Love, Sex and Fandom

Cut the cliches: Hijabis deserve more in on-screen romance

For Hijabis, relatable depictions in Western media are few and far between

While watching romance films and TV shows, it's rare that I find myself being represented in the content I consume. The romantic leads are usually white and have grown up with Western customs and traditions different from mine and other Muslim womens’. Their lives are ones I cannot relate to. That's why when I see Muslim representation in love interests and relationships on screen, it always warms my heart. When I watched the trailer for Elite, a Spanish drama on Netflix that features a Muslim girl named Nadia who goes to an elite private school, I was highly anticipating its release.

There’s rarely any Muslim representation in the mainstream media, and when there is, it often includes terrorist subplots—like in Patrick Vollrath’s film 7500, which deploys the overdone ethnic stereotype of Arab men who are supposed terrorists hijacking an airplane. A 2021 report titled Missing & Maligned, from the University of California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, found there was a severe lack of Muslim roles in the film industry. Although Muslims account for 24 per cent of the world's population, just 1.6 per cent of the 8,965 speaking parts in the films surveyed were Muslim.

As I watched the first episode of Elite, seeing Nadia wearing her colourful hijabs to school was intriguing to me; it was one of the first times I had the opportunity to watch someone like me on screen. I thought Nadia would become a very meaningful character to both myself and many other Muslim women also navigating life as a hijabi in Western society, while still trying to keep her faith. But when I watched the show in its entirety, initial feelings of content and intrigue were quickly replaced by sadness and disappointment.

During the first season of Elite, Nadia wears her hijab regularly to school until the administration gives her an ultimatum: she can continue wearing the hijab and face expulsion or take off her hijab while in school in order to continue her education. Nadia decides to remove her hijab during school and only after hours. During her time at school, her fellow classmate, Guzmán, befriends Nadia and begins to develop feelings for her. Things quickly go south when she conceals her mirrored feelings due to her strict parents and their beliefs. Later in the show, she tries to make Guzmán jealous and ‘empowers herself’ by removing her hijab and going to a bar to drink alcohol with her friends in an effort to make him more attracted to her.

That was the moment I knew I had lost Nadia as a valid representation of a Muslim woman. The scene feeds into the Western notion that hijab lessens a woman’s beauty and autonomy—which is false and harmful to the impressionable teens watching the show.

The hijab is a head-covering, scarf or veil that most Muslim women wear in public and in front of non-familial males. While every woman has a unique journey to practicing modesty and hijab, the stigma surrounding hijab has many consequences, especially in the West. According to Sadaf Jamal, a registered psychotherapist based in Toronto, Western media has been biased and carries stereotypes for hijabi Muslim women. Hijabis are often portrayed as dependent, oppressed, brainwashed, weak and not belonging to the professional world.

The hijab is often seen as a barrier between a woman who is free and a woman being controlled, a concept the 2019 movie Hala plays into. Toward the end of the film, the titular character, Hala, who wore a hijab the majority of the time, wants to start fresh in college. She removes the hijab and uses it as a moment to be free and disconnect from her past self.

Maissa Houri, a filmmaker and actor based in Ottawa, Ont., says the lack of proper representation for Muslims stems from their lack of representation among writers of film and TV. She says when writers are white, a white saviour complex kicks in where they think the hijabi character is oppressed. They then remove her hijab to grant her freedom, which Houri says is where the problem lies. “When they’re an outsider looking in on us, they’re making their own perception of what our lives are like,” she adds.

Amidst the negativity surrounding the hijab and Western impositions on its meaning, can you blame me for wanting proper representation for myself and others like me, who enjoy wearing the hijab, are proud of it and would decidedly not take it off for a boy? That being said, television can and has done better.

Take Sana Bakkoush for example, the one Muslim character in television I have ever related to and felt genuinely represented by. Sana, a character from a popular Norwegian teen show called Skam, is of Arab descent, wears the hijab and dresses mostly in black. Each season of the show focused on a different character from the same friend group, with Season 4 centred entirely on Sana.

Hers is a character written beautifully and accurately. The showrunners cast a hijabi for a hijabi role, instead of a non-practicing actor. The second and most important thing they did was normalize her.

The writers didn’t make Sana’s choice to wear the hijab a focal point in her story. Even in her own season, there was never a feeling of oppression where Sana felt she needed to be saved from her religious family. In fact, her biggest problem was having a crush on her older brother’s best friend, which was refreshing to see because the way she went about developing that connection with him wasn’t out of character or obvious.

She was just another hijabi girl navigating love, family and life without being seen as a prisoner to her faith. That’s why I felt deeply connected to the show.

In high school, I remember my friends and I would scramble to find translated episodes on a Google Drive because we were so eager and invested in the season that focused on her. It was an unforgettable bonding experience because we all had so much trust in Iman Meskini, the actress who plays Sana, and the series creator, Julie Andem, to give young hijabis someone to look up to.

When it comes to Muslim love and dating, the shows Elite and Skam take two very different paths—one is provocative, while the other is routinely lacking nuance. In Skam, Sana starts to develop a crush on Yousef, her brother’s best friend. Throughout season four, Sana and Yousef talk and hang out at a park playing basketball together. She would even Facebook stalk him. The most physically intimate they ever got was when Sana pulls Yousef in for a tight hug when he tells her that he was leaving for the summer. But their connection was still strong as they would constantly text each other and he would walk her home from places without being physical, displaying the realistic nature of a lot of Muslim relationships.

Even though I feel like I’m yelling into the void when asking for decent representation for hijabis in the media, it needs to be reiterated until something changes. This change is essential because TV and film, both tenants of popular culture, have a massive influence on how people see Muslims and, ultimately, how Muslims see themselves.

As someone who grew up with little-to-no hijabi representation, I didn’t feel like I belonged in my society. But things are changing, albeit slowly.

I can only hope that young Muslim girls who are encapsulated in film and TV like myself, find one character they can hold on to and connect with. To remind them that they are valid and that they belong.

Return to homepage