illustration isn’t the simple utopia that many imagined it might be. Nuance is missing, and the illustration that does exist leans in direction of a male-oriented presence. As variety containers are ticked, and hijabs scattered right here and there, the nuance of Muslim identities is strangled additional.

Dr Nour Halabi, lecturer in race, migration and social actions at Leeds University, says the illustration of Muslims within the media and leisure emphasises “their position as what I call a ‘permanent and impossible enemy’, with a particular emphasis on terrorism. The impossibility of defeating this presumed enemy is then often attributed to their deviousness and manipulative behaviour – take, for example, Bodyguard, where the show’s plot hinges on the Muslim character lying about her sympathies until the very end.”

Indeed, one of essentially the most notable roles for a Muslim girl on the BBC prior to now few years was within the hit Jed Mercurio thriller, launched in 2018. The sequence initially establishes Nadia as a sufferer who wants to be saved from her husband, a terrorist, however a twist reveals that she is in truth the terrorist mastermind. The present received a Bafta and was nominated for 2 Emmys, the acknowledgment from each these establishments additional legitimising the regressive stereotypes it employed. In a rustic the place hate crime is on the rise [Tell MAMA’s annual report for 2017 recorded a 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] exhibits reminiscent of Bodyguard threat fuelling such Islamophobia by failing to construct on Muslim ladies’s identification past harmful stereotypes and “othering”.

Netflix’s Bard of Blood, produced by Bollywood-royalty Shahrukh Khan, additionally options Muslims within the default position of terrorists. Even Amazon’s fantastical superhero present The Boys, the place vigilantes struggle in opposition to those that abuse their energy, overbearingly presents Muslims as a menace to western values. In the current ITV manufacturing, Honour – primarily based on the real-life story of 17-year-old British Iraqi-Kurdish Banaz Mahod, who was the sufferer of an “honour” killing by her household in 2006 – the narrative focuses not on Mahmod however 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. Photograph: Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/NETFLIX

One persistent trope is that of empowerment coming solely from distancing oneself from faith, with a hijab elimination scene now a shorthand gesture in movie and TV to present a Muslim girl’s rejection of religion and adoption of western freedoms. Netflix’s Spanish teen drama Elite used this trope; in a key scene, we see one of the present’s leads, Nadia, stroll right into a membership having eliminated her scarf, earlier than happening to drink alcohol and have intercourse with a white classmate. Instead of a nuanced strategy to her identification, the once-oppressed teenager should make an announcement.

Representation depends on who’s in management of the narrative, and it usually doesn’t appear to contain Muslim creators. Apple TV’s Hala confronted comparable backlash final 12 months regardless of being written by Minhal Baig, who primarily based the movie on her personal expertise as a Pakistani-Muslim teenager. The movie makes an attempt a extra complicated portrayal of the life of a Pakistani Muslim hijabi, navigating her religion and tradition. While it’s it effort, the movie falls someplace between making an attempt to overcome these tropes, and taking part in into them. At the tip of the movie Hala decides to take away her hijab – although there was no buildup to this determination, or a way that she has been fighting carrying it.

Ultimately, a lot of this misrepresentation comes down to the facility constructions behind the TV we watch. As Amna Saleem, the screenwriter and broadcaster behind Beta Female, a BBC Radio four sitcom a couple of Scottish-Pakistani girl making an attempt to navigate household, profession and a white boyfriend, says: “Sometimes we have to start with the stereotypes to hook the audience and then undo them”. As for her expertise within the trade, she says that “homogenous” portrayals still prevail and have proven her the necessity for variety 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 exhibits which go in opposition to the grain, amongst them Hulu’s comedy Ramy, a couple of first-generation Arab-American Muslim man struggling to stability his religion together with his identification as an American, put up 9/11. However, for all of its considerate storytelling, the present has been criticised for not affording the identical stage of character growth to its feminine characters because it does its male ones. Ramy’s sister Dena (May Calamawy) is continually pissed off by her mother and father’ overprotective nature, whereas her brother is allowed area to develop and discover. As viewers, we don’t see previous this frustration, whereas minor male characters are allowed room for progress and complexity. Culture author Shamira Ibrahim mirrored 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 listed below are clearly worlds away from Bodyguard, there may be still room for Muslim ladies to do greater than sit on the periphery of male lives.

Maybe in years to come we are going to look again at these exhibits and see how issues have improved in phrases of Muslim identities being extra complicated and greater than two-dimensional, however proper now we are able to’t – particularly whereas the tv trade stays because it does, with simply 1% of TV trade professionals describing themselves as Muslim, in accordance to Ofcom, versus 16% who recognized as Christian.

Real illustration will probably be right here when Muslim characters and tales might be extra than simply overtly good or unhealthy. It will probably be complicated and messy and unpredictable, and for that we’d like extra Muslim writers and creatives, and definitely extra ladies who’ve higher inventive autonomy. But, proper now, as Ahmed mentioned again in 2017, persons 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.”

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