Matt Squire/Channel 4

As early as the 1970s, Edward Said, a Palestinian American academic, made a series of compelling observations about the production and demonization of the Oriental category of ‘Islam’ in the West. For Said, the media’s obsession with Islam manifested itself in two main ways: the association of Islam with the threat of terrorism and the forced ‘defence’ of Islam – a plea for the humanism of Muslims to be recognised. Both narratives are premised upon a constructed ‘fiction’ of what Islam is. Fast forward 40 years, reading his work still feels like a deeply relevant and critical account. His words reflect the Othering of Muslim bodies in modern day media and popular culture, on a number of different levels.

“Recognise that Islamophobia continues to suffocate, hurt and often kill on a daily basis – not just for a week”

When one of my friends brought the recent Channel 4 documentary, My Week as a Muslim, to my attention, it was the apparent need to humanise that wouldn’t leave me. The documentary follows a ‘white’ woman with an array of Islamophobic views into Manchester’s Pakistani Muslim community (incidentally the community in which I live, although I managed to be oblivious to it happening, most likely as a subconscious form of self-preservation) where she was welcomed into a Muslim household.

Here, she spends a week attempting to become Muslim in order to learn what it’s like. To do this, though, she undergoes a rigorous ‘Muslim make-over’ to look the part; her skin is significantly darkened, she’s given a big prosthetic nose, crooked yellow teeth and a hijab until finally, her resemblance with ‘every other’ Pakistani Muslim is uncanny. Throughout the course of the show, the ‘white’ woman’s experiences of ‘being Muslim’ are prioritised over those of the Muslim family she happens to be living with, as she eventually reaches the conclusion that it is actually quite difficult to be visibly Muslim in the UK – eradicating Islamophobia once and for all.

There is no one 'type' of Muslim woman.Mohammed Tawsif Salam

Sarcasm aside, the invasive voyeurism of Muslim women’s experiences, as if Muslim identity is nothing but a costume, is justified by the show’s producers. They suggest that through this, the realities of Islamophobia were brought to light in a way that reached audiences who wouldn’t have normally watched a show about Muslims. But they were more inclined to give a platform to a ‘white’, non-Muslim woman who holds Islamophobic views than to actual Muslim women themselves, to explore what it’s like to be a Muslim woman. What does this tell us?

When I spoke to my own mother about this, an actual Pakistani Muslim woman in Manchester, she told me that maybe this documentary was a good idea. She posited that as Muslim women, we’re rarely listened to and given a space to talk, whereas ‘white’ women have far more legitimacy and authority to speak. I sympathise with this view. But if ‘white’ people even hope to be allies to those of us who experience violent Islamophobia, attempting to speak for us is counter-effective, recycling the age-old trope of the ‘Muslim woman in need of saving’. Rather, challenge the idea that our stories aren’t worth telling unless through a ‘white’ colonialist lens. Listen and speak with us. Recognise that Islamophobia continues to suffocate, hurt and often kill on a daily basis – not just for a week.

“It is documentaries like ‘My Week as a Muslim’ which continue to feed these damaging narratives”

The show is dehumanising and insulting on so many different fronts, from ‘brownface’ to the assumption that all Muslims are the same. This isn’t something I’m interested in unpacking. Rather, the show itself represents an extreme example of the everyday for most Muslims. The assumption that the onus is on Muslim women to humanise themselves in response to the conflation of Islam with terrorism – as Said emphasised 40 years ago – is a tired narrative. The Muslim family in the documentary often find themselves having to reassert their ‘Britishness’ and ‘humane’ nature to present themselves as relatable, in the same way that a lot of Muslims today feel the need to justify themselves on a day to day basis. A week after the Manchester Arena attack, I had an impromptu visit from my family, which was the first (and hopefully last) time I’ve seen my Grandad dressed in trousers and a shirt, or as he calls it, ‘Western’ clothes. Seeing his discomfort and embarrassment, I asked him about it and he went on to tell me that my Dad suggested he dress that way, as opposed to his usual traditional wear of salwar kameez, as a precaution against Islamophobia and abuse on the street.


Mountain View

To be Muslim is to be watched but rarely seen

It is these small allowances, as well as bigger sacrifices, that many Muslims find themselves making on a regular basis to present a specific humanising, and relatable, image of themselves to escape violence. It is documentaries like My Week as a Muslim which continue to feed these damaging narratives.

But the ‘Muslim who acts like us’ is not the answer to the Islamophobic construction of the Muslim terrorist. This construct is neither complex nor revolutionary in its nature. Instead, it serves the exact purpose it claims to be trying to avoid; further throwing Muslims who don’t have these ‘desirable’ characteristics under the bus of Islamophobia. Former Cambridge student and inspiring Muslim woman Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan said in her work ’This Is Not a Humanising Poem’, “Love us when we’re lazy. Love us when we’re poor. Love us high as kites, unemployed, joy riding, time wasting, failing at school, love us filthy. Without the right colour passports, without the right sounding English.

Love us when it’s not convenient for you, when we’re not relatable and when it doesn’t feel easy to do so. Love, and stand with us, in a way that prioritises Muslim women who aren’t so palatable or easy to swallow. Only then can we even hope to challenge and change the dominant narrative

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