This week a teaser trailer for BBC Two’s new satirical show Revolting has spread like wildfire across social media. The clip introduces a new parody of the Real Housewives franchise: The Real Housewives of ISIS. Everything about the clip, from the title, to the women arguing over who wore a suicide vest better, is shocking and has, understandably, attracted some very strong reactions.
A lot of Muslims have expressed their disgust and anger about the show on social media. Many suggest that in the midst of such rampant Islamophobia this kind of satire is unhelpful and could result in further individual attacks on UK Muslims like the incident last month at the Forest Hill tube station in London.
Others have expressed anger at the show poking fun at women viewed as victims of abuse, online grooming, and religious brainwashing. With reports from IS defectors claiming Islamic State has a “well-structured grooming system to target vulnerable foreign youngsters”, which involves academics providing insight into human psychology and coordinated social media recruitment drives, it is clear that many have indeed been manipulated into joining the cult. I have also seen people argue, quite rightly, that these women are in abusive relationships and may struggle to see a way out, and as such, they deserve our compassion and help rather than mockery.
Although many of the girls and women who have chosen to join Islamic State are young, lonely, and impressionable, others are not. The 3 sisters from Bradford, Khadija, Sugra, and Zohra, who took their 9 children into the war zone were aged 30, 34, and 33 respectively, and left their husbands behind in the UK. When Zohra Dawood’s friend questioned her intentions, Zohra said that she “did not want her daughters to grow up in the UK”.
Despite their skewed perspective on parenting, there is no indication that these women were forced or even brainwashed into making the difficult journey. I am hesitant to paint these women entirely as powerless victims. I mean, even the most feminist, female-empowering activist has to admit that women are free to make insane decisions, as well as good ones. Frankly, any woman who, like the characters portrayed here, poses wearing a suicide vest or tweets about the wonders of the Islamic State deserves to be ridiculed.
It has also been argued that these women are representative of ISIS who has, on many occasions, declared itself the enemy of us, i.e. the West: Muslim or non-Muslim. And if you look back in history, mocking your country’s enemy is a well-established and accepted form of propaganda.
The BBC itself produced the long-running sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo in which German Nazis’ were portrayed as idiotic buffoons. And more recently Tina Fey’s 30 Rock featured a hilarious caricature of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Arab comedians such as Nasser Al-Qasabi have spoken out in defense of satirizing Islamic State: “Warning the people about ISIS is the true jihad [struggle], because we’re fighting them with art not war.” And, ultimately, this is what satire is about.
George Orwell said that “every joke is a tiny revolution” and satire does indeed provoke strong reactions, but, more importantly, debate. Satire is a tool which allows us to break taboos, discuss uncomfortable issues, and highlight injustice.
On the other hand, like all things, satire can be taken too far and, rather than highlighting injustice, it can encourage and validate bigoted views. As one of my favorite graphic artists, Joe Sacco, so eloquently observed: “When we draw a line, we are often crossing one too, because lines on paper are a weapon, and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone?”
And this raises a very important point: If ISIS is the intended victim, why is it, yet again, that women are being stereotyped and laughed at? The image of the Muslim woman is obsessed over and manipulated enough without further entanglement with an oppressive regime so abhorrent to your average hijabi.
In fact, by ignoring and therefore dehumanizing the real victims in Syria, i.e. the men, women, and children caught between the various combatant groups, we create more barriers rather than break them down.
Additionally, setting the show against a backdrop clearly designed to mimic the current state of Aleppo adds insult to injury. The notable lack of coverage by mainstream news outlets of what is happening to civilians in Aleppo speaks volumes and further reinforces the argument that the show is in very poor taste.
In fact, by ignoring and therefore dehumanizing the real victims in Syria, i.e. the men, women, and children caught between the various combatant groups, we create more barriers rather than break them down. By enhancing the grotesque elements of this cult, and attempting to distance the audience from the reality of Syria and ISIS, we mimic the rhetoric of ISIS recruiters themselves who seek to encourage disenchantment with the West in potential members.
It’s difficult to gauge at this point how damaging and/or thought-provoking the show will be as a whole until we view the future episodes. My hope is that the subsequent topics covered are just as socially relevant, caustic, and provocative, as this first explosive installment – pun intended.