Updated: Jun 18
It is damaging to Muslim women’s mental health and self-perception to constantly be portrayed as either the victim or perpetrator. It is time that we wrote the script.
When I watch these movies I do not see me. I cannot remotely relate to the character and neither can the actress playing the hijabi Muslim woman.
I made a personal decision to wear a headscarf. Like many other Muslim women I was not coerced or forced but the character that is supposed to “represent” Muslim women is. We are constantly framed as being victims of Muslim men and of a “backwards” religion so that our white western saviours can swoop in and save us.
This narrative gets extremely tiring but I am at the point where if I see this narrative being spun in film or on TV, I am not surprised in the slightest. I am actually surprised when hijabis get authentic representation because it is rare.
Being a film lover I have watched many films over the years and these are the top two common Islamophobic movie tropes I have seen about Muslim women.
Oppressed hijabis taking off their hijab for liberation
Netflix’s drama Elite follows the generic template of how to represent Muslim women in the media. Muslim girl, Nadia attends a private school and meets a rich white western boy. Nadia is portrayed as only being empowered when she whips her hijab off. She drinks alcohol and struts into the club as her admirer watches with lustful eyes. She is finally free from the shackles of religion and the white saviour made her freedom happen. This is a typical Islamophobic plot.
There are many nuances to the hijab and the women who wear them. Not all Muslim women wear hijab and the hijab may be a part of our identity for those who choose to wear it but we don’t base our entire identity on a hijab.
It is unsurprising that none of the writers were Muslim women. We are often spoken about but not spoken to. It is no wonder so many people believe that Muslim women have no agency because Muslim women are consistently portrayed as being oppressed. Even the little details of what characters say to one another shows just how bad these portrayals of Muslim women and girls are. In season one of Elite, one of the characters tells Nadia that it must be “hard to think… with that scarf wrapped around your head”. Last time I checked wearing a hijab hasn’t hindered my ability to think freely or has made me become a Neanderthal.
Muslim women are not asking film or television series makers to completely ignore the reality that unfortunately some Muslim women are forced or coerced into wearing a hijab. We are asking for true representation. The minority does not represent us all. The entertainment industry has a habit of blaming all Muslims and even Islam itself for the way that individuals force Muslim women into wearing a hijab. It is never clear in movies, tv or even the newspapers that it is individuals who behave this way. Constantly the individual is not framed as the problem but Islam and Muslims in general.
A wide range of Muslim women are not spoken to before making TV shows and movies because then the whole justification for dictating to Muslim women what they can and cannot wear will crumble. “You were forced to wear the hijab”. “Actually I chose to”. “Hijab oppresses you”. “Actually I feel that it has liberated me”. These kind of responses that so many Muslim women would give had they been asked about how they feel about the hijab will chip away at Islamophobic narratives. Control cannot happen without opposites. In order to justify policing Muslim women’s bodies so that they eventually favour western constructions of femininity and western sex politics, Islam has to be seen as “unnatural”, “oppressive” and “backwards”. If it is not, why would Muslim women need saving?
If we aren’t oppressed we are a threat
When Muslim women aren’t depicted as oppressed on our screens, we are a national security threat. Terrorism is always involved. The BBC’s Bodyguard is one of the perfect examples of the ultimate replication of Muslim women as threats. Detective Sergeant David Budd sees a suicide bomber, Nadia, on the train and we are left believing that her husband is controlling her. Throughout the series viewers are led on a wild goose chase full of complex conspiracies involving politicians, the secret service and the police, only to find that of course, it was the hijabi Muslim woman, Nadia that was responsible for the terrorism. Every Muslim woman sat watching this at home must have had a face-palm moment. Nadia was not only involved in terrorism but volunteered and was proud of it.
Budd’s only crime was that he trusted a Muslim woman. He believed that he could confide in Nadia about his family, only for her to tell her fellow terrorists the information that she had been told so that they could bomb Budd’s children’s school. The typical naïve and oppressed Muslim woman has transformed into a bloodthirsty child killer jihadist. The contrasting perceptions of Muslim women being both a victim and a threat make Muslim women appear to be untrustworthy, evasive and unpredictable. If anything this kind of depiction of Muslim women make us seem even more threatening. The fact that Budd took that “chance” to trust a Muslim and it turns out Nadia was not only untrustworthy but evil, is a typical plot line for the chance for the west to say “I told you so”.
Of course being portrayed like this in movies comes as no surprise. They feed into Islamophobic narratives that were used during colonialism in order to justify colonising Muslim countries. After 9/11 global leaders tapped into pre-existing Islamophobic narratives already familiar with so many people in order to justify continued colonialism through foreign policy and violent crackdowns on Muslims like in China and India, as well as other things such as performing “random” security checks on Muslims at the airport, and banning niqabs despite the whole world now covering their faces. Islamophobia extends beyond movies. It is everywhere and it is global. Even in an Israeli advert a woman took off her hijab and started dancing for joy as if she had been liberated just like in the movies. This portrayal of Muslim women has nothing to do with women’s rights and everything to do with policing Muslim women’s bodies.
Muslim women whether they wear a hijab or not are not victims or terrorists. We need more people in the entertainment industry who understand Muslims and actually make an active effort to share all narratives. We also need Muslim women’s voices in the picture. How can you accurately represent Muslim women through a colonialist lens? You can’t. It is essential that the entertainment industry hires more female Muslim directors and producers. Muslim women are constantly told that we lack agency and yet in many aspects of life we are stripped from our agency, including in the entertainment industry, where we cannot even represent ourselves or be story-telling agents of our own narratives.