There is no glass ceiling stopping those of ethnic minority and Muslim backgrounds from entering the world of TV. It’s more of a concrete ceiling, given how difficult, painful – and sometimes ultimately futile – bursting through it can feel.
Increasingly, there are examples of Muslim creatives who are helping television to shun offensive and outright harmful narratives in favor of exciting, multifaceted Muslim stories. In the US, shows such as Ramy and Ms Marvel have given Muslim talent the space to tell stories that are unflinchingly authentic. In the UK, comedy is making particularly impressive advancements, with groundbreaking shows such as Guz Khan’s Man Like Mobeen and Channel 4’s Bafta-winning smash hit We Are Lady Parts – which has been renewed for a second series. Other programs from Muslim writers are on the way from the BBC and ITV, including Count Abdullah, which follows a British Pakistani Muslim junior doctor who is bitten by a vampire.
But in terms of UK drama’s approach to Muslim stories, there is still a long way to go. When ITV’s Honor dramatized the real-life honor killing of Banaz Mahmod, it told the story from the perspective of the white, female detective investigating the case rather than the woman at its heart. Too often, this is the kind of narrative that dramas opt for when depicting Muslims: ones with an air of criminality, such as the Rochdale grooming scandal. During the trial of Darren Osborne, the terrorist who drove his van into Muslim worshipers outside Finsbury Park mosque in north London, it was revealed that the BBC drama Three Girls’ portrayal of the Rochdale child abuse sex ring is what led him to become “obsessed with Muslims.
“When people ask for Muslim stories, in my experience, they tend to look for those that fit their limited preconceptions,” says Faisal A Qureshi, a screenwriter and producer who has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. In 2005, he tried writing a thriller for the BBC with an Asian female lead, only to be frustrated by small-minded conceptions about how Muslims should be portrayed on TV.
“During the script development session, they basically said we should make this about honor killings. I just went no and the project died. We wouldn’t have been having that conversation if I made the character a white woman.”
There has been improvement in the years since. Themes around terrorism, radicalization and honor killings are falling out of favour, but preconceived notions of what a Muslim narrative should look like still linger.
“The feedback I receive rarely questions my writing ability. The problem is always the themes I want to explore, and the way I want to depict my Muslim characters, ”says screenwriter Zainab (not her real name de ella). So bad has the situation become that Zainab now writes characters who are south Asian but not Muslim. “The types of stories producers and commissioners want at the moment is not reflective of my Muslim friends and family. I do not want to write Muslim characters, because I know those in the industry will butcher their stories.”
Another issue writers trying to create authentic Muslim characters struggle with is a pressure for them to shed their identity. From Netflix’s Elite to Hulu’s Hala, the narrative arc of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman taking it off after falling in love with a non-Muslim is well-worn. “It appears that the only way to be a Muslim on screen is to either renounce your religion or to be a lapsed Muslim,” says Zainab, who once worked on a book-to-film adaptation, only for its producers to turn around and claim that the Muslimness of the characters made them uninteresting.
“They called a Muslim character’s no sex before marriage values boring and wanted to ditch that. They were looking for the Muslim Fleabag and didn’t care about the intricacies of the Muslim experience,” she says. “If you have a disabled character in a story, the subversion is not for them to miraculously become able-bodied. So why is the subversion for Muslim characters for them to shed their Muslimness?”
There are many Muslim screenwriters with projects in development, but the number that get commissioned is low, especially in drama. “Commissioners are often afraid to take ‘risks’ on stories they do not recognize – or do not relate to their lived experiences,” says Raisah Ahmed, a screenwriter and director based in Scotland. “Our experiences as Muslims only seem like a risk to people who do not understand our community and have never engaged with us on a meaningful level. We are not a risk. We just do not have enough people in those roles to go: ‘Oh yeah, this story makes total sense. Of course we will commission this.’”
Another issue for Muslim creatives is how industry perceptions affect the kind of work they are able to obtain. “I had an interview for a book adaptation whose protagonist was sex-positive – which I was excited to explore,” says Zainab. “When the producers realized I was Muslim, it became a sticking point. I felt it was assumed that as a practicing Muslim woman, I would not be able to write this story. They asked me to write a page on how I would approach this story from a sex-positive angle. Why should I have to jump through additional hoops to provide I can write a sex-positive character?”
The lack of representation of Muslims – and members of other BAME communities – in TV is something broadcasters have pledged to change. In 2020, the BBC announced its £100m Creative Diversity Fund, which it says will fund more diverse stories and talent, both on screen and from a production perspective. It is far from the only such initiative, with ITV committing £80m to a similar scheme and a £30m pledge from Sky to improve its BAME representation.
Yet there is skepticism about whether this money is being put to good use. “There are substantial pots of money available, but it goes unspent,” says Sajid Varda, a producer, founder and CEO of the charity UK Muslim Film. “There seems to be uncertainty about how it should be allocated due to disconnects between creative diversity leads and commissioners.
“The other challenge is over commissioners and departments who are reluctant to take a chance on projects presented to them by talented BAME indies. They find it easier to greenlight projects from familiar networks, provided that they hire freelance BAME talent. They are unsure how to commission projects from people of diverse backgrounds.”
One of the biggest barriers to the commissioning of authentic Muslim stories is the notion that British audiences are not “ready” for them. GB News and talkTV both crashed and burned after discovering that the audience for “anti-woke” programming is very small. TV executives seem to be taking a lead from politics. Like our politicians’ obsession with catering to the socially conservative “red wall” constituent, who is caricatured as anti-woke and anti-immigration, TV commissioners see programming for middle England and programming for diverse audiences as mutually exclusive.
“Satisfying what the commissioner wants, what the wider audience wants and what Muslim audiences want is made to feel impossible without serious compromise to the authenticity of our stories,” says Zainab. Screenwriter and theater-maker Karim Khan – whose play Brown Boys Swim is set to open in August at the Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh – agrees. “They are scared to put these stories on TV, uncertain if our shows will be marketable and well received by British audiences.”
The risk-averse nature of commissioners leads them to rely on already successful shows. “Every Muslim creative you speak to, especially women who are writing female stories, is getting compared to We Are Lady Parts,” says Ahmed, “even if their stories are completely different.”
Such a burden of expectation can weigh heavily. “We need to get away from this idea that one Muslim story, because it comes from a community that has been so marginalized and underrepresented on screen, has to tell every story for all Muslims and be everything to all of them,” says Kaamil Shah , writer of the forthcoming Count Abdullah. “Count Abdullah is not the Muslim story. It is a Muslim story.”
A big-budget drama in the 9pm slot featuring an authentic Muslim story or Muslim lead remains elusive, but positive steps are being made. Dramas such as The Bay and The Good Karma Hospital have given Muslim writers the chance to pen authentic Muslim storylines. And with the arrival of Ms Marvel, there is an opportunity for bold, authentic, big-budget Muslim stories to be given the green light in the UK.
“No one asks about my influences or my writing process or my actual work. They only ask me about the Muslimness of it or the Asian womanness of it,” says the screenwriter and journalist Amna Saleem. “I hope we can move past these conversations with Ms Marvel coming out.”
Ultimately, the more success Ms Marvel enjoys, the better the outlook for UK dramas telling authentic Muslim stories. Or, as Khan puts it: “It will be a game-changer. It is in the mainstream space and it seems to be a ‘risk’ that is already paying off.” Here’s hoping.