Where’s the Muslim Representation in Degrassi?

From the days when I “woke up in the morning feeling shy and lonely” to now, when “whatever it takes, I know I can make it through,” I have been a fan of the Degrassi TV franchise. I empathize with and learn from the diversity of characters and experiences depicted in the show. As a Canadian, this is the show that represents me and my fellow Canadian teens.

If you went to my (French) school in the late 1990s, the core English class consisted of boring grammar and — the highlight of the week — Friday showings of Degrassi Junior High reruns. Nearly a decade after the show first aired, I, in middle school, identified emotionally with the cast of Degrassi Junior High and its sequel, Degrassi High.

For a late-80s teen show, it tackled many relevant issues from drug abuse to teen pregnancy to homosexuality and divorce. Its diverse cast was, at the time, one of very few examples of racial diversity available in my rural town in Eastern Canada. That is not to say that Degrassi emphasised its commitment to addressing racial issues, but it did leaps and bounds above and beyond what most Quebec, American, and other Canadian TV shows offered at the time.

That is why, when the TV franchise released a new series in 2001, Degrassi: The Next Generation, it quickly became one of my favourite shows on television. At the risk of revealing my age, I was in my last year of middle school when Jimmy Brooks (a.k.a. Aubrey Graham, a.k.a. Drake) entered my life along with his co-stars and returning Degrassi favourite Snake (Stefan Brogen) as Mr. Simpson.

As a young gay rights activist and daughter of a gay man, I was curious how Degrassi would broach the subject of homosexuality in the 21st century. Well, in season 2, Degrassi: The Next Generation introduced Marco Del Rossi (Adamo Ruggiero), a young gay man, who through five seasons on the show experienced love, hate, and various experiences through the lens of a gay character.

In 2009, I had the opportunity to meet Rugiero at a youth diversity conference. He proudly announced that he was in talks with the writers and producers of Degrassi to introduce a transgendered character. He explained that having him on the show was a step forward for the gay community but that other factions of the community also needed a voice. That character, appropriately named Adam (Jordan Todosey), was introduced to the show (renamed Degrassi) the following season, which aired in 2010.

Up until then, I watched Degrassi with white privilege-tinted glasses. Sure, I understood minority rights and the importance of media exposure.  I saw people of colour on the show being given meaningful roles and honestly felt that they were represented. I’m a white woman and with more education on the topic, I can now say that I have no idea if their experiences truly are represented. Where I can comment, however, is on the representation of Muslims on the show.

In 2012, I converted to Islam after much thought and research. I also donned the hijab. I am not proud of this, but I did notice a big change in myself and in my surroundings: I began to notice Muslims, especially hijabis, and their media depictions. Now, I probably don’t have to mention that much of Western media depicts Muslims in a negative light, but I am grateful to Canadian producers and broadcasters for putting Little Mosque on the Prairie on the air.

However, I am a little disappointed that a show like Degrassi, that prides itself on reflecting the realities of Canadian youth, has yet to feature a hijabi Muslim as part of its main cast or recurrent extra. To be completely honest, I first thought there had been no Muslims on Degrassi until someone pointed out Season 2, Episode 11 “Don’t Believe the Hype”.

This episode features a Somali Muslim character who has hidden her Muslim identity until she is accused of vandalizing the school project of a hijab-clad Muslim student with the word “terrorist.” She is later exonerated of the crime. Hazel’s Muslim identity and Fareeza are never mentioned again while she is on air (from seasons 1–5).

The next Muslim character on the show is Savtaj “Sav” Bhandari (Raymon Ablack). My frustration with this character is that his being Muslim seems to have been an afterthought. His character being cast as “South Asian” and his last name reflecting a Hindu background, his character creates a wave when he announces to his then girlfriend that he plans on having an arranged marriage. This gives place to a three-episode arc where his Muslim identity is mentioned only once. Arranged marriages are common amongst all faith in South Asian cultures, but it leaves me wondering why the producers decided to make this one instance particularly Muslim. Just like Hazel’s storyline, Sav’s or his sister’s being Muslim is no longer mentioned beyond the three-episode story arc (the two have a combined seven years on air).

It concerns me that over 14 seasons of a show, Degrassi has failed to portray positive relationships with faiths besides Christianity and Judaism. More importantly, for a Toronto school – even a fictional one – the halls are complete devoid of religious garment: hijab, turbans or otherwise.

I am grateful for shows like Degrassi that keep pushing the envelope on various real-life issues as experienced by teens and pre-teens here, in Canada. However, I would truly love to see diversity expressed even further with characters that have in-depth relationships with their minority faiths. Here’s hoping a good show could be even better!

Written by Stephanie Renee