I remember sneakily watching EastEnders through a crack in the front room door as a child when my mum thought I was in bed.
When the character of Shabnam Masood (played by Zahra Ahmadi) would whip her hijab off at the turn of her parents’ back and go clubbing – seeking liberation in the touch of white men and at the bottom of a bottle – that cemented in not just my young mind, but also the public’s collective imagination, that Islam is repressive and that women are desperate to escape its confines.
To perpetuate this narrative on television and to send it into living rooms across the country without any critical or nuanced counter argument is irresponsible. But that is what we see time and time again – as though it’s the best we can hope for as Muslims expecting to see ourselves on screen.
As I gorged on the gossip and drama that filled these fictional lives, I also unknowingly absorbed the idea that Muslimness was something shameful and absolutely antithetical to Britishness. As a mixed race child, this confused me a great deal.
Without knowing it, I have been consuming derogatory stereotypes about my own community since I was a young child.
The Biff and Chip books that I loved in primary school were pulled earlier this year for their racist depictions of people of colour, including a story in which a princess is chased by a group of angry, violent men swathed in Muslim-looking clothing.
And when I was twirling around the front room singing songs from Disney’s Aladdin, I gave little thought to the patriarchal, violent culture portrayed – or the hypersexualised depiction of Jasmine that cements the idea of Muslim women being veiled objects of desire.
Earlier this month, a study found that only 1% of speaking characters on television shows in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand are Muslim. Given the fact that one in four people on the planet are followers of the Islamic faith, this is a glaring and damaging disparity.
Across 200 TV series examined as part of the study, only 12 featured a regular Muslim character and seven of these were either perpetrators or victims of physical violence. Muslim characters are overwhelmingly shown as male, speaking little or ‘foreign’ accented English and associated with acts of aggression, while Muslim women onscreen adhere to the damaging cliche of being ‘fearful and endangered’ victims in need of saving.
This is little surprise for British Muslims like me who grew up consuming a diet of Muslims on screen who display a whole host of negative tropes about our community, deliberately designed to cement the idea in the public’s mind that Muslims are something strange, threatening and foreign.
When people in my community are the subject of TV and film, it is almost always in a way that obscures the multifaceted nuances of our beliefs and cultures, and this always does irreparable damage.
As a half-Libyan child, it’s no exaggeration that nobody I knew in my small British hometown had heard of Libya other than that famous Back to the Future line where ‘the Libyans!’ is exclaimed with disgust and fear as the screen pans to brown-face-wearing, gun-wielding, nonsense-spewing actors who are supposed to portray some random, vague notion of a terrorist. Hardly an affirming image for a child already struggling to understand her identity.
When BBC’s 2018 hit political thriller Bodyguard opened with a meek Muslim woman trapped under her terrorist husband’s orders, laden with explosives ready to blow up an entire train, we were offered the eye-rollingly predictable conclusion that she needed a white man to save her from her primitive and deranged brown husband.
Then, in a twist of events that did precisely nothing to further the cause for Muslim women’s autonomy, it turned out that she was indeed the terrorist mastermind after all.
So, that’s our choice as Muslim women. Oppressed victim or deadly threat.
It doesn’t stop there. Recently, I forced myself to sit through a few episodes of Channel 4’s The Undeclared War because I was curious about the Muslim representation in the show. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it was as laden with damaging stereotypes as ever.
Islam implied as something backwards and overly strict? Repressed sexuality? Uneducated mother steeped in traditionalism? Take your pick – and that’s before you get to the hugely problematic central storyline of a woman of colour of Muslim heritage working for the same intelligence services that we know overwhelmingly target those who look like us, through policies such as Prevent.
This sends the dangerous message to audiences that Muslims are only to be accepted if we sell out our communities and partake in the systems that are built against us. What message does that send to young Muslims in Britain? That the only image of Britishness acceptable is one that leaves foreignness at the door.
We are rarely afforded the nuance and the delicate care that other narratives are. We are excluded from writer’s rooms where our stories can be heard and where our voices can make a difference.
In 1984, Jack Shaheen wrote a book called the TV Arab in which he posited that Muslims are only ever depicted as ‘billionaires, bombers or belly dancers’ and it’s hugely depressing to think that decades later, we’ve still got a long way to go.
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