How many female Muslim characters in Western film and television can you name off the top of your head? Now, how many of those characters are presented realistically and positively? Not that many, right?
The representation of Muslims, particularly Arab and female Muslims, in mainstream film and television over the last 20 years has been minimal; if any characters have been present, they are usually portrayed in a negative or racist manner. This considerable lack of positive representation in mainstream media harms individuals of that background, as they do not see themselves represented in the programmes and films they watch. In our modern society, if Muslim women appear in film and television, they are defined by various stereotypes, most commonly as victims or terrorists.
When women — especially Muslim women — are depicted as victims, they are oppressed, usually by a male figure and sometimes even presented as hostages of their husbands or fathers. Female Muslim victims are also typically ‘rescued’ by a male protagonist, who is more often than not, Caucasian. The white saviour complex is a condescending narrative appearing frequently throughout various Western films such as The Help (2011) and Hala (2019) and creates the implication that white individuals are, or view themselves, as superior to non-white individuals. This harmful stereotype implies that Muslim women lack free will and ownership over themselves, and are unable to defend and protect themselves.
Another cliché of Muslim characters in Western film and TV is as the terrorist. A fairly recent example of this is shown in the BBC television series Bodyguard (2018), where, in a plot twist, it is revealed that the frightened Nadia, claiming that she was being forced to blow up a train by her husband, was the mastermind of the whole terrorist operation. This character incorporates both the victim and terrorist stereotypes and received backlash from members of the British public regarding it as Islamophobic in a time where ‘levels of anti-Muslim hate crime are soaring.’
These negative presentations of Muslim women portray them as violent criminals, which is inaccurate and unrealistic of the general population of Muslim women, although this can be said of the portrayal of terrorists from any race, religion or ethnicity. However, according to research by the University of Alabama, ‘terror attacks by Muslims receive 357% more press attention’ than attacks by non-Muslims, which only further amplifies the importance of providing positive role models and presenting Muslims in a positive light.
The representation of various cultures and people heavily influences how society thinks of and forms opinions. Incorrect or distorted representation may consequently isolate certain communities from mainstream society. So, when Muslim women are presented as terrorists or as submissive in Western television and cinema, this creates an inaccurate representation. Further, it may even make them feel as though they should not integrate into mainstream Western society because they will be met with criticism and preconceived ideas.
A report by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (2007) contained statistics indicating that Muslim women who practised their faith regularly perceived themselves to be marginally more affected by Islamophobia and misrepresented in the media when compared to Muslim men. A review of British national media in 2004 found that reports written related to Islamic clothing (such as the hijab) included dialogue of ignorance and prejudice. This negative portrayal minimises the complexity and positive qualities that Muslim women have to offer. The report also mentioned feelings of uneasiness and untrustworthiness in British Muslims from the British non-Muslim population, which is undoubtedly spurred on by harmful misrepresentation in the media. This, in turn, may prevent multicultural relations and potentially normalise verbal and physical attacks against Muslims, specifically Muslim women.
Early European beliefs about Arabs have added to the present views of Arab Muslim women; these ideas have been shifted from European cinema to Hollywood, therefore allowing access to a more extensive amount of people. They are presented as unable to merge into Western society and with other women; this minimisation compels Muslim women to be reduced to a basic and barely human character, which is an inaccurate representation of real Muslim women. Multiple studies have demonstrated that a lack of realistic depictions of minorities in film and television has serious consequences, including poor self-esteem and feelings of alienation in adolescents and young adults from minority backgrounds. This further highlights the need for complex and authentic minority characters in today’s mainstream media.
Despite the lack of accurate representation in the majority of mainstream Western film and television, there has been some progress in recent years. Zari Tomaz (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow), Adena El-Amin (The Bold Type) and Dahlia Qadri (Grey’s Anatomy) are all examples of complex and realistic female Muslim characters. Seeing someone on television who looks and acts like you is not only liberating but also provides a sense of validation, inspiring young people everywhere that they can break barriers and that there is no limit to what they can achieve.
By Dana Issa
Illustration: by Alyah Albader