When We Depict Muslim Hijabies in TV Shows
I remember watching “The Bold Type” and being surprised that one of the characters, Adena — Kat’s lover— was a Muslim woman, and a hijaby (i.e. one who wears a hijab/scarf on their head).
The show itself is about three women in their twenties — Kat, Jane, and Sutton — working for a woman’s magazine in New York City. The story is a bit cliche at times, but unique in its own way, often weaving in urgent social issues like racial profiling (Season 3, Episode 7) and sexual assault (Season 1, Finale) into its plot lines. One of its major themes is women being empowered.
As a chess piece to this overarching theme, Adena is presented as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab the way she wants (showing her neck, boobs, and full arms). I was so excited to see a Muslim hijaby on screen, but felt jolted by the way in which Adena dressed. In Islam, the most correct way of hijab practice is to cover your neck and full body down to the ankles. I liked the idea that Adena wasn’t stereotypical and more human, since I do have friends that wear the hijab the way Adena wears it (in fact, I do, too) — but I almost felt like the writers of the show were keeping Muslim women who cover at an arm’s length.
I didn’t seem to be the only one who felt that way. The Cut — an online platform for women — interviewed 8 queer Muslim women about Adena’s character in The Bold Type and how it felt to see a character like them on screen. Many of them shared how nice it was to be represented, yet they also noted their thoughts on the way she dressed. One interviewee commented, “Her clothing did throw me off a bit, but people do dress like that.” Another said: “She said she wears a hijab because it confuses people, so I wasn’t really sure if she’s wearing it because of the religion or just to make a statement. Also, she has open spots, like her arms and around her neck and upper part of her body. The people around me who wear hijabs — I don’t — they are more closed.”
There was a moment in which I wondered whether I even had a right to criticize. Women are always being judged for what they wear, myself included. I felt hypocritical. But I realized, for me, this isn’t so much about what Adena is wearing as much as it is about the meaning behind Adena’s portrayal. It feels like everything about Adena is beautiful only when it’s the things the media finds attractive — her accent, her body, her “exotic” cultural background. Everything that’s also typical about a woman, and specifically, a practicing Muslim woman — her spirituality, her modesty, her religious beliefs — are scraped or diminished. Even when those things can be just as beautiful, too.
As a Muslim woman, I feel that I am not wanted on television. I grew up seeing mainly white characters on screen. It’s only recently that Muslim women have been more prominent in the media, but their presence in American shows has always lagged. Often, they’re only depicted as extras, such as in the show Grey’s Anatomy. Past shows that have depicted Muslim women as full-time characters, such as Quantico, which starred Priyanka Chopra, and Norway’s Skam (a show interweaving several young characters’ stories) were cancelled. They provided only fleeting moments for Muslim women in scarves to see themselves. Further, most movies or shows offering representation for Muslim women are not even American shows (like Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian-based show that was cancelled in 2012).
Growing up Muslim in a predominantly white community, I recognized that there was a standard of beauty that I did not live up to. The women I saw on screen never looked like me. In fact, I became so accustomed to seeing white characters that all the characters in my fiction stories were white, and I imagined myself to be white. If I dreamt myself in a dream, I was a white woman. I resonated a lot with Queer Eye’s Tan France when he shares similar experiences in his book (but emphasizing his experience as someone with darker skin): “I had been so conditioned to think that if you were white, you were automatically more attractive,” he writes.
TV promotes that type of thinking — even if it’s never said directly. It’s easier to present Adena as a “watered” down version of a Muslim woman than to present a whole Muslim woman with a covered body, something that’s miles away from what we’re accustomed to. The message seems to be: we’ll accept you but only on our terms.
This is so jolting because, especially if you live in big cities, there is diversity everywhere. Muslim women in hijabs work in our hospitals, our schools, our homes, every day. In our day-to-day lives, we see these women as educated, empowered, liberated. They’re hijabies, they’re different, and they’re proud. It doesn’t make sense to not show reality on our screens and not depict them correctly — and more often. In other words, we need to make more room for them in our stories and stop overlooking them, changing them, or erasing them completely.
In the first episode of The Bold Type, Kat asks Adena why she wears the hijab since it seems contradictory to her beliefs in empowerment and liberation. Adena replies: “It does not oppress me but liberates me from society’s expectations of what a woman should look like.” We strive to believe that — but if we’re being honest, we don’t. If we did, we’d depict Muslim women unapologetically, because being who you are and looking how you want to look is nothing to be sorry for.
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