It’s time for the entertainment industry to evolve beyond Princess Jasmine. For the longest time, Disney’s “Aladdin” icon was the only representation many Muslim women had, allowing the only positive space where we could exist — never mind that it was exotified, sexualized and through the white male gaze. At least it was sold to us as better than the other familiar end of the spectrum: being the oppressed victim, or worse, a violent terrorist. Growing up to realize that even our beloved Jasmine pushed problematic tropes was like other kids discovering Santa wasn’t real — and, damn, maybe we are on our own.
Enter: a new on-screen test for Muslim women in TV and film called “From ‘Surviving’ to Thriving.” The test, developed by the Geena Davis Institute, Muslim Casting, and Pillars Fund, with Muslim Girl as media partner, critiques Muslim representation in projects on a new sliding grade scale from A-F. The rubric is based on common Muslim women tropes that drop a project’s score the more problematic it becomes, while leaving room for the industry’s gradual pace of improvement.
The on-screen test launches Tuesday with an opening event in official partnership with Muslim Women’s Day during the morning on March 27 on Twitter Spaces.
In my experience of a sudden demand in consulting on Hollywood’s latest projects, it’s no secret that we’re in the midst of a diversity renaissance. Surely, this entertainment era will be defined by the surge in cultural stories, marked by the massive mainstream success of shows like “Insecure,” “Pose,” “I May Destroy You,” “Squid Games” and historic box office and streaming hits like “Encanto” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” And yet, one of the most controversial minority identities in recent history has still been left behind. Muslim women ask the question, is it our turn yet?
“I hope this test serves as a starting point for conversation and increased funding,” says Serena Rasoul, founder of Muslim Casting. “We are starting to see more nuanced portrayals of Muslim women on screen and would like to keep this momentum going by using the test to elevate the stories that are getting it right and calling out those who are still getting it wrong.”
With the upcoming highly-anticipated release of Ms. Marvel as a Pakistani Muslim girl from New Jersey who discovers she has superpowers, and the success of new projects like “We Are Lady Parts,” a show centered around a Muslim girl rock band, it seems like Muslim women are ready to exit the wings from muted background characters and onto the main stage. And still, the challenge is a shocking one: the on-screen test states that a recent study found that more than three-quarters (76.4%) of all Muslim characters are men.
“For so long, there were many Muslim women creating stories without any mainstream recognition or distribution,” says Arij Mikati, the managing director of cultural change at Pillars Fund.“ Mara Brock Akil, the prolific creator of ‘Girlfriends,’ is a notable exception.”
So, how is it that a women’s identity — one that has played a leading role in global news headlines and the media has been absolutely obsessed with talking about for at least the last two decades — has remained so wrong on the silver screen for so long?
Muslim women sit at a gendered intersection of representation, often defining the public’s gateway into a culture as a whole. One trope that has reigned supreme is that Muslim women are oppressed and need to be saved from Muslim men. The test cites existing research that “media often pit Western values against Islam, with Muslims shown as enemies instead of partners, and as a separate community instead of integrated with other communities.” It’s politically expedient in a post-9/11 world that positions Muslims as being one common enemy to America and democracy.
The outsider bias is made even starker by the reality that Islam is the most racially diverse religious community in the United States. According to recent polls, about 25% of American Muslims identify as Black or African American and about 25% identify as white. Only about 18% identify as Middle Eastern — yet, the test notes that a study of films from four countries found that 66.7% of Muslim characters on-screen were Middle Eastern or Arab as only speaking Arabic, and most prominently in their religious clothing.
It’s fitting and timely that the test launches during the week of Muslim Women’s Day. The biggest media day of the year to center Muslim women’s stories, with participating partners like Netflix, was launched in 2017 in response to the Muslim ban. More than a decade after 9/11, Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims as a foreign threat gave life to one of the most devastating and far-reaching travel bans in recent history. Supported by media depictions, the ban caused incalculable damage in solidifying Muslims as outsiders in real-life policy. Muslim Women’s Day pushes back on the narrative by recognizing Muslim women’s powerful role in reclaiming it.
That’s not to say that stories of oppression and adversity don’t exist, but when they make up the majority of the already-scarce representation that Muslim women are given and is all that we see of ourselves, then the trope dehumanizes the entire collective.
“Our mission has always been to not only achieve gender equity for all types of female characters but to ensure that the portrayal of Muslim women is authentic and not fraught with harmful stereotypes and tropes,” says Madeline di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute. “We want to make sure that Muslim girls can see unique and inspiring female characters that demonstrate the realm of possibilities for them in society and in their lives.”
The impact of negative media portrayals on Muslim girls can’t be understated. Growing up as a young Muslim girl in New Jersey in the post-9/11 era, the media made me feel more like a foreign outsider in my own community where I was born and raised than like someone who could become a superhero like Ms. Marvel. Shonda Rhimes has noted that, after the groundbreaking popularity of “Grey’s Anatomy,” there was an uptick in women of color entering medical fields, an indication of the transformative influence of seeing a reflection of ourselves in media spaces where we don’t exist. It begs the question: What would happen if Muslim girls saw themselves on TV as positive, empowered and central?
And if the argument is that all execs really care about is making money, then the sooner the industry wakes up to the mosaic of Muslim narratives, the better off we’ll all be. Research from UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers found that “big-budget films lacking in diversity make about $27 million less on their opening weekend, with a potential loss of $130 million in total.” Films that ranked below-average for diversity from 2016 to 2019 took a financial hit at the box office, compared to above-average counterparts.
Now on the other side of multiple political crises, massive social upheaval, and a pandemic, Muslim women forgotten by the diversity renaissance demand better. And if the majority of Americans say they’ve never met a Muslim person before, shouldn’t we introduce them to a new friend?
“I hope that the next time someone asks me, ‘When was the first time you saw yourself represented on screen?’” says Mikati, “that I have an answer different than, ‘I haven’t seen it yet.’”
Amani is an author, activist, diversity expert and founder of Muslim Girl, the biggest platform for Muslim women’s voices in America.