With a short and simple one-minute video, a TikTok-er who goes by the name Aabida on Twitter summarized the same argument Muslims have been reiterating for a while now, "Where's our accurate representation in series/films?"
The young Muslim woman, and from the comfort of her own bathroom, recorded herself sharing a brilliant idea: A series in which the main character would be a black Muslim woman who wears the hijab. "But that's not the crazy part," Aabida explains further, "the crazy part would be that the show itself would not revolve around the fact that she is a black Muslim woman who wears hijab."
Although we've come a long way from being exclusively portrayed as terrorists and oppressed women, Muslims still aren't getting fair and accurate representation. Even when Western media do cast hijabis and Arab/Muslim actors, the plot is almost always either fetishized, misrepresented, or at odds with their religion and culture.
The supposedly positive and inclusive representation almost never is what Muslims really want it to be: just a story they as Muslims happen to be part of, rather than one exclusively centered around their identity (or lack thereof).
"Are you still with me? Cause this part is important," Aabida continues in the now-viral video. "In the entirety of the whole show, not once would the main character fall for a white guy and take her hijab off for him," she intrigues the viewers. "I know what you're thinking, why wouldn't she fall for the white guy right? I know, but that's just how it needs to be done."
The TikTok user sheds light on how the complex and multifaceted identity Muslims have, especially those living in the West, are rarely ever explored or even mentioned on TV. Muslims are either fighting terrorist wars or sinfully falling in love with someone they're not supposed to fall for, and we rarely (if ever) get to see them as normal human beings going about their everyday life.
And the fact that the video now has 35,000 retweets and 135,000 likes proves that she's not the only one noticing a trend here.
While working on Muslim characters, creators seem to choose from an exclusive set of samples: The hijabi who hates her religion and rebels against her family, the gangster Arab man who is selectively religious, the queer character who is rescued by the "White Savior" — the list doesn't go on for long.
Yes, many people from Muslim backgrounds - especially women and members of the LGBTIQ+ community - struggle with their faith and their experiences are definitely worth shedding light on. However, the issue lies in the way these experiences are depicted and in the prejudiced-focus on such scenario cases. These characters are envisioned in an extremely narrow lens and the complexities that come into play are often diluted, not to mention the increased focus on their sexual lives in a way that promotes fetishization rather than empathy and acceptance.
If Western writers seriously want to improve their scripts, they should simply listen to what real Muslims have to say
Though the change is gradual and relatively slow, it's important to highlight the increasing number of actors and shows that have decided to make a change.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, actor and rapper Riz Ahmed spoke out against the limited roles for actors of color, saying he'd rather go broke than play stereotypical characters. The British actor of Pakistani descent, known for starring in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and HBO's The Night Of, once explained how he faced typecasting when he first went into acting.
"There was a lot of, like, Terrorist No. 3 stuff — I just made a decision I wasn't going to do it. I thought, 'I'd rather be broke'," Ahmed once said.
Ramy Youssef, Egyptian-American co-creator of the Hulu comedy Ramy, plays a New Jersey-based character that's loosely based on his own life. The show follows him as he "grapples with his Muslim faith while navigating sex, dating and relationships." When co-writing the script, Youssef made it clear that Ramy is the specific story of one Egyptian family in New Jersey and not something that would "blanket a group of a billion people."
"I really wanted to lead with our problems [as Muslims], and I wanted to lead with the things that people would connect to on a human level," the actor explained at the Golden Globes' backstage interviews. "I turned [things that I struggled with] into something that hopefully could just make people feel a little less lonely."