Beyond the Veil: a Hijabi and Non-Hijabi Weigh in on Female Muslim Representation in Media

Opening Image: Adena El-Amin from ‘The Bold Type’ 

Written by Maha Amer and Maïs Bouteldja.

Lose the hijabs and up the hijinks; the representation of Muslim women almost always misses the mark. 

On screen, it’s the same banal narratives copied and pasted: featuring a Muslim character? Easy!  Let their Muslim identity be the key focus without any further character exploration. It’s demoralising, and it doesn’t help that these characters often only play supporting roles. Their already limited screen time is used to either overcome their oppression and ‘liberate themselves’ from a conservative culture, or painfully agonise over an inability to ‘fit in’.

Of course, there is a valid argument for the need to highlight such voices and perspectives. But it’s time to raise a simple question: why are Muslim women consistently portrayed in such a negative light?

There’s a catastrophic failure to capture the complex Muslim experience, let alone to differentiate between culture and religion. The vast diversity amongst the Muslim population is never represented in western narratives, much to the detriment of young Muslims. It’s much easier to stick to a stock character than even attempt to understand these cultural and religious nuances. However, such shows still manage to amass a considerable viewership. 

At least that is the case for Netflix’s hit series Elite featuring Nadia Shanna. Hardworking and determined, she is a second-generation Palestinian immigrant with an exclusive scholarship to Las Encinas, an elite, private high school. Raised as the archetypal Muslim, Nadia is the dutiful, obedient daughter, upholding her family’s traditional values and submitting to her father’s authoritarian tendencies. However, after entering the institution, she finds herself at odds with her Muslim identity, debating between retaining her cultural values or assimilating into the illicit world of , drugs, alcohol and forbidden romances                                                       

We’re sold the message that only through removing her hijab, defying her father and entering Guzman’s wild world may Nadia obtain freedom. Because, of course, there’s nothing more fun than opening your fast in a crowded bar with a vodka shot during the holy month of Ramadan.

Maïs: As a hijabi of 21 years, watching Nadia and characters that follow a similar remove-my-hijab-to-have-fun storyline is soul crushing. The reality of a hijabi life is much more mundane. My scarf is just as normal to me as for others a head of hair. It’s never a barrier to what I want to do, whether that be sports, a fun night out with my friends (minus Nadia’s boys, sex and clubs of course) or just heading out in my daily life. My hijab is a symbol of my faith – something I am proud of.

My favourite hijabi character – Adena from ‘The Bold Type’ – offers a new perspective. Adena El-Amin is controversial. She’s open and unashamed about sexuality, independent, and never wavers in faith nor morals. She captures a stark reality – hijabis aren’t a one-size-fits-all. We have our own quirks, flaws and stories. Adena shows the world hijabis are a lot more than just the pretty fabric on our heads.

Maha: And for me, as a non-hijabi, I find it’s very rare to stumble upon a Muslim girl featured in western media without a hijab, and still retain her faith. It’s always one or the other, caught up in an extreme between practising and non-practising – the idea that only by wearing a hijab can you truly identify as Muslim. Truth be told, I haven’t found any non-hijabi representation to which I can relate. So much emphasis is on the scarf, but the reality is it takes much more to be a Muslim : fasting, praying, being compassionate and caring, forgiving. And so, I’ve resorted to seeing myself in the people who embody those values, Muslim or otherwise. In the future, we may truly strike a balance. But until then, not wearing a hijab doesn’t prevent me from doing things hijabis do.

Female Muslim characters deserve a lot more than the typical liberation arc. We’re strong, beautiful and most importantly, much more than just a hijab – if we even wear one. We can only hope that our stories will be told and that when they make it to screens, there will be people ready to listen.

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