The first time I tried to watch My Week as a Muslim, I cried during the opening scene and slammed my laptop shut within twenty minutes.
It would be easy to dismiss this Channel 4 documentary as a misguided, shambolic failure and sweep it under the rug with a roll of the eyes and frustrated exasperation as we wonder when mainstream media will represent the Muslim narrative accurately. But I hesitate to do so. My Week as a Muslim has served as a troubling platform for bigots to validate their pre-existing Islamophobia, whilst undeservedly being allowed a voyeuristic view into the lives of a loving British Muslim family.
My Week as a Muslim follows the journey (read: series of racist monologues) of Katie, A Normal White Woman™ from Cheshire. Katie is welcomed into the home of Saima Alvi who is a British hijabi living in Manchester with her four children. Their two worlds collide and a shocking revelation sparkles in Katie’s newly racist-free eyes: Muslims are people. Before Channel 4, I didn’t know that.
It opens with Saima and her family, standing side-by-side in their living room as they prepare to pray with an uncomfortable Katie looking on in silence. Saima’s youngest child begins the prayer in Arabic, proclaiming ‘Allahu Akbar’, meaning ‘God is Great’. Katie’s face crumples into fear, her jaw hanging open in shock and disgust. The scene is heart-breaking and infuriating. Katie has the gall and entitlement – awarded to her by a lifetime of being white – to stand in the living room of her host and openly prickle with fear at the phrase, ‘Allahu Akbar’. It’s not news that this phrase has been tarnished by extremists – terrorists and The Sun alike – to harangue Muslims. But if the intention of this documentary was to dispel the misconceptions Islamophobes cling to, why re-enforce these misconceptions? Why construct a blatantly fake, gratuitous situation which only deepens the very wounds which it seeks to heal? Why remind British Muslims watching that our faith is inherently feared and shunned?
The programme continues to follow Katie as she attempts to assimilate into the Birmingham Muslim community with the guidance of Saima. But nothing stops her from spouting her vitriolic abuse at and about Muslims: ‘banning burqas, banning headdresses would make people feel a lot happier, a lot safer’ because, as she admits, ‘I wouldn’t want to sit next to them [visible Muslims] because I would automatically assume they’d blow something up’. It always shocks me that women who claim to be so liberated, so free, so equal to their male counterparts – let’s not even get into their fear of the word ‘feminism’ – are so quick to ban burqas and impose clothing rules on women. Isn’t that exactly what they are so proud to represent: freedom? So why aren’t Muslim women free to wear what makes them comfortable? We don’t all need to be wolf-whistled on the street to feel confident and comfortable in our bodies. But that’s Western Enlightenment for you.
But the most infuriating and politically-deaf moment of the programme – and that which has received the most attention – is the moment Katie was brownfaced. Brown foundation is sprayed onto her skin as yellow teeth and a large nose mould are fitted onto her face. It is a disrespect on so many levels. Not all Muslims are brown Pakistanis. As a Pakistani Muslim myself, I was enraged at the effortless conflation of Pakistani and Muslim, validating the assumption that brown = Muslim. Sometimes, yes. But the producers conveniently forgot about black Muslims, white-passing Muslims, and white Muslims, in order to fulfil their controversial-for-a-good-cause martyrdom. The producer Fozia Khan oversimplifies the issue in her Guardian article, writing that Katie only ‘puts on makeup and changes her clothes to pass as Muslim’. It is not simply makeup; it is a symbol of oppression, ridicule, and a dismissal of centuries of racism – all the more pertinent considering British colonialism. It is not simply clothes; it is a signifier of faith, of modesty, of commitment – all values which Katie only two weeks ago would have assumed was a cover up for an explosive device.
It completely erases the authentic Muslim experience and instead places an undeserving bigot in the centre of a pseudo-emotional journey of self-improvement. Instead of educating viewers and curing ignorance, it selects an overt racist who is all too quick to change her views and is therefore painfully inaccurate compared to its thousands of viewers who are most likely unconvinced. In doing so, My Week as a Muslim perpetuates a over-valuing of racists and a de-valuing of real Muslim stories: we are encouraged to not sympathise with the words of Muslim women, but with the words of a white woman whose mother cried in fear when she saw her wearing a hijab.
My Week as a Muslim is a disappointing and counterproductive representation of the Muslim experience. But, since it is so detached from the Muslim community, there is one thing I am looking forward to: the intelligent, thought-provoking responses of Muslim women across the country who are righting this wrong.
(One example of this is Sabeena Akhtar’s collection of essays written by British hijabis, Cut from the Same Cloth. Fundraising page here: https://unbound.com/books/cut-from-the-same-cloth)
Sara Malik is a BA English graduate from King’s College London, and is the Assistant Editor & Photographer of I RISE Magazine.