Muslim women are not props that can be worn and easily discarded. Someone should have probably told Channel 4 before it commissioned a controversial TV show that does exactly that.
The show, My Week as a Muslim, airs on British television tonight (Oct. 23), but the trailer alone has unsurprisingly already caused an uproar. To highlight the racism and Islamophobia muslim women experience in Britain, Channel 4 centers its new show on a white woman in “brownface.”
The show follows Katie Freeman—a white British woman who admits to holding prejudiced views against Muslims—as she puts on a hijab, a prosthetic nose that is larger and thicker then her own, yellowed teeth covers, and brown contact lenses—and of course, darkens her skin. Freeman wears her disguise for a week, spending time with a British Pakistani family, to get a better understanding of what life is like for Muslim women.
The topics the show grapples with—racism and Islamophobia—are particularly important. Recorded hate crimes shot up (paywall) by almost 30% between April 2016 and March this year, peaking after Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union in June 2016.
The show wants to spark a conversation about race in Britain, but runs into racist pitfalls in the process. It’s difficult to have that conversation when viewers are faced with a caricature of a Pakistani woman—with a larger nose and yellowed teeth—through most of the program.
Fozia Khan, the show’s executive producer (and herself Muslim), has said she wanted the show to educate and not offend. In an op-ed in the Guardian, Khan said she wanted to try “something bold and experimental.” She didn’t want to give Muslim women a hidden camera to show their experience of racism, saying “it has been done before.”
Nonetheless, this “bold and experimental” format in fact follows a tired old trope. Over the last decade, there have been countless stories (from Germany, the UK, to Australia) of white women donning the hijab or niqab to experience life as a Muslim woman. These articles come to the same unsurprising conclusion—Muslim women are often subject to horrific racism.
But rather than encouraging cross-cultural understanding, this trope ends up dehumanizing Muslim women. It tells them that they are not worthy of telling their own stories and that the world cannot empathize with them, only with a white person who is artificially made to undergo the same experience. Something “bold and experimental” would be to put Muslim women front and center of the discussion instead.