Following Channel 4’s My Week as a Muslim documentary, Sabeena Akhtar asks why we’ll go to such great lengths to avoid hearing from actual Muslim women
Anti-Muslim hate crime in the UK has been on the rise for years, with Muslim women more likely to face attacks and abuse. There’s often a spike when there’s a terrorist attack, which is doubly chilling when Muslims are just as likely to be victims of terrorism as anyone else.
Against this backdrop of hostility, Channel 4 reached the welcome decision to share the experiences of the UK’s Muslim women with the British public. A documentary that would allow non-Muslims, and perhaps even Muslim men, to gain an understanding of the prejudice and racism we encounter on a daily basis.
Of course, the best way to do this is obvious. If you want to grasp the reality of life as a Muslim woman, you ask a bigoted non-Muslim white woman to don a hijab, fake nose and yellow teeth and sit back and prepare for enlightenment. Yes, let’s get her to ‘brown-up’ as a racist caricature so that she can report back her findings. She’ll realise the error of her ways too, ah so misguided. Her empathy will win out. So generous.
What Channel 4 have produced in My Week As a Muslim, is a masterclass in shockingly offensive bile.
Shall we begin with the deeply entrenched racist history behind ‘brownface’, or the constant conflation of Pakistani with Muslim? How about the disturbing voyeuristic obsession with our ‘real lives’. Because, of course! They must be somehow mysterious and otherworldly these Muslim Lives.
Alright, how about the paternalism? The sensationalism? The idea that you could occupy our existence for a week? The ethnocentrism? The patronising hijab-splaining of Muslim women to Muslim women?
We’re just noses in headgear, why ask us, eh?
The overarching sentiment to be gleaned by many Muslim women watching My Week is a Muslim is an all too familiar one; no one cares about your stories. The lengths the producers go to just to avoid directly asking Muslim women about their experiences of Islamophobia speaks volumes about who is a legitimate voice.
The pain we face isn’t so important. Let’s think more about the guilt of the poor Islamophobes. They’re just scared, after all, right?
‘Feel-good’ documentaries like these, that try to placate us with platitudes of ‘never judge a book by its cover’ have long-lasting and damaging effects on Muslim communities and follow a similar and pernicious blueprint. They embed harmful stereotypes, whilst rationalising prejudice. We have become accustomed to being examined in microscopic detail, but we are so tired of this distorted lens.
Muslim women, in particular, are used to narratives being framed around our existences that are designed to preclude us, which in part has informed my decision to curate an anthology of essays by British hijabis entitled Cut From The Same Cloth. If mainstream media outlets are unwilling to provide an impartial platform, then we must create our own. Cut From the Same Cloth seeks to tip the balance back in our favour and allow hijab-wearing Muslim women a space to move beyond the narratives so often imposed on us.
Producer Fozia Khan wrote in the Guardian today that she wanted to “do something bold and experimental” to “reach people who wouldn’t normally watch a programme about Muslims”. But I ask Fozia; by pandering to stereotypes who are we reaching? Who are we caricaturing and who are we excluding from our community?
This documentary has no real interest in the thoughts and feelings of actual Muslim women, instead, it chooses to centre Katie Freeman, the willing soul going undercover. Despite appearances, the story is undoubtedly monochromatic, focusing on the feelings of Katie, the Health Care Assistant. The Muslim woman is merely a prop in her tumultuous emotional journey.
Saima Alvi, who has opened her home to a stranger, has to justify her humanity, feels the burden of having to explain and distance herself from atrocities, whilst Katie (the person who proudly voices her bigotry) is there to be convinced by it all, her humanity and stance is the default position. And let’s not be fooled by the change of heart. Freeman has been cajoled into empathy, the experiences of Muslim women didn’t exist until she experienced and validated them for us. She, in her benevolent nature, does offer sympathy towards us though, I hear you shout, ‘she’s a good person really’. And so we continue on our merry-go-round of humanising a bigot who picks bus seats according to religious affiliations. We centre Freeman’s hurt feelings, whilst simultaneously dehumanising and co-opting the lives of Muslim women. Perhaps, I’m being ungrateful in expecting that Muslim women centre in their own stories and we believe them without white, non-Muslim filter™ though. Perhaps, I’m sensitive, entitled and unforgiving even. The one with a problem. Maybe Muslims deserve the hate they get after all. And so we go, round and round.
I do sincerely hope that Freeman has changed, and seen the error of her ways. But let’s not pretend that any others who share her stance have. As a Muslim woman, I know that this programme hasn’t tackled Islamophobia, and in its pretence to do so, it has in fact opened up Muslims to further vitriolic Islamophobic abuse. Just check the comments section.
Cut From The Same Cloth is crowdfunding on Unbound, support here.
Sabeena Akhtar is a blogger, researcher and writer currently working in the publishing industry, co-organising Bare Lit Festival and editing Cut From The Same Cloth (Unbound, 2018). She enjoys sarcasm, Eastenders, tea and decolonisation. You can find Sabeena tweeting at @pocobookreader
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