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A new test looks at the way Muslim women are portrayed onscreen

The Muslim Women On-Screen Test is a new way to evaluate portrayals of Muslim women on-screen and address harmful stereotypes in media.
Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
The Muslim Women On-Screen Test is a new way to evaluate portrayals of Muslim women on-screen and address harmful stereotypes in media.

There are not a lot of Muslim women in American television shows or movies. For many people in the U.S., the first Muslim woman character that comes to mind is probably Princess Jasmine from the animated Disney film, Aladdin. And that's a bit of a problem.

"I see Jasmine as the Muslim version of the woman who needs saving, who's constantly the victim or the runaway," says actor and founder of Muslim Casting Serena Rasoul. "We see these particular stereotypes and tropes being used over and over and over when it comes to Muslim women...and then it still persists in media today."

"It does present itself to be a negative view and negative messaging that we're giving to young girls. Not just Muslim girls, but...brown girls in general."

Rasoul wanted to do something about this, so she worked with Pillars Fund and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to develop the Muslim Women On-Screen Test, which assesses onscreen representation of Muslim women. She spoke with NPR's Juana Summers about the test, how it works and how she hopes it will change the way Muslim women are represented in the United States.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On the ways that Muslim women are most commonly stereotyped

When I developed this test, we really wanted to take a deeper dive and look at... why there were so many different portrayals of Muslim women from the victim or oppression context. There was a study that was done by the USC [Annenberg] Inclusion Initiative last year that found 76% of Muslim characters in film were men. And the study also found that Muslim women who did show up on screen were often shown in relation to men. They were primarily wives, romantic interests or mothers. And our research at the Geena Davis Institute took a deeper look at those portrayals and found that those traditional woman roles were usually shown from an oppression context.

These one-dimensional and, often, Orientalist portrayals of oppression tend to flatten the personhood and richness of the Muslim women in our extremely diverse community.

On the lasting impacts that stereotypical portrayals have

I think Muslim women, just as other underrepresented women, sit at a gendered intersection of representation, and often defining the public's gateway into a culture as a whole. So these one-dimensional and, often, Orientalist portrayals of oppression tend to flatten the personhood and richness of the Muslim women in our extremely diverse community. But that's not to say that, you know, these stories of oppression and adversity ...shouldn't be told. Of course not. They definitely should be told. But when that makes up the majority of an already-scarce representation of Muslim women, it dehumanizes the entire collective.

On what the test seeks to measure

What we really wanted to do was set a standard to say these are some commonly overused and harmful portrayals and, you know, by contrast, these are some nuanced ways that you can portray Muslim women. And so the test, in five simple questions, allows the filmmaker or the film enthusiast to test the particular show or film by looking at harmful portrayals and, of course, nuanced portrayals.

For example, the test provides a look at how a Muslim woman can have a varied approach to her identity, where she's given the space to question parts of herself but not fall into Western tropes of oppression. It also explores the intersectionality and diversity of Muslim women that exist, from all races and abilities and sexual orientations.

The test demonstrates how a Muslim woman can be portrayed expressing joy. Often, the expression of joy for underrepresented communities is seen as an act of resistance because they are so often only portrayed or shown in traumatic contexts. So, you know, one of the questions that the test asks is, "Is the Muslim woman ever shown expressing joy?" And that question, I think, resonated with a large group of Muslim women who focus-grouped this test before its release, because we never really gave ourselves the space to ask that question.

Another ... great example of a nuanced portrayal in the test was what we called "Muslim in motion," taking a Muslim woman outside of the context of the home or school and asking, "Is she shown in different contexts? Is she scuba diving? Is she riding a motorcycle?" ...showing her in these very humanized contexts to really provide a three-dimensional view of the Muslim woman.

On what Rasoul thinks is the reason that nuanced portrayals of Muslim women have not yet happened, despite a big push for nuanced portrayals of people of color in general

When we look at women in general, you know, it's always an uphill battle because there's always this bias towards over-policing what a woman can say and do and look like and wear and act...and so when it comes to Muslim women, there have been very few opportunities for [them] to enter the mainstream shows.

There's a very rich indie space where Muslim women themselves have kind of taken the reins to tell their own stories...these stories are actually there. They're just not, you know, given the same mainstream space as others.

On what she hopes will be different about the way Muslim women are portrayed in Western media ten or 20 years from now

The Muslim community is doing their part to support and uplift new filmmakers and writers through organizations such as Islamic Scholarship Fund and Muslim Public Affairs Council Hollywood and, more recently, the Pillars Fund and M Film Lab. But what we would really like to see is increased funding and expanded opportunities for Muslim women to tell their own stories - stories that are outside of the context of trauma, stories of joy, stories of resilience and stories where...Muslim women can explore their identities without being only defined by their identities.

Positive Examples of Muslim Portrayals

In a follow-up with NPR, Serena Rasoul said there are some positive examples of Muslim representation on screen today.

"We Are Lady Parts is a great show," she said. "[It] just shows the diversity of Muslim women as they exist today, ethnically, racially, dogmatically."

"It's not centered on them just being Muslim. Instead, they're trying to establish this punk rock band."

Other shows, like the comedy-drama series Never Have I Ever and Abbott Elementary, have also featured Muslim characters with nuanced storylines.

"That's the kind of representation we're hoping to see," Rasoul said. "We exist in everyday normal circumstances that don't just necessarily center around our identity."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.