If you have watched Netflix’s Spanish hit drama show Elite, you already know what’s coming. To preface this, I come from a Sunni Muslim culture (very specific to my home country and different from the MENA region but nonetheless). I have struggled with my Muslim identity since adolescence and never really came close to wearing hijab except for one brief period of time when I was 15 years old. I decided against it because, at the time, I was not sure my faith was strong enough (turns out, it wasn’t). Even as a teen, I respected the religion too much to do it halfway. The same cannot be said about most hijabi Muslim women representation found on TV today.
The notion that Muslim women lack agency and are forced into their faith by their parents or marital partners is quite widespread in the Western media. More often than not, it uses any excuse for a woman to take off her hijab. The Muslim identity is frequently depicted as an obstacle restraining women from being fully themselves and loving who they want (a white man if they’re “lucky”).
The perpetuation of this media trope comes in many forms. There are the most outrageous ones (peep the cover image again), and then there are more covert ways to preserve the ‘othering’ of a Muslim woman. In the latter category, I would include Freeform’s The Bold Type and its character of Adena and the season one portrayal of women in Hulu’s Golden Globe-winning comedy series Ramy. We are not even going to go into the whole mess of the married Muslim woman who takes off her hijab and has sex with Ramy in season one, but it deserves an honorable mention.
I understand, as should everyone, that there is no one way to be Muslim as there is no one way to wear hijab. Muslim is not a homogeneous category. I am especially grateful to see queer Muslims today stretching what is often deemed a rigid religious identity. Maybe if I knew that there was a way to reconcile my self-expression with religiosity, I would not have felt like I had to give up on the latter for the sake of the former.
So, I respect the fact that the characters of Elite’s Nadia and The Bold Type’s Adena are partly created and portrayed by Muslims, or people coming from a Muslim cultural background, and their stories do deserve space to exist. However, it is tiresome to see how pop culture continues to favor either a “watered down” version of a Muslim woman who wears a hijab on and off and does not cover her arms and neck (Adena) or the narrative of a Muslim girl who finds love (read sex) and adventures after taking off her scarf (Nadia).
For its first four seasons, Elite showed not only Nadia but her brother Omar being pressured into Islam and its traditions by their parents, who accept neither Omar’s queerness nor Nadia’s academic interests. Even such an authentic show as Ramy portrays his sister Dena as stuck in this unrelenting cycle of wanting more freedom and trust (both of which are granted more easily to Ramy) in the relationship with her parents.
There are teenage Muslim girls who choose to wear hijab independently and are not subjected to oppression by their families. The TV series’s insistence to portray the other narrative contributes to already deep-rooted Islamophobia in the West that results in real-life policies that take away Muslim women’s rights to self-expression and religious practices. The increasingly stringent ban on hijabs in France is only one example.
We do know that there are ways to portray Muslim women with empathy and understanding. The show that, in my opinion, did it best is the 2015 Norwegian hit teenage TV series SKAM. One of its main characters Sana, a hijabi teenager played by Iman Meskini who also wears a hijab in real life, is shown to be the most badass out of her friend group. She mostly wears black, has an excellent bullshit detector, and is devoted to her faith without it overshadowing her personality. SKAM shows Sana interacting with her parents, protecting and fighting with her friends, and falling in love, all while refusing to exoticize her faith and appearance.
Muslim women are represented more frequently in today’s TV than before. The representation, however, means little when it still prefers only more acceptable or scandalized versions of this identity instead of portraying it in its full complexity without letting the preconceptions about Islam overshadow the characters. Maybe then more Muslim actresses wouldn’t have to give up wearing hijab to make a career.
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