muslims on screen

In my previous post about Mindy Kaling’s book Why Not Me? I shared my excitement about seeing a South Asian female lead in a mainstream TV show because it really isn’t something that happens often. So imagine my excitement when I heard about Quantico – a show casting not only a South Asian female lead but also a hijabi Muslim woman!

The premise of the show is the following: nine (or so) months after they arrive at Quantico, an FBI training academy, the South Asian student Alex Parish (played by the actress Priyanka Chopra) is being framed – allegedly by one of her fellow classmates – for a bombing at Grand Central. The show presents both a timeline in the present and periodically flashes back to the students’ time at Quantico to give insight into who may actually be responsible for the terrorist attack.

Of course being the sad sceptic that I am, I kept my expectations low and tried to be satisfied with actually having women on screen who I could identify with. The first five episodes weren’t the best television I’ve ever watched but I was honestly just excited to see the secret twin duo of Nimah and Raina (played by Yasmine Al Masri) on screen – Muslims who weren’t being portrayed as terrorists! She’s training to be in the FBI! She’s a patriot! She’s a badass! So while the show is full of strange loopholes (and frankly made the FBI out to be embarrassingly bad at their job), I kept watching because I wanted to support the series that finally portrayed a Muslim woman as more than a shell of a person who simply submitted to whichever man in her life was currently ordering her around. And then came Episode 6: God. While the rest of the episode was a fairly normal mix of present time, flashbacks and a whole lot of sex, the scene with Simon and Nimah completely set me off.

In the show, Simon is a Jewish man who apparently was a part of the IDF and has assumed the identity of a gay man as a coping mechanism. Firstly, while I do not identify as homosexual I find this incredibly offensive. Being a gay man is not some character you pick up while working through your problems. The LGBTQI community faces many challenges and I think it’s terrible for that to be belittled by a straight man who finds it ‘easier’ to identify as gay rather than facing his life choices.

Nimah and Simon’s friendship has been budding since the beginning of the series. They both seem to be relatively secretive people but somehow have started opening up to each other. Throughout the show, we’re wooed by Simon’s knowledge about and respect for Islam and its beliefs. In this most recent episode, the friendship progresses after some awkward flirtation we see Nimah and Simon are drinking tea together in her room. He admits to her that he’s not gay and explains that it’s ‘easier’ to play this person that he’s created than to show the people the ‘real’ him because he’s become so comfortable with setting boundaries and keeping other people away. Nimah chimes in that she also sets boundaries for people until she’s ready to trust them and SHE TAKES OFF HER HIJAB. And then they kiss.

There are so so many incredibly offensive aspects to that scene but one of the most offensive is the insinuation that Muslim women are stifled when the practice their faith. That it’s something they use to shield themselves until they find ‘the one’ and then they are suddenly freed. As a Muslim woman who once wore hijab, I know firsthand how complicated the decision is to both initially start wearing hijab and then potentially choose to stop wearing it. If made correctly, these decisions are not based on our current love interests but rather our desire to please & serve God and figuring out the best way to do that for ourselves. Making these decisions takes a great deal of introspection. And as was done earlier in the episode when Nimah was judged for not wanting to have sex for ‘fun’, her decision to remove her hijab for Simon suggests that her faith is full of archaic beliefs that are holding her back from living a fulfilling life. That because she is a practicing Muslim, she can’t possibly be happy until she lets go of her outdated beliefs and steps into ‘light’ of the other forward thinking people on the show who can simply be with who ever they want, whenever they want. Ironically, later in the episode we see All-American girl Shelby struggling because while she claims otherwise, she is also unable to be in a purely physical relationship.

Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal to you but when I see writers reviewing this episode and they’re able to identify discomfort at Simon pretending to be gay but find it ‘sweet’ when Nimah removes her hijab for him, you see how much the shows on TV affect peoples’ ideas about Islam. When removing the hijab is equated to trusting a man, I’m worried.

I spent the better part of college watching movie trailers and discussing how Hollywood plays such a big role in advocacy with my college best friend, a film and media studies major. We’d talk about how ‘Switched at Birth’ on ABC Family taught people about deaf culture. How great it was that Glee casted an actress with Down’s Syndrome. How Shonda Rhimes continues to blow us all away with how many social issues she can fit into each episode of How to Get Away With Murder.

What’s in mainstream media matters. It shapes peoples’ beliefs and I believe that those producing shows have a responsibility to do their research and work past the stereotypes already in place, especially if that’s what they’re seemingly aiming to do. ABC has been on this streak of casting people of color in their shows and aiming to highlight issues and start substantial conversations – like Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish. But what is the point of all that when they’re just misrepresenting? It needs to be more than just a marketing strategy.

And of course, the episode ends with the remaining characters suspecting the Muslim twin sisters of being behind the bombings in Grand Central – so we’ve officially made it full circle back to a Muslim terrorist. To say that I’m disappointed is definitely an understatement. I’m probably going to watch the next episode and if the madness doesn’t stop, I’m done. Here’s to hoping for some real progress in how Muslim characters are portrayed on screen.

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