Terrorist? Anti-modern? A presage to western values? Oppressive? Or the oppressed? These are the first notions that come to one’s mind while watching a Muslim character in a western movie. “Where’s the counter-narrative? Where are we telling these kids that they can be heroes in our stories, that they are valued?”, questioned actor Riz Ahmed, who made history after becoming the first Muslim actor to be nominated for the Oscars in the ‘Best Actor’ category for his role in ‘The Sound of Metal’. The actor, along with a group of activists, has launched a campaign to defy the toxic portrayals of Muslims in the prevailing film industry subjugated by Hollywood.
Functioning as a prominent media product consumed by the people, cinema is a medium which has potential to transform attitudes towards topical social issues. A change in attitude leads to change in actions, which consequently affects the society. Thus, the film industry has a crucial responsibility of shaping the identity of certain groups, particularly, the segregated and outvoted.
Muslims comprise 24% of the global population. According to a USC Annenberg inclusion initiative study that examined 200 movies, the representation of Muslims in popular films from the US remained at a 1.6%. Within this limited number of the Muslim characters portrayed, “39% were shown as perpetrators of violence; more than half were targeted by violence; and that more than 70% experienced disparagement, with 62% of them targeted with racist slurs.” This representation that does subsists, is gender-specific, with no scope for a Muslim woman in a hijab, who is not oppressed. In the light of the prevalent controversies on movies such as ‘Hala’, or the Netflix production, ‘Cuties’, this article aims to bring forth the misrepresentation of hijab in popular cinema.
‘Hijab’ is an Arabic word which describes the act of covering up for both men and women as a part of modesty, according to Islam. In a misogynist world however, this doctrine has become a case of a societal norm rather than a religious moral, by making the subject women-centric, with ‘hijab’ solely being associated with the headscarves worn by the Muslim women. While there have been many cases where hijab has been enforced upon them, numerous women consider it as a way of devotion to their faith and a part of their identity, something that they are also robbed off. Either way, the Muslim women are subjected to oppression—not because of this piece of cloth on their heads, but because of the policies and opinions imposed upon them, without any regard for individual rights.
With a mere 23.6% on-screen representation, Muslim women characters are often portrayed as oppressed, distorted, or absent. The now popular ‘hijab-removal scene’ has become a persistent gesture in TV and films to show a Muslim woman’s ‘embracement’ of the western freedom, by rejection of one’s faith. The dire need of being saved from her ‘oppressive religion’ by a white boy is another common facet in western movies featuring Muslim female characters. Whether it be Hala taking off her headscarf at the end of the Apple’s TV production, Hala; Amy, an 11-year old hijabi girl being hypersexualized in the Netflix film, Cuties; or Nadia walking into a club having removed her headscarf in Netflix’s Spanish teen drama, Elite; all have faced a similar backlash on the grounds of portraying the ‘Hijab’- already a subject to atrocities, in a defiled light. Empowerment boxes are ticked at the expense of the scattering of this piece of cloth. Given the islamophobic mood of the world, with France being the latest example of embodying a horrible offshoot of the concept of hijab, it is crucial for the power structures behind the TV to present a counter-narrative for the Muslim women.
A Northwest senior, Rashika Rahman, states that, “This misrepresentation comes from the ignorance and laziness to learn more about the religion before portraying it in a show.” However, this ‘laziness’ appears as a vague reason, in the face of the discrimination faced by the Muslim women on a daily basis. With headscarves being the triggering factors, ACLU reported 154 cases of discrimination against women in 2006. Apart from this ignorance, there is propaganda. Films have often ministered as a tool of propaganda, given the silent, yet intimate connection between politics and cinema. Portraying sensitive topics such as feminism and oppression of women as primary concepts, films like the 2004 ‘Submission’, tend to accentuate extremism, Islamic radicalism, and terrorism instead.
Cinema, with its unique ability of producing movement, sound, and images in a life-like manner, holds the capacity to bring a change in the actions of the people. With the growing atrocities against the Muslim women, the ‘hijab’ asks for representation, other than its removal, while the women ask for representation of their empowerment, other than downtrodden in dire need of “enlightenment” or “being rescued”. To end the negative stereotypes, we need more movies portraying a kohl-eyed bearded Muslim, who is not a terrorist, an empowered Muslim woman, who wears the hijab—practicing Muslims, without being given the label of an extremist.
Maryam Hassan is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Zaina Shahid Khan
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.