Hollywood’s Single Narrative of Muslim Womanhood

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The Western media industry persists in making the hijabi woman the sole symbol of Islamic womanhood. This is deeply reductive and ignores the varied connatations of the hijab to Muslim women.

 

 

America’s relationship with Islam and Muslims has been fraught for over four centuries. Most of the very first African slaves brought over to toil in the cotton fields of the Southern states were practicing Muslims. President Thomas Jefferson himself possessed two Qurans, one of which was used to swear in Representatives Ilhan Omar and Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib in 2019. This was progress, yes, but it was progress with a lowercase “p”, as that appears to be this nation’s modus operandi when it comes to authentic inclusivity. I, a Bangladeshi American child of Muslim immigrants, was awed by that moment, but it was fleeting as I remembered that Jefferson ultimately had those holy books because he was trying to delve into what he considered to be the “savage” minds and culture of a people he was actively enslaving.

Centuries later, mainstream, establishment America’s approach to Muslims and Islam is just as complex and one of mistrust and vilification. And nowhere is it more apparent than in the behemoth that is Hollywood. In a neo-liberal industry that brands itself as secular and tolerant, Hollywood has often perpetuated negative stereotypes about Muslims, portraying them as violent extremists or backward individuals. Being influential and,at times, the arbiter of tastes and ideologies, these portrayals have contributed to Islamophobia and the creation of a general negative public perception of Muslims in the United States.

This is at diametric odds with the industry’s insistence that it is secular. Where Islam and Muslims are concerned, Hollywood has always walked a fine line between being apolitical and acting as a torchbearer for specific geopolitical messaging. An example of this is repeatedly portraying Arabs as villains and Israelis as heroes or victims and rarely sharing the Palestinian perspective when the situation is far more complex. Barring a few exceptions, such as “Lawrence of Arabia”, its depiction of Islam and Arabs is often superficial and plays into the usual stereotypes of a didactic and intolerant religion and people.

In recent years, in an effort to be inclusive, the more independent sections of the entertainment industry have tried their hand at fair and nuanced representations of Muslims in films and television shows. Movies like “The Big Sick” and “Moonlight,” the latter of which is an independent film with studio distribution, have depicted Muslim characters with depth and complexity, exploring their personal struggles, aspirations, and relationships beyond religious or cultural stereotypes. At the same time, television shows such as “Ramy” (Hulu) and “Little Mosque on the Prairie” (CBC TV) have also made efforts to present more authentic and multifaceted Muslim characters and storylines. Additionally, initiatives within the entertainment industry, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau, strive to promote accurate and inclusive portrayals of Muslims in media.

… the Western media industry holding up the hijabi woman as the sole symbol of Islamic womanhood and further as somehow empowered and feminist makes a mockery of Mahsa Amini’s death and the systemic denigration of Muslim women around the world.

The aforementioned shows and films all have creators with Muslim backgrounds. These types of creators are a rarity. Thus, there are still too many instances where Muslims are stereotypically portrayed or depicted as villains or terrorists. In fact, I would argue that this continues to be the default representation, albeit more passive-aggressively, as is exemplified on recent shows like Netflix’s “The Diplomat” (2023), a political show similar in style and tone to the massively lauded “The West Wing” (NBC Universal, 2000) of the previous decade.

On the former, the antagonists are not Arabs or Muslims, unlike on the West Wing, when they were what we writers refer to as “the big bad”. Is this truly progress? I would say again it is lowercase “p” progress as Iran is obliquely suggested to be, throughout the majority of the first season of “The Diplomat”, the main instigator in an overt act of war against the Western superpowers. That they are exonerated at the end is cold comfort.

The premise of “The Diplomat” centers around career diplomat Kate Wyler (Kerri Russell), who reluctantly accepts an assignment as the American Ambassador to Great Britain amid tensions in the Persian Gulf when a British aircraft carrier is attacked, resulting in casualties. Iran is the immediate suspect, even though Kate insists, for various logical reasons, that this is unlikely. The creators keep pushing that narrative, presumably in an attempt to say, “Look, we don’t always blame Muslims,” and also to state that there are elements in the American government who don’t vilify Muslims.

The issue is this: the storyline is ultimately predicated on the fact that Iran is still considered a hostile nation by the United States government and has committed acts of violence against its allies, a foreign policy stance that is not as cut and dry as it appears. The interests of specific allies in the Middle East are used to justify stripping Iran of nuclear capabilities whilst condoning others to have it for self-defense. Using Iran in a fictional narrative is reductive and a bit callous.

This is further exacerbated by the show’s lack of main Muslim characters. The heroes and heroines of the day are white or black (not Muslim Black). The CIA station chief is Korean American but not on screen that often. The White House Chief of Staff is a young black woman — a far cry from the days of a wizened and decidedly Caucasian Leo McGarry on “The West Wing”, but why not make her an African American Muslim and non-hijabi? Especially if the goal is to show that the industry has moved past reductive depictions?

The Arabs and Muslims on this show are generally there to provide politically correct optics-such as a young office staffer in hijab and Iranian double agents who want to help the Americans. This is the Hollywood version of a balanced narrative. Let’s pick an ethnically or religiously specific antagonist who is actively trying to destroy the protagonist, and then just to buy it back, we will create an underdeveloped character of the same race or ethnicity who is flaccidly sympathetic. We will not give them an arc or any real moments. Our willingness to include them at all shows we are not biased.

Thus, the hijabi character in “The Diplomat” is mainly silent and provides merely a notion of diversity. She appears in episode one, is primarily in the background throughout, and is not given anything substantial to say or do as the season progresses. It would not have altered the storyline if she was not there. She is there to further prop up the idea that Hollywood and, by extension, America has put its enmity with Islam, Arabs, and Muslims behind them. It is a tepid attempt and one I see time and again. I would argue that making her hijabi absolves the writers from having to develop her character.

This immediately signals that she is a traditional, conservative Muslim, clearly not a threat, or she would not be an embassy staffer. If they had chosen to make her a non-hijabi Muslim, they would have to give her more screen time and perhaps even an arc because she would be challenging the typical ideas of who a Muslim woman is. It is easier to make Iran villainous and repurchase it with an innocuous screen byte of a non-threatening hijabi woman. This leads me to my greater point.

Something more complex is emerging in the industry’s patterns of inclusion and allyship towards those it has traditionally othered or even vilified with alarming regularity. In the current social climate, with social media at the fore, individual executives and studios heartily fear being “cancelled” for being racist or intolerant and are pushing forward what they feel to be positive portrayals of certain marginalized groups without due diligence thus further reducing their dimensionality and even negating possible global socio-political ramifications of these depictions. In relation to Islam, the focus as of late is on the portrayal of Muslim women who wear hijab, lionizing them and holding them up as the primary representative of Muslim womanhood. This normalizes a religious practice that many secular or moderate Muslims find oppressive and misogynistic.

It is important to note the Quran mentions the concept of modesty in dress for both men and women, but it does not explicitly mention the word “hijab” as the specific garment or head covering. The Quran provides general guidelines regarding modesty and the way believers should dress. One of the verses often cited in relation to the concept of hijab is in Surah An-Nur (Chapter 24), Verse 31, where it states:

“And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers… [etc.] (Hijabaya.com).

This verse has been interpreted by some scholars to mean that women should cover their heads and wrap a portion of their headcovers over their chests as a form of modesty at all times while out in public.

It’s important to note that the interpretation and practice of hijab vary among Muslim communities and individuals. Some interpret it as a requirement to cover the hair, while others may interpret it as covering the entire body except for the face and hands. Interpretations and cultural practices regarding hijab have evolved over time and can differ across different regions and communities. It is a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam  — Sharia Law that deems it a requirement.

The American media and entertainment industries fail to recognize that holding the hijabi Muslimah up as the sole representative of Islamic womanhood is deeply reductive. Shows like the controversial Homeland (Fox 21 Studios), which was (rightfully) criticized for misrepresenting nations like Pakistan and Lebanon and poorly portraying Muslims and Arabs, created a hijabi Muslimah role in season 4. British-American actor Nazanin Boniadi plays Fara, a CIA analyst who faces prejudice for wearing hijab. However, there is no objective examination of why she chose to don it and painted her as a victim. Her arc was not imperative to the show because she was not a central character. It appears that the creators added her as a sort of mollification for their shoddy depictions of Muslims in general whilst still perpetuating the stereotype that all Muslim women are conservative.

The only major show to date that has depicted a non-hijabi Muslimah with depth is the show I wrote for, Quantico (Disney). I did not create the twin sister characters of Nimah and Raina Amin, and so can be immodestly gushing of the fact that this show decided to depict two distinct aspects of Islamic womanhood and the tensions and connective tissues between them. This fact is not discussed enough. I feel it was ingenious on the part of the show’s creator to portray Muslim women in distinctly different ways. The Amin sisters were the symbols of modern Muslim womanhood on two ends of the spectrum.

In 2017, Allure Magazine used a hijabi Muslim model Halima Aden on its cover. It read, “Meet Halima, Muslim model. Destroyer of stereotypes” (Allure June 20, 2017). Halima wears a red and black hijab and makes the “shaka” sign, a surfing hand signal meaning “hang loose” or “right on.” This is presumably to connote how modern, laid back and hip she is. Whilst I was gratified to see a woman of color and a Muslim woman on the cover of a major fashion magazine, I found the need to prove that a hijabi woman was cool problematic and reductive. That is not to say a hijabi woman cannot be modern or independent-minded, but the fact that, at its core, the hijab is about taking on the responsibility of the male gaze somehow negates this push towards rebranding it as empowering and feminist. And there is the issue that for a large portion of the Muslim world, the hijab is a means of oppression and control over women’s bodies.

On September 16 2022, 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini was killed while in the custody of Tehran’s “morality police”. She became a victim of Iran’s new “Hijab and Chastity Law”, passed on August 15, 2022. According to Lens Magazine of Monash University: “Under the Sharia law, the regulation emphasizes harsher penalties for women who don’t cover their bodies in public spaces and online postings. Punishments include being deprived of their social rights for six months to one year, being barred from entering government offices, and even being taken into custody for re-education sessions” (October 4, 2022).

Mahsa was arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly, taken into custody, and sent home dead. This sparked worldwide protest, with women from Istanbul to New York marching in solidarity with Iranian women who were now risking their lives to protest Mahsa’s death. Of course, they were also protesting the depraved misogyny of their country’s policies. To then see, in a misguided attempt to be inclusive, the Western media industry holding up the hijabi woman as the sole symbol of Islamic womanhood and further as somehow empowered and feminist makes a mockery of Mahsa Amini’s death and the systemic denigration of Muslim women around the world.

One must never forget that the ultimate goal of the modesty garment is to shield women and girls from the male gaze that is aggressively sexualizing them, but that it ultimately burdens the woman or girl herself. How is a girl as young as six or eight a sexual being needing to be covered up? Hollywood and American media need to understand what the various connotations of the hijab mean for individual Muslim women and expand their representations of how a Muslim woman might present herself. We simply cannot ignore that in certain societies, the hijab is a means of oppressive and misogynistic control.

 

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