How Muslims are misrepresented in popular culture
As a Muslim, I love seeing Islam being represented in TV shows and movies. I get so excited when I see a glimpse of a hijabi in a TV show or Muslim practices being mentioned such as praying or fasting. These depictions help non-Muslims understand how Muslims live their daily lives, which (surprise, surprise) often resembles most peoples’ lives. However, there has been a problematic rise in having Muslim characters do things that are considered extremely taboo in an effort to make them more relatable to larger audiences.
Recently, there have been forms of media coming out that have been portraying Muslims in a much darker, stranger way. Former hijab-wearing girls take off their hijabs and proudly walk into a nearby club. Confused Muslim men frequently sleep with other women or drink in an effort to be relatable. I’m not saying none of the above ever happens in real life or that you’re a bad Muslim if you do them, but it’s definitely not something the majority does. It’s insulting, juvenile and, frankly, pathetic when I see these shows and can’t relate to the Muslim characters being portrayed. It is entirely insulting when my religion is portrayed as oppressive, its followers trapped by practices thought of as restrictive and subsequently in need of liberation. Why should Muslims have to take off their clothes, have sex or drink to be more relatable as characters?
An example of this phenomenon is in the recently created comedy-drama series on Hulu “Ramy,” created by and starring stand-up comedian Ramy Youssef. Ramy (who plays himself in the show) is a confused Muslim youth who just wants to get closer to Islam. The show outlines his journey to becoming a better Muslim during the month of Ramadan, a sacred month for Muslims where they abstain from eating food and drinking water from sunrise to sunset. However, throughout the entire month, Ramy has sex with women every other episode, which is forbidden during Ramadan and in general before marriage. He even offers to drive a mother and her child home from the mosque while her husband is away on a trip and they have sex that very night (I’m pretty sure this is okay for absolutely no one, Muslim or not). This serves as a representation of the struggles he faces as a Muslim living in America, but is it really a true representation of Muslim youth overall? Maybe not.
Sex before marriage is a big no-no in Islam. People definitely do it, but it’s taboo because it undermines the sanctity and value of marriage itself. I’m not going to discount this as a struggle, because avoiding sexual activity or dating before marriage is definitely hard to do as a Muslim in this day and age, but shows like this depict this as literally the only struggle Muslims face when practicing their religion. It’s not.
Some Muslim parents make their daughters wear a hijab, but it’s pretty much looked down upon to force it because it doesn’t encourage them from an internal motivation. Muslim parents are stereotyped as stupid, hyper-conservative often backwards people completely incapable of kindness or understanding. In the show “Elite,” a Muslim character named Nadia wears hijab (by choice!), but ends up rebelling against her conservative parents by taking it off and heading to a club. She’s shown to be “liberated” after she takes it off because now she has the chance to have sexual encounters, drink and go to clubs. It’s so demeaning to see this because, most of the time, Muslim parents aren’t backwards extremist tyrants, and a hijab liberates rather than restricts the wearer. To be clear, the purpose of hijab is generally to observe modesty and make people see you for your character rather than your looks. These shows make it seem like hijab is just meant to restrict women in Islam and reinforce the tired age-old stereotype that women can’t make their own decisions and have very little rights in Islam.
Muslims have very detailed but simple methods to practice their faith, such as required daily prayers and observing modesty in their dress and manners. However, these come with their own struggles. Trying to find a place and time to pray for each of the five prayers every day can be exhausting and difficult. Observing hijab is hard when covered clothes that you don’t sweat like a pig in are hard to come by, especially in Texas. Being subject to everyone’s opinion about the way you dress, how you act with the opposite sex and your beliefs — all of which are closely connected with your religion — is a struggle. In a college environment, trying to stay away from drinking alcohol and doing drugs is harder than it seems. These are seldom shown in forms of media and, rather, extremes such as sexual intercourse have been portrayed as the only thing Muslims can do to feel liberated. I know for a fact there are non-Muslims out there who don’t engage in sexual activity frequently, so why is this an indicator of relevance and relatability for Muslims?
Why is this such a problem? Because it makes us average everyday Muslims look heinous and backwards when we’re just living our lives. If we avoid sex, drugs, alcohol or try to cover ourselves, we’re weird for limiting ourselves from experiencing things in life. Shows like these don’t make us look more relatable; what they’re doing has the opposite effect. They make it seem like if we’re not doing those things the Muslims in the shows are doing, we’re regressive and backwards.
Of course, no one is immune to the things I explained were forbidden in Islam earlier. It takes great strength to try and avoid those in the name of faith. However, it’s possible to portray the struggles Muslims face daily in the media. There exist quality forms of media such as the popular comic book series Ms. Marvel, in which a Pakistani Muslim girl gets super powers and has to deal with things like curfew and relationships which portray Muslims as relatable and able to make mistakes without forcing a Muslim character to completely abandon their religious values. I’d like to see shows go this route, rather than touting the same tired old cliché of resorting Muslim characters to the same stupid makeover treatment from oppressed Muslim to liberated “normal” people every time.
If you’re curious about how Muslims practice or what their day-to-day life is like, I encourage you to ask them. There’s nothing wrong with it, and most of the time we’re happy to answer (if you ask nicely). It’s definitely a unique lifestyle, but for the most part, we’re not so different from everyone else.