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23 October 2017

You don’t need brownface and a fake nose to discover what it’s like to be a Muslim woman

By dressing up a white non-Muslim Brit, Channel 4’s My Week as a Muslim others the very people whose story it tries to tell.

By Farah Jassat

How can a white non-Muslim Brit who doesn’t interact with other communities know a bit more about their Muslim neighbours? Walk a week in their shoes, headscarf, darker skin and prosthetic nose – obviously. At least according to the Channel 4 documentary My Week as a Muslim (airing Monday 23 October 2017).  

The protagonist is Katie Freeman, a 42 year old healthcare assistant from Cheshire, who wants to ban the burka and avoids sitting next to Muslims in case they decide to blow something up. Katie steps foot for the first time into a Muslim household and stays with Saima Alvi, a teacher and mother of five from Manchester. She eats Pakistani food, learns how to say “assalamualaikum” and transforms into an undercover Pakistani Muslim woman.

Channel 4 has billed this as an “immersive programme that will explore what it’s like to be Muslim in Britain today, and challenge some of the assumptions and prejudices that different communities in the UK have about each other.”

It’s a laudable goal. Outside Britain’s metropolitan, multicultural hubs, communities don’t necessarily interact much with each other. There are assumptions, misinformation and prejudices about the “other” which just get reinforced every time there is an attack in the name of Islam. But this sort of social experiment isn’t the way to do it.

Katie’s makeover of brownfacing, fake teeth and a prosthetic nose is cringeworthy. Is the most important part of immersing yourself as a Muslim your ethnicity? Would the people down the pub have shouted less abuse at a fully-robed Muslim woman if her nose was narrower and skin lighter? I doubt it.

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The three million Muslims living in Britain are a mixed bag. The 2011 Census shows that two-thirds of us are from an Asian background (including 38 per cent Pakistani) and nearly half are aged under 25. We wear hijab and don’t wear hijab. We are Arab, Bosnian, Nigerian and yes of course Pakistani. We are from Gujurat and from Twickenham. We are born Muslim and convert to Islam later in life.

In reducing Katie to impersonate a particular culture within the religion through caricature teeth and prosthetics, the programme distracted from its real goal. If the aim is to humanise the Muslim “other” to white non-Muslim Brits, then surely Muslims themselves need to feel humanised. The outcry and offence at brownfacing within the community shows that many feel the programme has in fact focused on othering them.

As someone who works in TV production, I know the challenges of producing something that is both authentic and also good TV. Will a social experiment following a white woman reel in more views than an observational-documentary following real Muslim women? Maybe. But maybe it also crosses the line of authenticity.

I for one am exhausted of other people telling the stories of Muslim women – whether it’s Muslim men or non-Muslim women. Muslim women don’t need intermediaries validating their experiences for them. In this case, the views Muslim women have had for years are distilled through the filter of a white woman – and gaining a lot more attention for it. Our stories are rich, varied and deeply human. Try giving them a go – you may get more ratings than you think.