At a time when Islamophobic attacks are soaring, it’s despairing to see the BBC pander to dangerous stereotypes of hijab wearers.
Frustratingly, right from the onset of the BBC’s hugely popular drama Bodyguard, we were bombarded with negative stereotypes of Muslim women. We first see a hijab-wearing woman hiding in the toilet of a busy train, about to detonate a vest she is wearing packed with bombs (stereotype one: Muslim woman as terrorist). It then transpires she is actually a victim who looks frightened and vulnerable while our hero steps in to save the day (stereotype two: the oppressed Muslim woman).
Watching those gripping opening scenes I still hoped that the writers would change the narrative and make her the unsung hero. As the weeks passed my hopes faded. The victim narrative prevailed. However, my heart sank even further in the series finale when this Muslim woman was revealed to be the terrorist mastermind. As she says, no one suspected her because they were taken in by the “vulnerable Muslim woman as a victim scenario”.
I am exhausted by how Muslim women are continually misrepresented like this in the media. As a victim of an Islamophobic verbal attack after the 9/11 terrorist attack, I don’t appreciate depictions that can fuel Islamophobia. There are many communities in Britain that may not have had much interaction with Muslims, or only ever hear or see Muslims on TV. I believe the media needs to be accountable in some way for the content they produce, especially when levels of anti-Muslim hate crime are soaring. Instead, we need more powerful narratives and stories that bring about a better understanding of Muslims.
The British actor Riz Ahmed has highlighted the lack of accurate representations of Muslims in the film and TV industry, and subsequently a test called the “Riz test” has been devised to examine this phenomenon using five key questions: are Muslims portrayed as a victim of, or the perpetrator of, Islamist terrorism? If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? If female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts? Are they presented as irrationally angry? Are they superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern? Do they appear to be a threat to a western way of life? If the answer to any of the above is yes, then the representation fails. Bodyguard fails on every count.
There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, many of whom are pioneering women doctors, lawyers, architects and politicians, but we never see any of them on screen. Instead writers continually play on stereotypes that have the potential to further heighten Islamophobia. What would it take for a film-maker to consult diverse writers such as myself and change the narrative? It may not make for such exciting TV, but the alternative is for future dramas to emulate Bodyguard and feed hate and play into the hands of those who want to divide us.
This article was originally published in The Guardian.