Subverting the stereotype: Faiza Hirji on Muslim women in TV and film

Head and shoulders of Faiza Hirji.

This spring, Prof. Faiza Hirji, above, worked with Zarqa Nawaz, the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie, on a series of discussion panels exploring what it means to be a Muslim woman in TV and film.

This spring, associate professor of communications Faiza Hirji worked with actor and director Zarqa Nawaz, the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie, on a series of discussion panels exploring what it means to be a Muslim woman in TV and film.

Changing the Muslim Narrative featured three panel discussions:

  • “Acting Muslim: Representing our Authentic Stories,” featuring Bilal Baig, Travina Springer and Aden Abebe
  • “Muslim Women in the Writers’ Room,” featuring Nida Manzoor
  • “Muslim Women Behind the Lens,” featuring Nijla Mu’min, Lena Khan and Iman Zawahry.

We chatted with Hirji about the panel.

Tell us about the genesis of this panel series and how it came about.

It was really the brainchild of Zarqa Nawaz, who is the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie and now the web series ZARQA. As part of this new web series, she wanted to work on promoting a message around what it means to be Muslim in the TV and film industries — talk about Muslim representation, and talk about being somebody who works in these industries as a Muslim or represents a diverse perspective in some other way.

She reached out to me recently to say that they’ve put together a series of panel discussions, along with some other events, and I agreed to be the panels’ moderator.

Talking about how Zarqa and others are pushing the Muslim narrative forward is a really important idea, and so is showcasing what many of these writers, directors and producers are doing in the industry.  It’s work that we’re not all aware of — I studied this area and I can tell you, I was not familiar with everyone on these panels.

There are people on the panels that obviously get an immediate reaction — I’m hearing from fans saying oh, Bilal Baig, I love them! — but for some of us, we were discovering a few of these shows and artists for the first time.

It’s important to recognize the work that’s being done behind the scenes to help change representation.

How has that representation changed? Are there more people telling more stories, are there more characters on screen – what have you noticed?

My own work looks at representations of Muslims in the media, with an emphasis on Muslim women, and I think it has improved in the sense that there are now more Muslim characters onscreen.

A few years ago I wrote an article talking about alternative portrayals: what’s out there when we try and get outside of the “oppressed Muslim woman” stereotype. That was the image many of us were seeing very commonly for a long time, especially with the war in Afghanistan.

That tended to be the overwhelming narrative that had really seeped into our cultural consciousness — and I think that has gotten better.

The work that Zarqa did with Little Mosque on the Prairie certainly helped give us different kinds of people to relate to, but now I think we’re able to push the boundaries a little bit more.

If you look at the difference between Little Mosque on the Prairie and ZARQA, we’ve moved from characters who were controversial simply for existing as ordinary Muslims, engaging in very innocuous exchanges about dating with chaperones and interfaith relations, to a comedy built around characters inserting pointed comments about white privilege and settler privilege and really challenging how we think a Muslim woman should look and talk.

Aside from ZARQA, I was looking at the work that some of these other writers and directors are doing, and they all are creating rich, layered characters.

That’s the key: It’s not necessarily that we want to separate the media world into good portrayals and bad portrayals — we want to have this range of portrayals so that there’s no one thing that Muslim women represent, just like there’s no one thing that Black women or Indigenous women or others represent.

We want to be able to see the richness of Muslims’ personalities, just as we would with anyone else.

You mentioned finding out about people doing work that you didn’t know about. Has anything surprised you about the about the panel so far?

It wasn’t necessarily surprising, but I do think it was heartening to see how candid all the participants were about the challenges that they’ve experienced, and what they still see as patriarchy and racism in these industries.

I was wondering, to be honest, how candid they would be, because when you work in these industries, you don’t necessarily want to be up-front about these issues in a public forum. I really respect the fact that they were open about the challenges.

Some audience members asked about breaking into the industry, and the participants answered by outlining the route each of them took, but they also cautioned people to be realistic.

They suggested that the job itself is not the obstacle — you can bring an aspiring artist onto a film set and give them exposure and mentor them — but the challenge is that Hollywood is still an old boys’ club, and there’s no getting around it or breaking into it.

People think that there’s been #MeToo and there’s been #OscarsSoWhite and everything is so much better, but that’s not necessarily the case.

At the same time, it’s really exciting to hear that some of them are already working on their dream projects, while others are still imagining them.

For instance, one had said that she would like to produce a Muslim version of Crazy Rich Asians and immediately I thought that would be amazing. I could imagine talking about that in my classes, with my students, with people I know.

I think I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the fact that they were willing to bare their vulnerabilities and the issues that they see. I was also really impressed by the scope of the ambition that they have, in spite of all the challenges that they talk about.

What are those challenges – what are people still facing?

What the panelists were describing was really familiar to what we’ve heard from other people of colour, especially women.

There has been some work published on what it’s like to be a Black woman in the writers’ room — and what these Muslim writers are describing is similar in some ways, but it’s nuanced to being a Muslim woman.

Black women writers talk about how their perspective will get overlooked. People don’t listen to them, they’ll get questions about their hair, and all kinds of things that seem irrelevant.

For the Muslim woman writer, it might be questions about a hijab, or it might be a question asking if they can write an honour killing story, because you know that’s what people expect from Muslim characters — really falling back into the stereotypes.

Some of what the panelists were talking about is also structural in terms of patriarchy and nepotism — to get into these exclusive groups, you really need to know somebody or be related to somebody.

Some of them have ended up having to go the independent route because it’s not easy to get into the big studios — and even when you get in, there are no guarantees of anything either.

When you have a group of people who hold power and don’t really want to share it, that puts up barriers.

What needs to change? Are there specific things that could help?

There are some things that are helping.

First of all, the individual perseverance of people like those on the panels really counts for a lot. It might feel as though one or two people can’t make that much of a difference — sometimes you’ll get a token minority in the writers’ room, but you know they’re really just there to be the “diverse perspective” and  don’t get a lot of authority.

Nonetheless, people on these panels were talking about Zarqa Nawaz and how she blazed a trail for them — they were talking about the fact that, without her, a lot of the work they do wouldn’t have been possible.

They were also talking not just about Muslim stories, but all kinds of diverse stories, so they were saying that without Little Mosque on the Prairie, you don’t get Kim’s Convenience and all of the things that came after that.

I thought that was inspirational. As somebody who studies Muslims in the media I’ve always thought Little Mosque on the Prairie was important, but it was interesting to hear people talking about it as really pioneering, groundbreaking work.

While many people criticize a lot of “diversity initiatives” as superficial, I do think that they have value when done right. There is a growing awareness that seeing 100 per cent white people on screen all the time is not representative of the society we inhabit.

As audiences embrace these shows and embrace these stories, you’re going to start to see that studios will start to tell more.

For a long time nobody would greenlight something like Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther, and then look at what a huge success those were. If you have that success, studios will try to build upon it again. Again, they might not always be doing it in the best way, but they’ll try.

I think it’s a question of just putting more stories out there.

People in the panels are putting them out in different ways: some of them broke through with these really low-budget projects, some of them had an opportunity to work in diversity workshops. Any way you can get different kinds of stories out there and have voices heard, and for the audience to openly support them is important. It’s small differences right now, but at the moment that seems to be the space we’re in.

If you look at Ms Marvel, for instance — I can’t imagine something like Ms Marvel when I was a kid, and I’m excited for my kids to see it, because I know that they come home from school every day very conscious of the fact that most of the role models they see in the media and elsewhere don’t look like them.

Is this changing your own work as an academic, or changing your perspective on the research that you’re doing?

It makes me feel a little bit more optimistic in some ways: that there are these voices out there, and there are these stories that are being told.

I’m really heartened by how enthusiastic the audience has been for the panels — there was definitely a  responsiveness from people involved in creative work who have really not known who to look at for role models.

I quickly scanned the comments at the end of one panel, and there were many comments like, “This is so inspirational,” “This makes me feel like I’m not alone.” People were tuning in from all over North America, and I think there were some people from the U.K. as well.

That’s really important. My work already looks at notions of community, but I think it’s a funny kind of contradictory space that we’re all living in right now, where, on the one hand, I see the challenges of living online as much as we do, but we can also see the ways in which we can create community for people who might otherwise feel very isolated.

That’s certainly given me a bit of hopefulness for some of the work I’m doing. Just in practical terms, at one point there were so few stories I could look at, and so few actors or directors, and now there’s actually more than I can  keep track of. That’s amazing and exciting, and a really hopeful place to be in.

Anything else anything that would be important for people to know?

All of these writers are doing really cool work, and a lot of it is available online now. I encourage people to check it out — even if it’s something you think you might not be interested in, you might be surprised.

Those ZARQA episodes are only 11 minutes apiece and they’re free to stream because they’re on CBC Gem — and I’m really impressed by what she manages to cram into 11 minutes! The show Virgins! will also be coming to CBC Gem this summer.

It would be great if people could check these shows out, and also keep thinking critically about what we’re watching and ways that we can keep subverting our stereotypes and expectations, because we all have them.

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