Note: Although much has been said and written about this already – because I’m still talking about it a month on I decided to put my thoughts in writing. N.B Spoilers.
At the moment my greatest inspiration is Bodyguard the BBC One drama by Jed Mercurio. It’s the most recent in a long line of dramas that misrepresent Muslims and make my blood boil. When I first picked up a pen to write drama it was precisely because of this kind of TV show – I’ve always known many talented Middle Eastern actors and I became so angry watching them continually audition for roles as terrorists, that I made it my mission to write parts for these actors – roles portraying non-white characters in all their glory, not some reductive stereotype.
In the last few years I began to feel like things might just be changing. We’ve seen hijabi characters in US shows like Orange is the New Black and Walking Dead, although we are yet to see any regular Arab or hijabi characters in a UK continuing drama – which is a real missed opportunity. But with a regular Muslim family in EastEnders (even though none of the women wear a hijab) and brilliant actors like Adeel Akhtar and Sanjeev Bhaskar being given more and more interesting roles (not defined by skin colour) in groundbreaking shows like River and Unforgotten my optimism has grown that things are changing. Then I turned on the telly a few Sundays ago and balked at what I saw. The first 20 minutes of, what I was later to learn was the “UK’s most watched drama since current records began”, consisted of a white male saviour coming to the rescue of a Muslim woman in a hijab with a suicide vest strapped to her. I was so angry I could have cried. But I tried to give the show the benefit of the doubt and watched on. By the time we got to the final episode when the female Muslim character is revealed to contain not one but two ‘brown woman’ stereotypes (oppressed woman and jihadi terrorist) I was feeling physically sick. For days afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about it and was disappointed by the lack of criticism or conversation about it in the main stream media. So I did something I very rarely do. I tweeted negatively about it. I worded the tweet carefully – it said ‘Genuinely shocked at how upset I am about Muslim representation in #bodyguard it’s really affected me – I think I’ve woken up to realise how little things have changed – I thought we’d come far in terms of representation but we’ve gone backwards and it makes me angry and sad’. I was astonished at the onslaught of abuse I received in response – it was misogynist and racist and I’ve never experienced anything like it. But for me it proved a point – portraying Muslims – indeed any minority – in a reductive stereotypical way especially if it is negative, gives permission for racist and in this case islamophobic behaviour. Television has great reach and with that comes great responsibility. If there were many different representations of Muslims on our screens then this programme might not matter. But there aren’t and so it really, really does. It was completely irresponsible and I believe that if a non-white person, or indeed a woman had written this drama then things would have been very different. So again I am inspired to keep writing by something that left me depressed and saddened because when I’m authoring my own television dramas they will undercut audience’s expectations and portray people of colour in a real, three-dimensional way.