Representation is how societal aspects such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality and social issues are presented, according to the BBC. In terms of representation, Muslim have been thoroughly underrepresented and misrepresented. One of the recent tropes is that of taking off a hijab, a catharsis of sorts for the character. Hijab already has enough stigma attached to it. Women who choose to wear one are said to have been forced or brainwashed. This trope, making its appearance frequently, underplays the choice and narrative of the women who choose to wear the hijab, in the name of representation.
In September 2022, Bisleri launched their ‘Limonata’ drink with a campaign called “Let loose”. The advertisement shows a group of men playing football on a hill, and the ball is accidentally thrown towards a group of girls sitting nearby, clad in the traditional pheran and a headscarf. One of the girls decides to stand up and showcase her excellent footwork with the ball while the boys try and fail to keep up with her. Towards the end of what would have been a harmless advertisement otherwise, the girl takes off her headscarf, while the background track resonates the lines, “Just let loose”.
To think from an outsider’s perspective, this advertisement is nothing out of the ordinary. But, this kind of a depiction has a different effect for Muslim women who choose to wear hijab, even if it’s not unusual to come across. Most of the representations of Muslim characters wearing hijab set up the story for them to take out and toss their hijab later on. It’s inevitable. You already know what’s going to follow when you see a hijabi Muslim character on-screen. It [taking off hijab] magically takes away the problems that they’re shown to be facing throughout.
The point is, those girls in the campaign may not even be representing Muslims, but the recurrence of women removing their headscarf in the mainstream media is far too much for it to just be a happy coincidence, or an aesthetic addition. Hijab has been portrayed as a tool of oppression, and taking it off as freeing. If a piece of clothing justifies the oppression of women, and its removal is the solution, then how does one justify the subjugation and oppression still rampant against women of other communities, and basically women in general?
In Minhal Baig’s film Hala (2019), Hala, a Pakistani American, hijabi Muslim is shown to be struggling with her values and desires. The film was a matter of debate when many Muslim women took to social media to discuss its representation and ending, where Hala also removes her hijab. Nowhere in the film is it hinted that she has been struggling with it. Removing the veil is often depicted as a solution, or the means to one. With the few token representations that Muslims get in mainstream media, it seems that most of them are aimed at, or end up spreading Anti-Muslim sentiments.
Muslim characters are churned out in bulk through the old generalizing, stereotyping machine, with each new one dimensional character resembling the others already in line. Whether it is Hollywood, or Bollywood, Muslim men are almost always either terrorists or oppressive patriarchs; or both. The women are silent and suppressed, or struggling for freedom. Diversity is non-existent. There is hardly ever a portrayal on-screen which represents, even to a small amount, the dynamics of a regular Muslim family or society.
Another film that comes to mind is Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995), a film that shows an inter-religious marriage, in the backdrop of the Bombay communal riots. Shaila Banu and Shekhar are both planning to elope, away from their intolerant families that won’t accept their love. While reaching Shekhar who is waiting for her near the sea, Shaila’s burqa gets entangled while she is approaching Shekhar; and she leaves it behind. Film critic Anupama Chopra, in a review for her platform Film Companion wrote, “ As Shaila runs to Shekhar, her burkha gets entangled. She removes it and goes to him, almost as if she is freeing herself from the shackles of her family, society and religion”. There are two points worth noting here – one: why doesn’t Shekhar, a Hindu man, need to break free from these shackles? Second, Shaila’s burqa – her veil is drawn in likeness to the shackles of her family, society and religion. These heavy juxtapositions play with the psyche of people. Whether subtle or apparent, these tropes work at instilling and ingraining a suspicion and to a greater level, hatred of Muslims and their way of life.
With these representations, women who choose to wear the hijab, by choice, to practice their religion and to exert their freedom are ignored and their agency disregarded. There is no denying that a lot of women are forced to wear the hijab, and denied their agency as well. But this narrative, of “the oppressed Muslim woman” is being overdone deliberately. It robs the Muslim representation of the nuance it can otherwise present on screen.
Taking control of the narrative, and bringing forward their own stories is important for Muslims. There have been films, mostly independent, created by Muslims, that explore and bring out the diversity, and the struggles of Muslims in a much kinder and realistic way. In the mainstream however, the representation feels almost satirical at this point. It gives away an impression that the creators have not had proper interactions with Muslims, or lack the creativity to move forward from redundant and dehumanizing stereotypes that were created decades ago.
Mukaram Shakeel is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Ambrisha Zubeen