If you ask me to name a Muslim woman in the real world who follows XYZ career, I can probably think of someone I know. If you ask me to pick the same from the reel world, I might be stumped.
There are over 800 million Muslim women in the world, spread out across continents, cultures, and geographies. They are lawyers, architects, farmers, housewives, doctors, scholars, pilots, and so much more. Some are extremely wealthy and influential, others live in poverty, and yet others fall somewhere in between on the economic spectrum. These women, around the world, wear all kinds of clothing, and speak thousands of languages. Their skin colors, their accents, their political beliefs, and their personalities range across the spectrum.
What do we see on television though? The oppressed Muslim woman who needs saving, the rebellious Muslim woman who rejects religion in order to be emancipated, the caricatured Muslim woman who is unable to keep up with “modernity.” How is it possible that all 800 million+ of this population fall into a handful of pre-established categories? A classic case of stereotyping, exoticizing, and tokenism.
The fault, however, does not lie solely with Western media, though it is a significant influencer. There are numerous instances of media products coming even from Muslim countries that also represent Muslim women in extremely limited and standardized ways. Pakistani television serials, for instance, will often differentiate between the “good” and “bad” Muslim woman by portraying the former as oppressed, dressed in shalwar kameez, and going out to earn out of necessity, while the latter wears Westernized clothes and works outside the house by choice.
Dubai based homemaker Nawal Yahya mentions how, in these shows, a “true” Muslim woman is categorized as a “dutiful daughter, an obedient wife, a good daughter-in-law, and an ever sacrificing mother.” (1) Career paths women follow on-screen are also limited, even though women in Pakistan work across diverse industries. If the US media’s limited representation of Muslim women is due to lack of knowledge, what excuse does Pakistani media have? The matter is far more complex than the problem of awareness alone. Electronic media across the world does not even begin to capture the vast diversity of Muslim women’s experiences and lived realities.
New York-based filmmaker and activist Mara Ahmed emphasizes how there is so much “complexity and richness” in narratives of diverse Muslim women — “The story of a Somali refugee is very different from the story of a Pakistani immigrant or a Palestinian born in Brooklyn… it would behoove all of us to invest in bringing them to life.” (2)
Diverse representation, that does not neatly fall into a few black and white categories is essential, not only to counter Islamophobia but also to inculcate a sense of identity and belonging for many Muslim women in their own perception. Almost all of the Muslim, Pakistani/Pakistani American women I interviewed for this article said they do not see themselves represented in mainstream media — either locally or abroad.
How does one begin to address this problem? What is needed to have the vast diversity of Muslim women’s experiences and identities, represented beyond limited physical markers like the hijab, or the choice to consume alcohol, for example (remember the Quantico twins?)? How do we get to a more subtle representation that is just “normal,” with various permutations and combinations of characters?
Sannah Kakal, a Pakistani American working in corporate finance for a Fortune 500 company, says that one way to tackle this is to have “more subtle nods to people’s backgrounds, cultures, and religions” within shows, without making these a plot point. Using the example of law and order shows, she suggests they show different foods of regional Muslim communities, highlight neighborhoods Muslim diasporas live in, and portray holidays they celebrate.
“Those are all things that ring true in my Muslim identity that are past the very ‘easy’ low hanging fruit of hijab and booze,” she says. She points out how the recent “Never Have I Ever” does a good job of representing normalized experiences of a young Indian, Hindu girl which are relatable as a fellow South Asian. There are many distinctions though, and the usual lumping together of everyone under the South Asian label does not work, which is why we need more shows (and characters on shows) which represent Muslim women (3).
Personally, I find a show like “Citizen Khan” funny but, I am aware it feeds into stereotypes about British-Pakistani Muslims, especially women. A problem arises when more shows about the same population are not available to counter these perceptions. As Ahmed puts it, we “…need a large number of narratives…Not everyone will get it right. This is why there is safety in numbers.” (4)
Some women raised the example of the character Nadia from the Spanish Netflix series “Elite,” expressing discomfort with the fact that her “liberation” corresponded to her taking off the hijab. Zeenat Chaudhary, a content coordinator for Pakistan’s leading advertising, marketing and media magazine, comments how Nadia’s “moment of not being oppressed is when she falls in love with a white boy and takes her hijab off – with the show depicting how much ‘hotter’ she looks without the scarf.” (5)
Graphic designer and illustrator Amna Shafi,* echoes this observation, saying that though she considers herself to be open-minded and liberal, she felt very uncomfortable watching “scenes where Nadia was shown more free with her hijab off, as though it was restricting her, or engaging in make-out sessions.” (6) This general tendency, of equating freedom with sensuality, which goes far beyond just TV shows and movies, is summed up well by Ahmed:
“An idea that I cannot relate to is that liberation for a Muslim woman can only be achieved through sex. This is something that might fit the Western feminist framework but doesn’t really ring true for a lot of Muslim women. We are tired of seeing that same old story.” (7)
Tired of seeing the same old story is a recurring comment from many female Muslim viewers. Whether it be more localized media from a Muslim country like Pakistan, or media coming from more famous industries like the US, the audience wants to see themselves, and their communities, represented in more realistic ways.
Moving forward, many a Muslim woman would greatly appreciate, and benefit from, seeing a more realistic reflection of herself on screen. Greater numbers of stories about the population would increase the chances of having both more accurate, and more diverse representation. Having at least some of these stories told by Muslim women themselves would help ensure that there is more accuracy, and less stereotyping, in how they are presented.
Moreover, introducing more Muslim female characters on shows that do not revolve around them, or their Muslim-ness, is also an important step in the right direction. The idea is not only to fight stereotyping and long-term effects of resulting Islamophobia, but also to give Muslim women the assurance that they do not have to fit into a pre-defined category in order to be considered “normal” or Muslim enough. They are who they are, and mainstream media must start understanding and respecting that.
*Name changed on the interviewee’s request.
1. Yahya, Nawal. Email Interview. By Nabeeha Chaudhary. Jun 30, 2020.
2. Ahmed, Mara. Email Interview. By Nabeeha Chaudhary. Jun 23, 2020.
3. Kakal, Sannah. Email Interview. By Nabeeha Chaudhary. Jul 6, 2020.
4. Ahmed, Mara. Email Interview. By Nabeeha Chaudhary. Jun 23, 2020.
5. Chaudhary, Zeenat. Email Interview. By Nabeeha Chaudhary. Jun 29, 2020.
6. Anonymous. Email Interview. By Nabeeha Chaudhary. Jun 16, 2020.
7. Ahmed, Mara. Email Interview. By Nabeeha Chaudhary. Jun 23, 2020.