JThere is no glass ceiling preventing people from ethnic minorities and Muslim backgrounds from entering the world of television. It’s more of a concrete ceiling, given how difficult, painful — and sometimes ultimately futile — it can be to walk through.
Increasingly, there are examples of Muslim creators helping television avoid offensive and downright harmful narratives in favor of compelling and multi-faceted Muslim stories. In the United States, shows such as Ramy and Ms Marvel have given Muslim talent the space to tell stories with unflinching authenticity. In the UK, comedy is making particularly impressive strides, with groundbreaking shows such as Guz Khan’s Man Like Mobeen and Channel 4’s Bafta hit We Are Lady Parts – which has been renewed for a second series. Other programs by Muslim writers are on the way from the BBC and ITV, including Count Abdullah, which follows a young British Pakistani Muslim doctor who is bitten by a vampire.
But in terms of the British dramatic approach to Muslim stories, there is still a long way to go. When ITV’s Honor dramatized the real-life honor killing of Banaz Mahmod, it told the story from the perspective of the white detective investigating the case rather than the woman at its heart. Too often, this is the kind of narrative that dramas opt for when portraying Muslims: those with an air of criminality, like the Rochdale grooming scandal. During the trial of Darren Osborne, the terrorist who drove his van into Muslim worshipers outside Finsbury Park Mosque, north London, it was revealed that BBC drama Three Girls, representing the Rochdale child abuse sex ring, caused him to become “obsessed”. with Muslims.
“When people ask for Muslim stories, in my experience, they tend to look for ones that fit their limited preconceptions,” says Faisal A Qureshi, a screenwriter and producer who has worked in the industry for over 20 years. In 2005 he tried to write a thriller for the BBC with an Asian female lead, only to be frustrated by petty conceptions of how Muslims should be portrayed on television.
“During the script development session, they basically said we should talk about honor killings. I just said no and the project died. We wouldn’t have had this conversation if I had done of the character a white woman.
There was an improvement in the years that followed. Themes around terrorism, radicalization and honor killings are losing popularity, but preconceptions about what a Muslim narrative should look like persist.
“The comments I receive rarely question my writing abilities. The problem is always the themes I want to explore and the way I want to portray my Muslim characters,” says screenwriter Zainab (pseudonym). The situation has gotten so bad that Zainab is now writing South Asian but not Muslim characters. “The kinds of stories producers and curators want right now don’t reflect my Muslim friends and family. I don’t want to write Muslim characters, because I know those in the industry are going to butcher their stories.
Another problem that writers trying to create authentic Muslim characters struggle with is the pressure to shed their identity. From Netflix’s Elite to Hulu’s Hala, the story arc of a Muslim woman wearing the hijab who takes it off after falling in love with a non-Muslim is well worn. “It seems like the only way to be a Muslim on screen is to renounce your religion or be a non-practicing Muslim,” says Zainab, who once worked on a book-to-movie adaptation, only for his producers turn around and claim that the Muslim character of the characters made them uninteresting.
“They called a Muslim character’s premarital sexless values boring and wanted to let that go. They were looking for the Muslim fleabag and didn’t care about the intricacies of the Muslim experience,” she says. “If you have a disabled character in a story, subversion is not for them to become miraculously valid. So why does the subversion of Muslim characters push them to get rid of their Muslimness? »
There are many Muslim screenwriters with projects in development, but the number of those commissioned is low, especially in dramas. “Curators are often afraid to take ‘risks’ on stories they don’t recognize – or that don’t relate to their lived experiences,” says Scotland-based screenwriter and director Raisah Ahmed. “Our experiences as Muslims only seem to be a risk to people who don’t understand our community and have never engaged with us on a meaningful level. We’re not a risk. We just don’t have enough of people in those roles to say, ‘Oh yeah, this story makes perfect sense.’ Of course, we’re going to order that.
Another issue for Muslim creatives is how industry perceptions affect the type of work they can get. “I had an interview for a book adaptation where the protagonist was HIV positive – which I was excited to explore,” says Zainab. “When the producers realized I was a Muslim, it became a sticking point. I felt it was assumed that as a practicing Muslim woman, I wouldn’t be able to write this story. asked to write a page about how I would approach this story from a sex-positive angle. Why should I have to jump through extra hoops to prove that I can write a sex-positive character?”
The lack of representation of Muslims – and members of other BAME communities – on television is something broadcasters have pledged to change. In 2020, the BBC announced its £100million Creative Diversity Fund, which it says will fund more diverse stories and talent, both on-screen and from a production perspective. It is far from the only such initiative, with ITV committing £80million to a similar program and an £30million pledge from Sky to improve its BAME representation.
Yet, one wonders if this money is being used wisely. “There are huge sums of money out there, but it’s not being spent,” says Sajid Varda, producer, founder and CEO of charity UK Muslim Film. “There seems to be uncertainty about how it should be split due to disconnects between creative diversity managers and commissioners.
“The other challenge is for commissioners and departments who are reluctant to take a chance on projects presented to them by talented BAME freelancers. They find it easier to greenlight projects from familiar networks, as long as they hire freelance BAME talent. They don’t know how to commission projects from people with diverse backgrounds.
One of the biggest obstacles to commissioning authentic Muslim stories is the idea that British audiences aren’t ‘ready’ for them. GB News and talkTV have both crashed and burned after discovering that the audience for ‘anti-revival’ programs is very small. Television executives seem to be taking precedence over politics. Like our politicians’ obsession with satisfying the socially conservative ‘red wall’ constituent, which is portrayed as anti-revival and anti-immigration, TV commissioners see programming for central England and programming for diverse audiences as mutually exclusive.
“Satisfying what the curator wants, what a wider audience wants and what a Muslim audience wants becomes impossible without seriously compromising the authenticity of our stories,” Zainab says. Screenwriter and theater maker Karim Khan – including the play Brown Boys Swim should open in August at the Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh – accepts. “They are afraid to put these stories on television, not knowing if our shows will be marketable and well received by the British public.”
The commissioners’ risk aversion leads them to rely on programs that have already been successful. “All the Muslim creatives you talk to, especially the women who write women’s stories, are compared to We Are Lady Parts,” Ahmed explains, “even though their stories are completely different.”
Such a burden of waiting can weigh heavily. “We have to let go of this idea that a Muslim story, because it comes from a community that has been so marginalized and underrepresented on screen, should tell every story for all Muslims and be everything for everyone,” says Kaamil Shah. , writer to the future Count Abdallah. “Count Abdallah is not the Muslim history. He is a Muslim history.
A big-budget drama in the 9 p.m. slot featuring an authentic Muslim story or a Muslim lead role remains elusive, but positive steps are being taken. Dramas such as The Bay and The Good Karma Hospital gave Muslim writers the opportunity to write authentic Muslim stories. And with the arrival of Ms. Marvel, bold, authentic, big-budget Muslim stories may be given the green light in the UK.
“Nobody asks me about my influences, my writing process or my actual work. They only ask me about its Muslim character or its Asian femininity,” says screenwriter and journalist Amna Saleem. that we can move past those conversations with the release of Ms. Marvel.”
Ultimately, the more successful Ms. Marvel is, the better the prospects for British dramas telling authentic Muslim stories. Or, as Khan puts it: “This is going to be a game-changer. It’s in the mainstream space and it seems like a “risk” that is already paying off. Here is the hope.