When we ask for representation, we mean genuine representation - not from non Muslim women screenwriters who craft their own narratives based on their limited perceptions of what they think Muslim women should be like. Time and time again, the media continues to misrepresent Muslim women. As if this wasn't enough, they continuously emphasise that Muslim women must be saved by white men or non Muslims.
Netflix has also pushed this flawed narrative of Muslim women needing to be freed from their ‘oppressive’ religion and quite frankly, it is extremely tiring. For instance, Nadia in Elite fits this stereotype perfectly; removing her hijab and running off with her boyfriend in the name of liberation. Netflix comes under great scrutiny for the French award winning Sundance film Cuties (out last Wednesday) which follows 11 year old French-Senegalese Amy trying to rebel from her conservative Muslim family. A rebellion that is very similar to Nadia's. Alternatively, if the trope of being oppressed doesn’t work, the original terrorist cliché is then perpetuated, as seen in Bodyguard.
Because of Cuties, the streaming service has been heavily criticised for the sexualisation of underage girls in the promotional poster, with over 295,000 signatures demanding for its removal. Netflix’s promotional poster, prior to the removal, featured young girls striking poses, whereas the original French poster featured a group of laughing young girls holding shopping bags. With over 192 million paying streaming subscribers, the video platform could have easily got away with this movie if the poster was not inappropriate. Subsequently, an apology was issued. But, is this really enough? This is not the first time Netflix has come under fire by the viewing community. For example, it was criticised for the glorification of kidnapping and rape in 365 Days.
As shown in the trailer, Amy is an 11 year old Black Muslim in France who wants to be ‘free’ from her religion. But why did the dancing in the movie have to be twerking? Inherently, dancing is not entirely sexual but Amy is hypersexualised, in the way we have seen this outrage. However, if we compare this to beauty pageants or cheerleading or shows such as Dance Moms or Toddlers and Tiaras where children are also dancing/twerking, the outrage is not the same at all. I was never drawn to the poster, but the trailer got my attention in the way it perpetuates islamophobia.
In Elite, Nadia embodies all the stereotypes - oppressed girl needing a white saviour. Played by Moroccan-Spanish actress, Mina el Hammani, Nadia regularly rebels against her ultra-conservative Muslim family by drinking or having sexual encounters with a white Christian man in the name of liberation. What an outdated misconception. Instead of creating spaces for letting Muslim women in the Western world display their own experiences on the screen, we see this rubbish. Struggle is part of the Muslim women experience in the West but it is not the entire experience.
Some Muslim women may take off their hijab for their own reasons. Whereas, some of us are comfortable with our Muslim identities and actually like our religion. Portraying characters such as Nadia and Amy through their faith, rather than their personal identities, reinforces the narrative that Muslim women have no other interests outside of their religion. With enormous subscription numbers, Netflix has a duty to represent these diverse stories - or instead acquire authentic stories.
When Netflix does not display the white saviour trope, it turns to the oldest trick in the book - the terrorist trope. In Bodyguard, Nadia is an engineer and a ‘jihadi’. The funniest thing is that the term ‘jihad’ has been extremely misconstrued in the Western world, when it simply means ‘struggle’ in an Islamic sense. This terrorist cliché may have tried to undermine the trope of liberation, but failed and just reinforced negative stereotypes about Muslims and more so, Muslim women. These terrorist and liberation cliché reinforce the idea that Muslim women cannot just exist, without being oppressed by their families or choosing to be a terrorist - as if these are the only story lines that exist.
Author Shelina Janmohamed said it perfectly - the nature of Nadia being a terrorist ‘embodies every available stereotype of Muslim women: timid, easily manipulated, a victim of domestic abuse and brainwashing that has led to extremeism and violence. And somehow at the same time being a perpetrator of terror and fear.’ This is the problem: the relegation of Muslim women to stereotypes.
Cuties, Elite and Bodyguard are just mere examples of Islamophobia on the screen (and by extension in real life) and this begs the question whether Netflix recognises the significance of what they are putting out. If they understand the Islamophobic climate we live in, like how the Uyghur genocide in China is overlooked, the streaming service should understand its role in contributing to this condition, no matter how minor its actions may appear. While Netflix is only a microcosm of society, it mirrors the way Muslim women are not seen as free human beings.
Written by Bashirat Oladele