We need more nuanced representations of Muslim women

When there are few chances for representation, we miss out on a wealth of experiences

The latest Ms. Marvel is a step in a positive direction for Muslim women in media.
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Whenever we talk about representation of a minority group, we always talk about how to do it ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ It’s no different for Muslim characters—we need them to be perfectly imperfect. We need them to represent us in the way that brings us tolerance and acceptance. This often means that we’re only ever portraying one or two kinds of Muslim women, leaving out a ton of important experiences, including mine.  

Growing up, I was always ecstatic to see a Muslim character, no matter who they were. Looking back, though, the few characters I clung to were all portrayed in the same way. There was only one way a Muslim woman could exist on North American television: she would have to start out as a helpless hijabi, and then she would have to be liberated by a white romantic interest. 
 
I started noticing this kind of representation in teen shows like Degrassi and, nearly a decade later, I’m seeing similar critiques about ‘progressive’ Netflix shows using the exact same trope. 
 
This isn’t only disappointing to Muslim women everywhere who feel like we have to abandon our religion to be empowered. It’s also disappointing that these depictions influence how non-Muslims view us. 
 
With the release of the latest Ms. Marvel from Marvel Comics, this is slowly changing. The series depicts a teenage girl named Kamala Khan. She’s Muslim, but not hijabi. She’s religious and still empowered. She comes from a conservative family with a very traditional brother and still has their love and support. 
 
Ms. Marvel is a win, but even the depictions of Islam in the comics are hesitant. When we see the implication that a hijabi character might have been forced to wear a headscarf, we’re immediately told that her father is actually against it. 
 
These are comics written by Muslim American women. These are real experiences—but they’re experiences that are too afraid to depict the ways the Muslim community can and does oppress women. 
 
I understand why. 
 
There are so few chances for Muslim women to see ourselves on screen. If, in those few chances, we’re critiquing Islam, it will enforce Islamophobia under the guise of women’s liberation. 
 
The fact is, for many women, neither of these two experiences represent us. I’m Muslim and still identify with some of the traditions of my religion. I still find empowerment within it, but it’s been deeply traumatic for me in a lot of ways. 
 
Muslim men have physically and sexually assaulted me. My family has forced their religion on me and made me feel inadequate for resisting tradition. Plenty of devout Muslim women have slut shamed me or ridiculed my Queerness. 
 
Those are all very common experiences. In the same way we can depict issues within organized religions like Christianity on-screen without generalizing all Christians, we should be able to do that with representations of Muslim women. 
 
Beyond the need for critiques of Islam, depictions of Muslim women are also often of South Asian or Arab women—and this is not the reality. Muslims come in all races and ethnicities, and also from many different sects. 
 
We need more nuanced representations of Muslim women, and that starts with more representations overall. We need to see their experiences as independent of Islam itself, and be willing to hear their stories without trying to shame or liberate them.
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