In light of the ongoing awards season, many of us will eagerly look back on a seemingly successful year of media, film, music and television legacies. We will discuss the timelessness of the classics, the best-written scripts, the heart-wrenching plots and the impact they’ve had. But in the process, we run the risk of neglecting our own voices and what we have to offer to the entertainment industry, which is undeniably intertwined with culture and politics.
We all know how this movie goes: the director calls for everyone to take their positions, the lights are angled and the camera begins rolling. Action.
On the set, an actress is playing the role of a Muslim woman–she reads lines written by a screenwriter eager to fulfill a diversity quota. The character then “breaks stereotypes” by refusing an arranged marriage and exposing her hair when her parents aren’t looking. On another set, a Muslim woman falls prey to extremists. She is now the mourning widow whose husband died in a war with no apparent context. Elsewhere, a Muslim woman sits in the background, an opinion-less hollow prop, oftentimes found wearing a wrapped shawl reminiscent of a middle-school girl’s first time wearing a hijab.
It certainly goes without saying that whenever Muslim women are represented in film and television, they are envisioned as different versions of the same idea. They are multiple characters who unironically share the same story, one that is more often than not written, directed and presented to the world by everyone except Muslim women. The result is a horrifying aggregation of everything Muslim women are not: an oppressed monolith secretly craving liberation from society. There is not one person or institution to blame for this misrepresentation, but it is rather the result of continuous misrepresentation, stereotyping and silencing of Muslim women. Our vastly different identities aggregate people who feel the need to box and categorize us, thereby limiting us.
Studies of the media show that unequal power in the industry can be damaging and dangerous to viewers.
This sentiment is echoed by sociologists who have researched representation in the media (or lack thereof): our consumption of media builds up and results in us believing and normalizing what we see. In one study, the lack of representation was also found to result in the lower self-esteem of children whose identities were underrepresented in television. Along the same vein, over 40 years ago, researchers Larry Gross and George Gerbner coined the term “symbolic annihilation,” or the idea that if we don’t see ourselves represented in the media, we feel unimportant.
The odds are stacked up against us. We know how this movie goes.
The cycle begins when Muslim voices are omitted from the industry. The equation is simple: we cannot shed light and bring insight to the realities of Muslim women if we are not included. As a result, Muslim women cannot share their realities and flaunt their talents when no one cares to share their identities and they are altogether overlooked.
The process of consuming our own stereotypes and inevitably believing them, then feeling that our presence is unimportant has limited our potential in countless ways.
Yet we persisted.
Over the past century, Muslims have, in fact, won awards and have fought to have their work and talents recognized. However, the handful of winners is almost exclusively made up of men. While a fellow Muslim’s win is a win for all of us, Muslim women have been sidestepped for far too long.
It is time that we rewrite this movie and fight the good fight. While we have an incredibly long way to go, I believe there has never been a group of women more destined for success than our generation. It starts when we lift each other up, share each others’ stories, encourage each others’ talents, passions and lifestyles. It starts when the men in our community recognize what we have to bring to the table and become true allies. It happens when our characters no longer feel the weight of being sole representatives of our religion. Because we are not singular.
Change will happen when we are able to simply be.
Until then, we must never look at ourselves as we are projected by others. Rather, we must continue to become the most authentic versions of who we truly are and create spaces to nurture our talents. We must represent ourselves how we want to be seen. Not as paradoxes, but as multifaceted, creative individuals who, quite frankly, have been winning all along.