Writing Muslim characters: Lessons from Ali’s Wedding and Degrassi: The Next Class
The representation of Muslims in Western media has been deeply problematic and led to Islamophobia and discrimination. With the push for diversity in the screen industry, it is important more than ever to have better Muslim characters on screen. The question is, how? How can screenwriters write stories about Muslims for the mainstream non-Muslim audience?
A useful starting point for the discussion is the Riz Test. The problem with Muslim representation on screen has become such a familiar issue that it inspired British actor Riz Ahmed’s to take it up in a speech to the British House of Commons when he was asked to speak on diversity on screen. The Riz test is designed to evaluate how Muslims are portrayed on film and TV, thereby discourage film producers from using images and tropes that perpetuate stereotypes. Thus, if your Muslim character fits the following stereotypes, reconsider writing the character because he or she has failed the Riz test.
Are the Muslims in your script:
- portrayed as the victim or the perpetrators of terrorism?
- Presented as irrationally angry?
- Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
- Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
- If the character is male, he is presented as misogynistic? Or if female, she is presented as oppressed and passive?
Although the problem of the portrayal of Muslims on screen is an ongoing issue, a few shows have been getting it right, and it is useful to explore how they do that. For the purposes of this research project, I am going to focus on the feature film Ali’s Wedding (2018), an award-winning Australian romantic comedy set in a Muslim Iraqi community in Melbourne and Degrassi’s Next Class (2016), a Canadian TV show that follows the diverse student body of Degrassi Community School and features the character of Goldi Nahir (Soma Chhaya) as a member of the main cast. Goldie appears right from the first episode and is featured wearing the hijab (Islamic headscarf) in most of the show’s promotional posters. Both dramas are popular and critically appraised for their portrayal of Muslims. They are therefore good examples worth learning from if you, whether you are a Muslim or non-Muslim writer, ever decide to include a Muslim character in your screen story.
Here are the reasons that I believe make Ali’s Wedding and Degrassi: Next Class successful in their portrayal of Muslims
#1 They develop Muslim characters like developing any other character.
Ali’s Wedding resonates with the audience because the characters are relatable, realistic and emotionally complex. Dianne (Helana Sawires), the female lead, is smart, ambitious, charming and aspires to study medicine. Her obstacle, however, is her father who doesn’t want her to ‘mix with Westerners at university’. She is also interested in Ali (Osamah Sami), the male lead, but he’s already engaged. Whereas Ali is rebellious — he lies to the community that he has passed the entrance exam to med school, Dianne has a more realistic view of her setbacks and is less inspired to take risks. Yet, she is not passive, either, which is evident when she takes advantage of the loopholes in Islamic marriages law to date Ali. Ali and Dianne’s complexity makes the audience root for them: we don’t see them only as Muslims, but as flawed individuals who are trying their best to pursue their goals and be with the person they love while navigating their own cultures and familial expectations. It is nuanced and authentic. It is a human story that everyone can relate to.
The importance of a nuanced Muslim character with emotional complexity is also amplified in Degrassi. Being portrayed as a feminist and wearing a hijabi right from the first episode, Goldi clearly passes the Riz test and challenges several stereotypes. Yet, it isn’t until season 3, where her insecurities about herself, her bias towards her LGBTQ friends, her feelings for her non-Muslim classmate Winston and her journey to acknowledge her own shortcomings make her much more interesting and relatable. This shows that what we need are not just amazing and perfect Muslim characters who would pass the Riz test. What we need are nuanced and complex Muslim characters whose desires and goals can be thwarted by various factors — personal, familiar, social, cultural and religious, all the factors that make us humans.
#2 They don’t water down their characters’ Muslim identity.
Being a Muslim is complex and different from person to person; yet, as Leila Fadel observes in an article entitled Muslims Are Having a Hollywood Moment Muslim characters on screen often fall into two camps: devout individuals who can’t tolerate differences (those that would fail the Riz Test) or confused Muslims who abandon their culture for the secular and Western way of life (e.g.: Master of None).
There’s also the third camp which has become more popular: the Muslim ‘exemplaries’ and ‘heroes’ without any real engagement with Muslim culture. They are characters who are made to appear Muslim through their look or their names (as with Abed in Community) but don’t do anything else that is culturally or religiously specific; rather they default to the Anglo Celtic norm. Goldi, in the first two seasons of Degrassi, falls into this camp. Other than the hijab that makes Goldi visibly Muslim, we hardly know anything about her background, cultural and religious heritage and if that has anything to do with her activism. While this approach can help challenge stereotypes by showing that Muslims are like anyone else (we go to school, we play sports, we binge watch TV shows, etc.), it does little in helping the mainstream gain any further understanding about the Muslim community. In fact, it actually perpetuates a tokenistic representation of the Muslim community (women in headscarves, men with a long beard and a Middle-Eastern name) and the dichotomous “The West versus Islam” view of the world.
To see the difference a show makes when it takes the Muslim character’s faith and cultural heritage seriously, look at Goldi from season 3 of Degrassi’s The Next Class. Goldi’s faith then plays a more crucial role in her storyline and personality development. Seeing her being questioned by her lesbian friends over the Quran’s attitude to gay people, seeing how she gradually changes her attitude arrives at a conclusion that breaking one rule doesn’t mean you are no longer a Muslim, and seeing her take off the hijab and then put it on again, the audience are positioned to realise that being a Muslim is not a fixed thing, but rather a journey of learning, rethinking, acknowledging one’s mistakes and changing one’s perspectives of the world. Goldi grows to be more accepting of different viewpoints and lifestyles and accepts her position in the world. It is refreshing to see that she does so without having to blame and/or abandon her religion.
Another Muslim character in the series is Saad Al-Maliki (Parham Rownaghi), a Syrian refugee character introduced in season 4 of Degrassi. Described as someone who has seen the horror of wars in his homeland, Saad struggles to explain to his fellow students that he would not wear the T-shirt to support Belgium after the recent terrorist attack there because he finds it hypocritical to pray for Belgium, and not for other countries, including the Muslim ones, that are also affected by terrorism. The fact that Saad’s storyline and reactions are included demonstrates the writers’ genuine attempts to allow the audience to consider an issue through the lens of a Muslim refugee and understand how being ostracised can make one vulnerable to radicalisation. As the show’s producer Stephen Stohn said, it is easy to dismiss the view of someone whose approach to life is different to us, and that’s why characters like Saad are necessary — they show us that an issue is never black and white, and it’s not enough just to be tolerant (put up with) of each other; we also learn to listen and understand where both sides are coming from.
If you find Degrassi’s approach too theological and political, have a look at Ali’s Wedding. This feel-good, family-driven dramedy, as writer Osamah Sami himself asserts, is “without the politics”, but it has what many shows featuring Muslim characters lack: authenticity and specificity. Many positive reviews about Ali’s Wedding often mention the way the film unapologetically features customs and practices of an Iraqi Muslim community such as scenes at the mosque, chaste courtship, arranged marriages, and the search for workarounds for the Quran. Zoe Crombie from Film Inquiry describes her experience watching Ali’s Wedding as being like “an outsider [being] invited to Sami’s family gathering”. Like her, many audiences on IMDB also appreciate the fact that the film doesn’t hold back for the sake of the white audience. Not only are these scenes educational and eye-opening, but accompanied by scenes of Ali’s family bonding over AFL and him striving to get in Melbourne University’s medical school, these warm and affectionate peeks at the Muslims’ way of life provide the audience with a vivid and nuanced portrait of Muslim minorities living in Australia.
The success of Degrassi and Ali’s Wedding tell us that the mainstream audience do want to know more about the Muslim community beyond the headscarf, the Middle Eastern look and the label “Muslim”. Thus, the next time you develop Muslim characters, think carefully about whether the Muslim faith plays a small or large place in their identity. Don’t hesitate to present an uncomfortable Muslim perspective, rituals and customs in a respectful way. It would not only break down the sense of otherness and mystery around the Muslim communities in Australia but would significantly enhance the development of your characters and the storyline.
#3 They show a gamut of views and perspectives within the Muslim community.
As a drama about a Muslim community, it’s not surprising that Ali’s Wedding features a wide rainbow of Muslims. There are patronising conservatives who believe women should not go to university and mix with men, and there’s Sheik Mahdi (Dony Hany) who reminds them that they are living in the twenty-first century. There’s Yomna (Maha Wilson), the daughter of a parishioner who can’t wait to get married and start a family, and there’s Dianne, an Australian-born Lebanese Muslim who is smart and aspires to become a doctor. The dramatic division within the mosque in Ali’s Wedding further highlights the diversity within the Muslim community. It’s a community, like any community, where people hold different views and always argue and debate.
Similarly, even though Degrassi is not a Muslim-universe story, the show’s writers made conscious choices to create different types of Muslim characters. As Linda Schulyer, the show’s co-creator told Entertainment Weekly, the character Rasha — a student from Syria — is introduced to contrast with Goldi. Unlike Goldi, who consistently wears hijab and is careful in her interaction with the opposite sex, Rasha doesn’t wear hijab, is a lesbian and has a more open approach to religion. Also, even though Rasha and Saad are both Syrian refugees, their experience settling in Canada are different: Rasha enjoys the liberality that Canada offers, while Saad feels isolated and ostracised here. We also see Goldi’s brother unable to fathom her decision to stand out with the hijab, showing that having the same upbringing doesn’t mean Muslims would have the same outlook.
Both Ali’s Wedding and Degrassi: The Next Class challenge the stereotypes normally ascribed to Muslim characters by creating a variety of Muslim people with different outlooks and lifestyles who interact, discuss, debate, compromise or corner one another within the story. After all, the Muslims characters in your show might be the only Muslims some people are exposed to. It helps if you have at least two types of Muslim characters so that your audience may realise how ridiculous it is to abstract the experience of 1.5 billion people into a singular presumption.
So to sum up, here are things to consider when writing and developing Muslim characters in your storyline:
LESSON 1: Avoid using images and tropes that reinforce stereotypes about Muslims. (terrorists, anti-Western, backward, angry, etc)
LESSON 2: Make sure your Muslim character is not there to tick the box of diversity, that your character has a goal, a need, an obstacle and emotional complexity.
LESSON 3: Avoid simplifying your character’s Muslim identity.
Your character’s stories and problems don’t have to be faith-based. But take time to research, consult Muslims and include Muslims in the writers’ room to make sure the details about your character’s Muslim identity, including their belief and practices, are accurate.
Perhaps think about:
● Which role does Islam play in your characters’ lives? Does it play a large or small part? Do they follow Islam because it is part of their cultural identity or because they believe in it?
● To what extent are they convinced of the six articles of faith? Which tenets of faith are they struggling with?
● How do your characters practise Islam? To what extent do they follow the pillars of Islam (five times prayers, fasting in Ramadan, zakat and pilgrimage to Mecca)?
● To what extent do they adhere to other common Muslim practices such as halal food, no alcohol, Friday congregational prayers or saying inshallah (God’s willing) and greeting one another with salam (Peace)?
● What does being a good Muslim mean to your characters? How do your characters feel about compromising certain practices of Islam?
● What are the ethnicities or cultural background of your characters? (Arab, Pakistani, Malay, Indonesia, Afghan, Lebanese, Morrocan, etc.). Which practices and customs of their culture do your characters agree with? Which aspects of their culture do they dislike? How do they deal with opposing views in their communities?
Note: The Muslim community is culturally, linguistically and ethnically diverse. A Malay Muslim’s traditions of marriage would differ from a Lebanese Muslim’s. Also, many cultural practices may not derive from Islamic doctrines. For example, some cultures might practise forced marriage, but they are not actually accepted in Islam.
● How does your characters’ interpretation of Islam influence their perspectives on certain matters? To what extent can their interpretation change?
● How do your characters’ desires or goals come into conflict with Muslim practices? How are your characters going to solve them?
LESSON 4: Consider having different types of Muslim characters to show diversity within the Muslim community.
The goal is to dispel the misconception that all Muslims are all the same.
Mai Nguyen was a Fellow in the 2019 Cinespace Social Cohesion on Screen Writer’s Fellowship, funded by the Victorian Government.
Mai is a writer and video maker who wants to tell stories to make people think and reflect about identities and humanity. Mai has produced several short videos and photo essays, some of which have been screened at festivals (Mokhtar Film Festival and Victorian’s Cultural Diversity Week 2017), exhibited at museum (Islamic Museum of Australia), and featured on Meld Magazine, SBS and ABC Online. You can see her work at https://maihoangnguyen293.wordpress.com/
This article was first published on Medium. Read other Fellow’s articles in Social Cohesion on Screen — A Screenwriter’s Toolkit. (https://www.cinespace.org.au/blog)