Stereotyping hurts, there’s no doubt about it. I teach a class entitled “Muslims in the Media” at my local community college in Houston, Texas in which I parade a laundry list of academic media studies proving beyond a shadow of doubt the negative stereotyping of Muslims in mainstream media. Pakistan, being in the top three most populous Muslim countries, is included in many of these analyses. Most of the time in Europe and the US, Muslims are the “other”[i].
But we’ve moved past 9/11, haven’t we? We are more inclusive of everyone and more aware of stereotypes, aren’t we? Actually, I don’t think so. Back in 2010, Time Magazine asked, Does America have a Muslim Problem? but the question is even more haunting today. Vox claimed more recently: It’s not Just Fox News: Islamophobia on Cable News is Out of Control. Movies and drama are no different: we only have to watch a few minutes of any Homeland episode to understand how the stereotypical narrative is celebrated.
My own experiences as an interfaith and cultural sensitivity trainer bring home this point every single day. In 2012 and 2013 I trained the Houston Police Department and their jail system on Islamic issues, identifying specific stereotypes of Muslims and offering a more accurate and nuanced representation. Similarly, I continue to do the same for various academic and religious groups today. I found that Pakistanis are very much misunderstood (as are Arabs), not only because of media stereotypes but also because of individual experiences with Pakistani immigrants. For instance, if someone’s only exposure to Muslims is via their Pakistani neighbour who owns a petrol station and whose wife never leaves the house, they will have a very real but incomplete picture of Pakistanis in general and Muslims overall. Never mind that many Pakistanis are not actually practicing Muslims at all.
In the course of my interfaith work I came to realise two things: firstly, that giving a long speech backed with data and statistics only excites a limited academic crowd. Secondly, that everyone I met actually had loads of questions: about Pakistan, about being Muslim, about my family, my children, my life. For instance, typically when I walk into a training room (or a church or high school) dressed in hijab, people assume certain things. They don’t expect me to be so loud or so knowledgeable. Heck, they don’t even expect me to have an American accent. The number one question I get is, “How come your English is so good?” Think about this for a moment: the number one question I get isn’t about ISIS or the veil, it’s about my accent, my immigrant story, my experiences and my identity as a Pakistani American. I don’t really remember when I had my lightbulb moment, but one day I realised that I could reach more people, more effectively, if I told stories instead of quoting research. Ultimately, I thought, nobody knows or cares if our media is stereotyping us, what they care about is if we can bypass the media altogether and tell our own stories. And that’s where fiction comes in.
Fiction to me is just a fancy word for storytelling, which is a practice as old as time itself. Even our scriptures, whether the Bible or the Vedas or the Quran, consist of stories. As a Muslim, I have always loved the verses of the Quran that begin with the sentence: Do you remember? It’s a signal to me that I am about to be enchanted or terrified by a story. And let’s face it, those stories, whether they are describing God’s mercy or His wrath, have a much greater impact than the do’s and don’ts. That’s just human nature, isn’t it?
The rest, as they say, is history. I wrote a short story collection called Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan with the specific aim of breaking stereotypes about Pakistanis. In it I have blended fact and fiction to discuss the very real situations (which I call the “brick walls”) in which ordinary Pakistani people find themselves. I had a real challenge while writing because I wanted to avoid the stereotyping that many South Asian authors fall into, which maintains the colonial narrative by setting characters into the obvious traps of terrorism and violence and poverty. I hated doing that, but at the same time didn’t want to shy away from reality in Pakistan either. Thankfully, I was able to find a happy medium, in which I showcased lives of hope and courage amongst the images of violence and poverty.
I’m not alone in the work of breaking down stereotypes with stories, though. A host of writers and poets and artists are doing similar things, and I know this because I have made it part of my mission to support and encourage them. A year ago I created Blue Minaret, an online literary magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose. With it I hope to coax many budding creatives out of their shells and convince them that their stories are worth something. Many of them are Pakistanis living in Pakistan as well as in diaspora, wanting to paint a beautiful, complicated picture of Pakistan. Their submissions are so telling, but more importantly, they are so needed. Regardless of the images constructed by Western media outlets, it’s time we asserted our right to draw our own images, write our own scripts, and claim our own space in a thriving, global literary scene.
[i] Two excellent books that discuss this issue in depth are Framing Muslims, Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11 by Morey and Yaqin, and Reporting Islam: Media Representations of British Muslims by Elizabeth Poole.
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