‘Ms. Marvel,’ ‘Ramy’ and ‘Hala’ Fuel Debate on Muslim Representation

As members of the community become more common on the screen, critics grapple with how they demonize, caricature or humanize

‘Ms. Marvel,’ ‘Ramy’ and ‘Hala’ Fuel Debate on Muslim Representation
Still images from the show “Ms. Marvel.” (Credit: Disney)

Many viewers hail the new “Ms. Marvel” series as a major step forward for the depiction of Muslims on screen. The show’s main character, Kamala Khan, dubbed Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, is presented as a Pakistani-American teen from New Jersey. Supporters have praised the show for its diverse Muslim cast and crew, authentic music, sets and clothing as well as its representation of everyday Muslim life and practice outside the common media framing in the “war on terror.“ Yet some Muslim viewers see the show not as a model for media representation but as a harmful distortion of Muslim life.

Herein lies the “trap” of representation, as the scholar and activist Su’ad Abdul Khabeer puts it. With the long history of demonization of Muslims in the media, favorable representation is sought after and socially advantageous. But because of the paucity of depictions of Muslims on screen, each portrayal is aggressively policed by the very same public it seeks to represent. With the recent growth of Muslim media creatives grabbing the helm of productions, debates within the Muslim community have grown louder about how they should be represented. There is much that can be gained by broader Muslim representation in media, but questions about whose story gets to be told, why these narratives are understood as representing the entire community and how to tell stories that are both personal and communal simultaneously become critical queries for moving forward. In debating how Muslims are depicted on screen, many within the community will argue that this is not my representation.

Due to the relative rarity of U.S. media representations of Muslims, each example involves much higher stakes than it should. By contrast, the specific “negative” attributes of one of the many white male action heroes, bumbling rom-com couples or “white savior” leads can simply be viewed as a transgression of that character, as opposed to innate qualities of a specific community. The presumption of communal plurality is a courtesy not often given to minority communities in mainstream media. For some Muslim viewers, new media productions are not understood as illustrating the diverse lived experiences of Muslims rooted in particular cultural and historical moments. Rather, every deviation and divergence from an assumed communal “norm” is dubbed a “misrepresentation.”

However, these heated disagreements about what should be representative among Muslim viewers may actually be productive catalysts for the growth of better Muslim representation. When the inclusion of Muslim media characters becomes common enough that it is unexceptional, many of the current critics may find their own life reflected on screen. Instead of a call against representation, these critiques can be a push for even greater and varied Muslim media storytelling that reveals a spectrum of cultural, theological and racial differences among Muslims.

The gatekeeping of Muslim identity is often shaped by how Muslim audiences respond to media representations, especially when they claim they are not the representations they want. One Marvel fan who was displeased with Ms. Marvel’s “Muslim” characterization is the Imam John Ederer of the Muslim Community Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. After watching the first episode with nervous enthusiasm, the imam decided to devote his khutbah (sermon) to the subject of representation and the problem of liberalism. Even though the show was incessantly marketed as Marvel’s first “Muslim” character, he found that it faithfully captured only an “integrated secular Pakistani American who happens to have Islamic heritage and colloquialisms that come from the religion.” The imam did find the “serious” Muslim older brother, Aamir Khan, to be sufficiently pious to represent Muslims, “even though his mustache is a bit long.” Otherwise, despite the good intentions of the show’s creators, it didn’t meet his criteria for what made up a “proper” Muslim.

Ederer was concerned that Kamala didn’t wear hijab, rebels against her parents, had a close friendship with a boy and dubbed her lesbian classmates her favorite couple in the school, for which he was “not sure that would be the way that a Muslim would engage some random people doing that.” These improprieties could have possibly been ignored by the imam but what made the “Muslim” representation worse was it did not include clear religious obligations, such as the demonstration of the five daily prayers or the recitation of the Quran. According to Ederer, while the principle of liberalism allows Muslims to be who they want to be in a society where they are a minority, it can also attract them to “secularism.”

In Ms. Marvel’s religious landscape, patterns of speech, fabrics of everyday life, communal connections in the mosque or neighborhood and cultural interpretations of Islam define what it means to be a Muslim. In this imam’s eyes, these are merely “cultural superstitions” that appear to be representative of the diverse Muslim community but in actuality are “not Islam.” Ultimately, the show’s creators define Islam differently from the imam and believe Kamala is true to their understanding of what it means to be Muslim. Ederer believes “there are foundations that represent what Islam is and what a Muslim should be and we would hope that that would be represented.” This was the position among many critics (maybe not even viewers) who argued Kamala was not sufficiently “religious” to be representative of the Muslim community. Overwhelmingly, though, Muslim audiences praised the “authentic” depiction of Muslim life and experiences.

Other critiques of Ms. Marvel were not so much a matter of religiosity but of history. In one scene, when Kamala visits her grandmother Sana in Karachi, their conversation traverses narratives about the partition of British India. “People are claiming their identity based on an idea some old Englishmen had when they were fleeing the country,” explains Sana. Many South Asian viewers in the diaspora were inspired by the recounting of this horrific set of events in the program and took the opportunity to learn more about their own family’s partition history.

Yet this type of retelling does not account for the complex history of early 20th-century grassroots efforts supporting a new arrangement of social and political life and insinuates that this new state division was thrust upon South Asians solely by the British. It ignores the history of Hindu and Muslim organizations calling for their own state, especially the significant role of the All-India Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948) in reorganizing British India in 1947. Some viewers voiced alarm at the use of this characterization during the current political climate in India, where Muslims are being persecuted by Hindu nationalist policies and street mobs. What may seem like a diluted portrayal of history at worst to the uninformed viewer could be understood as a harmful misrepresentation that supports current violence against Muslims by concealing the harm of religious nationalism. If so-called “positive” representation can still do so much damage, some may feel that, as the scholar Shabana Mir put it, “Do not f—ing represent us, ever. Forget we exist.” If that is the case, any single example of Muslim representation is worse than one that leads to continued violence.

These intracommunal critiques of Muslim representation will only increase as producers greenlight more Muslim-led projects. A similar backlash occurred with the release of Hulu’s “Ramy,” often labeled the first Muslim-led comedy series. The film critic Joseph Fahim argued the show’s many caricatures and omissions fail to enrich the conversation about Muslims in America. The culture writer Shamira Ibrahim and author Rafia Zakaria critiqued the show’s flat depiction of Muslim women. Ramy Youssef has been vocal about the role of religion in the show, stating that the program is directly focused on his character’s struggle with faith but also does not seek to represent all Muslims in any regard. Some Muslim viewers saw the title character’s personal struggle and repeated failures as authentic to the lived experiences of young Muslims.

Debates about the show recently resurfaced in relation to a New York Times “Modern Love” column penned by “Ramy” writer Sahar Jahani. In her reflection, Jahani describes the constraints she felt growing up with respect to physical intimacy with the opposite sex, which she asserts were “governed by the social rules of her faith.” She describes how she believed her personal perspective as a Muslim woman would not be valued within the “Ramy” writer’s room because of her own lack of intimate experience. Jahani also recounts her own manufactured intimate experience that allowed her to imagine one of the most controversial scenes in the show: A married Muslim woman has an affair with Ramy during Ramadan, the holiest time of year. One reader, Fatima Said, retorted that Jahani’s piece was rooted in the author’s insecurity about her personal choices, her self-orientalizing for non-Muslim audiences and her discrediting of legitimate Muslim critiques of “Ramy.” Sahar Ghumkhor, a scholar of the intersection of race, psychoanalysis and gender, argues Jahani’s musings establish something she suspected about “Ramy” writers — that they were “way too invested in non-Muslim audiences so their confessional tales seem to be orientated for non-Muslim racial fetishists.”

The cultural critic Sana Saeed added that, in both the “Modern Love” essay and “Ramy,” “we don’t have a ‘representation’ of the diversity of experience of Muslims, we have a repetition of the same story told through the embrace of a particular cultural hegemony on love & sex.” Fatima Said adds that Jahani designed scenarios that reinforce the assumptions and interest of the white gaze rather than writing for diverse Muslim audiences. Her attempt at “humanizing” for non-Muslims ultimately reinforces the assumptions that Islam is overly oppressive and Muslims are hampered by “backwards” social norms. Said concluded, “Please stop writing these cringe pieces. Please stop commissioning and publishing these cringe pieces. Please stop trying to portray yourself as above/better than other Muslims. And for the the (sic) love of God, don’t drag Muslim women into your messy love life. Save it for your diary.”

How to narrate Muslim women’s sexuality was also part of the debate about a recent Muslim coming-of-age story, the 2019 Apple TV+ feature film “Hala.” Writer and director Minhal Baig’s first feature film tells the story of a first-generation Pakistani American Muslim teenager, Hala Masood. Like many of her adolescent peers, Hala is navigating everyday youthful escapades like skateboarding and hanging out with friends, her creative writing interests, and romance and sexual impulses. In interviews, Baig explained that, while not strictly autobiographical, the story is rooted in her own experience growing up as a South Asian Muslim American.

To many Muslim viewers, Hala’s relationship with her religion and culture is complicated, sometimes familiar and palpable but at others subversive and provocative. Overwhelmingly, critics were vocal about how the film hangs on a number of familiar tropes that reinforce harmful stereotypes about Muslims. Hala has a domineering and abusive father and an overbearing conservative mother, has suppressed sexual desires, falls for a cute white boy and enters adulthood by removing her hijab. For many viewers, the film can be read as demonstrating how Islam is oppressive to liberal American norms about youth culture, sexuality and personal creativity.

“Hala” is a unique film because the writer-director tells her own story as a Muslim American while blending in stereotypes about Muslims intelligible to non-Muslim audiences. Many folks in the Hollywood industry who champion diversity and inclusion were excited about the film, including Jada Pinkett Smith, who helped fund it with her production company Overbrook Entertainment because of its “authentic” story. The film found supporters and fans when it was released as part of the first batch of Apple TV+ original content. Much of this was due to the fact the film played off tropes around Muslim women and pitted them against markers of liberal empowerment, combing essentialized ideals of the white savior and Western feminism.

Hala evades the “patriarchy” of her religion by masturbating during prayer time or making advances toward her older teacher. She overcomes her “submissiveness” by skateboarding and hanging out at the skate park. She escapes her “oppression” by removing her hijab once she is on her own at a new college. More often than not, these attempts to “humanize” and “shatter stereotypes” by showing non-Muslim viewers that Muslims are “just like us!” reinforce formulaic perceptions of Muslims instead of revealing the diversity of their community. They are rooted in Western feminist criteria for sexual liberation, orientalist ideas about “brave” Muslim women and the politics of the veil.

Muslim detractors called out these signifiers for what they believed they were doing and who exactly they were meant for. Darakshan Raja, the executive director of Justice for Muslims Collective, said, “Please stop making these lazy films. … This is a narrative that fits the external gaze. It’s tiring.” The entertainment reporter Rasha Ali added, “I don’t speak for all Muslim-Americans, but I can say that at least a good amount of us are tired of seeing the stereotypical Muslim girl portrayed over and over again.” For many Muslim viewers, “Hala” seemed to be written not for them but rather for non-Muslim audiences. The journalist Abrar Al-Heeti also saw the film as a valuable opportunity that failed to provide a new lens on the Muslim American experience. It continued a pattern of showing religion and modernity at odds and Islam as an impediment to personal happiness, as has also been seen in Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show “Master of None” or Kumail Nanjiani’s “The Big Sick.”

Al-Heeti acknowledged the high expectations of a single film about a minoritized community but was hopeful about the effects of the wave of critical responses. She said, “Of course, it’s impossible for one film to capture the varied experiences of all Muslim women, and ‘Hala’ tells an important story that surely resonates with many. … Perhaps this film is a steppingstone to one day seeing more Muslim protagonists who aren’t defined — or restricted — by their faith.” These critiques capture the double bind of the representation trap. In “Hala,” a Muslim filmmaker shares a narrative derived from her own experience, non-Muslim supporters raise up this “diverse” voice within a hegemonic industry, and Muslim viewers generally reject it as “representative” because it reproduces stereotypical portrayals of Muslims.

The more complicated kernel buried under this mound of criticism is what it reveals about the circumstances surrounding Muslim representation in popular media. When a product comes together with seemingly all the right components — Muslims as writers, directors, producers and more — it will still fail to meet the internal expectations of the entire community it seeks to represent. “Ms. Marvel,” “Ramy” and “Hala” all seemed to meet the current metrics for Hollywood “inclusion and diversity” efforts and were promoted as “Muslim” film and television but still found community pushback on how Muslims were portrayed on screen. Of course, no one should presume any product could achieve the impossible goal of representing an entire community. But since narratives about Muslims are so few and far between, audiences’ expectations are often piqued in delicate ways, and the weight of the burden to do good by one’s own community is substantial for creatives.

What, then, might be better in the end: misrepresentation or invisibility? The recent debates seem to lay out the possibilities of representation as these two fixed poles. As we have seen, for some critics, if portrayals of Muslim life and history are not going to get it “right,” then the whole endeavor is misguided at best and damaging at worst. On the other end of the spectrum, some viewers are satisfied with any visibility of Muslims in the broader media, even if they are imperfect, flawed and not aligned with their own experiences. According to this logic, recognition of difference in mainstream media by whatever means necessary becomes the path toward equality over and above authenticity and nuance of perspective. But our examples call into question the premise that greater representation and inclusion in dominant spaces will necessarily serve the community, since many found them to be more than just imprecise and reinforced existing stereotypes.

This dichotomy of misrepresentation or invisibility is a product of the restricted scope of Muslim representation that prevails. Rather than considering these examples as “misrepresentations,” they should be understood as only few instances within a very limited sample size. Mainstream popular cultural portrayals of white characters have such a wide range of personalities that no singular iteration is expected to be representative of the group. And because of the great number of portraits out there, many individuals feel seen even if only in niche productions. In a long Twitter thread on the “Hala” debate, the filmmaker Raisah Ahmed identified some key conditions necessary to move forward productively:

“Firstly, representation only works if there’s diverse representation, and in this context I mean every type of Muslim experience. … Secondly, we need more Muslims in the creative industries. We need more Muslims making films, tv, every type of art form, because if we’re not controlling the narrative & making sure it’s authentic then someone else will.”

While the existing media precedent may not be welcomed as “representative” for many Muslim viewers, what the current productions do demonstrate well is that Muslims are a diverse community with a range of levels of religious participation, belief and struggles. When making Muslim narratives, creatives account for the multiple influences that shape their lives and pull from their own experiences including their gender, race, class position and personal interests. Without this diverse set of stories, general audiences won’t be exposed to the many important events and values that pervade everyday Muslim life but that have been sorely neglected by other public media narratives. In the end, every “misrepresentation” that Muslim audiences critique may lead to more complex, varied and representative productions in future.

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