After watching and mulling over what has been described as “2017’s most controversial documentary”, Aasiyah Faryal writes about her thoughts on Channel 4’s My Week As A Muslim, and the ensuing reaction to it…
My Week As A Muslim aired on 23rd October 2017, and followed the journey of Katie Freeman, a 42 year old woman who spent 7 years serving in the RAF and now works as a healthcare assistant for the NHS, as she spent a week experiencing what it meant to be a British Pakistani Muslim woman in Manchester.
The documentary poses a question at the beginning of the film: ‘What would it feel to become the thing you most fear?‘ It’s a shocking question, for many reasons. The idea that normal Muslims could instil fear in another person is ‘shocking’ and ‘disgusting’, but this idea is one that’s normalised in society.
For some of us, it’s unfathomable that people like Katie Freeman (at the beginning of the programme) exist and are ‘ordinary’. It’s unfathomable that they would never have met or had any exposure to a Muslim, especially in 2017 (*eye roll*). But we shouldn’t pretend that they don’t exist, because they do. As such, while we can feel offended when we’re faced with their opinions, we can’t bury our heads in the sand when faced with them. It would be utter stupidity to think that these people would have put time and effort into researching Islam – many people, ourselves included, get their information from the news and the media, and so their only exposure to Islam is that we’re all terrorists. Fear is borne out of prejudice, and prejudice has its roots in ignorance. For the most part, many people are still ignorant. And that’s why we as Muslims are so widely feared, and that’s why people think that their way of life is under threat.
“I’ve been thinking those things: stay clear of them, watch them. Why do I think like that? I don’t know.” – Joyce, Katie’s Mum, My Week as a Muslim
I’m not saying it’s right that people think we should open our mosques and open our doors and be wiling to teach others about ourselves – it’s humiliating and it belittles us, considering it’s something we do anyway. And as for us needing to ‘integrate within British society’ – what is ‘British society’ anyway? Saima is Manchester born and raised, her children are Manchester born and raised. The onus, really, is on people to be willing to learn, because we have shown that we’re more than ready to teach.
Having said that, from looking at my own timeline, in addition to what I saw on the general #MyWeekAsAMuslim hashtag, I realised something: sometimes it feels like people just wait for any opportunity to feel offended, and jump at the chance to do so. Many people quite obviously missed the point of the show. It’s important when watching the show to bear in mind who the general target audience are: British white people just like Katie.
Katie lives in Winsford, Cheshire, as pointed out in the documentary: a place populated mainly by white people. The documentary even goes as far as telling us that Katie’s home town is ‘one of the whitest in Britain’. A large majority of people who don’t live in the cities tend to only live in mainly white areas, with few people of other ethnic minorities living in those communities. It’s funny that Katie, when driving through Wilmslow Road, Rusholme – also known as ‘The Curry Mile’ (although now I swear it’s turned into ‘The Shisha Mile’) – exclaimed “You wouldn’t even think this is in England at the minute, it feels like a different country!” To me, and many others, Britain is all about the mix of different cultures. Going to a place that is mainly white people would not feel like Britain to me, although it might feel like England – that’s a different distinction for another day though.
As ethnic minorities, the majority of us do live in cities or around other ethnic minorities. Yes, there are many white people who aren’t in the slightest part Islamophobic and really didn’t understand Katie’s position. However, it’s important to note that they also tend to live with us in the cities, and so they’ve been exposed to multiculturalism.
While at the beginning, Katie’s views were repulsive, what did make her different to many who shared her views was that she was willing to see the side she feared, that she was willing to be challenged. And that brings me back to the target audience – people who are like what Katie were, who rarely mix with those from other backgrounds. Empathy is the best catalyst for change, and British white people aren’t going to relate to a brown woman in hijab, but they might just relate to a white woman who sounds like them, who holds the same opinion as them. They can go on that journey with Katie: they can try on the hijab with her, they can meet Saima and her family with her, cry at the Manchester bombing with her, have their own opinions changed and challenged. They can walk down that street just outside their local pub and hear themselves in the people hurling abuse at the woman they’re relating so much to.
Much of the criticism Katie faced, and continues to face, was for her views at the start of the programme. Again, viewers seemingly missed the point of the programme, and not just that, ignored the entire programme development. Katie’s views changed, and in the end she said herself, ‘I did feel anger towards the Muslim community, and after this week I’ve realised that a lot of those things were completely unfounded. I’ve seen it firsthand now, and I can’t believe I even felt those things in the first place.’
It’s poignant to think that Joyce, Katie’s mum, didn’t even have to spend a week as a Muslim. She only had to discuss Katie’s experiences with her, to then eventually come out with “I feel horrible that I could treat or look at a child or a woman or a man, and think bad things. I feel a bit ashamed about it.”
Even after the show, on various interviews, Katie states that “I had concerns about how I would be framed. I’m not racist. Although, looking back I am surprised at some of my early opinions,” Freeman told the Telegraph.
Many reviews and reports about the show state imply that the programme was intentionally made at an insensitive time – immediately after the Manchester bombing in May of this year. Again, these reports seem to also intentionally ignore the fact that the planning and filming of the show started well in advance of the bombing, and it can only have been a coincidence that this unfortunate event occurred in the week of filming – to suggest otherwise would suggest that the producers and those involved in the creation of the programme knew that the Manchester bombing would happen. Ludicrous, right?
The programme faced negative backlash, some of which was predictable. It doesn’t matter how Muslims are portrayed – be it positively or negatively: it will always generate many hundreds and thousands of negative reactions and comments from those who are unwilling to have their opinions challenged.
One of the biggest issues that the programme provoked was its use of ‘brownface’ – making Katie’s skin darker and changing her features to make her seem more like a Muslim woman. Fozia Khan, the documentary’s executive producer, defended its use, writing in her Guardian article that it was not used to mock, but ‘to make Katie look and feel different, so she could go unrecognised in her home town, convincingly experience what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, integrate her into her host community and experience it from within.’ Honestly, I’m not that torn over its use. I understand Fozia’s intentions and logic, and I can also understand why it would be offensive. But I think Fiyaz Mughal’s reaction was more of an overreaction, when he (the founder of Tell Mama, an organisation that monitors anti-Muslim abuse and attacks) wrote that the programme was “absolutely shocking” and a “complete catastrophe”. It really wasn’t.
“They could have simply taken a secret camera and got Muslim women to record things that happen to them every day. But they tried to maximise their audience by putting a twist on it, a twist that has badly backfired.” – Fiyaz Mughal, Founder of Tell Mama UK
People have asked why the makers of the documentary had to put a white woman who holds Islamophobic views in a Muslim environment, instead of just putting a camera on a Muslim woman and filming her experiences. Imagine the question was different: ‘why must a white woman integrate into the Muslim community?’ Muslims are asked to do this all the time, and we have done it. So why is it an issue for the reverse to happen? We have nothing to hide, so what’s the problem with letting a woman who may never have had the opportunity to experience what life is like as a Muslim? All anyone will see is that it’s the same as when you’re not Muslim – we go out, we have fun, we dress up, and we also laze at home in our pyjamas. We’re normal people, and if it takes you having to be us for a week to see that, then so be it. If that’s what it takes, then why not? We Muslims, like Saima has shown the country, has shown the world, are an inviting, welcoming, hospitable bunch.
Khuram Ahmed, a Manchester based lawyer, is quoted in The Independent as writing, “Because our oppression does not exist until a white person experiences it and legitimises it.” Another tweet stated:
Unfortunately, the answer to that is simply – yes. When you’re a minority, the majority aren’t going to champion your wellbeing. It is down to you as a member of a minority to find a way to make the majority understand. This is where Fozia Khan hit a stroke of genius. That’s honestly the only way I can describe it. In her Guardian article, she states “I wanted the new show to bring to a wide audience the harsh realities of what was happening. We wanted to do something bold and experimental to achieve this. Often, when making documentaries, you feel you are preaching to the converted. I was determined to make something that would reach people who wouldn’t normally watch a programme about Muslims.”
It’s true when they say “You don’t know a person until you’ve worked a mile in their shoes.” There’s no better way to learn empathy and cure ignorance than walking in someone else’s shoes, living their life for a week. And if you can’t do that, then yes, just ask a Muslim. We don’t own Muslamic Ray Guns, so you’re perfectly safe. Who knows? You might even get a bonus plate of food too.
My Week As A Muslim – Channel 4
I produced My Week As A Muslim. Its intention was to educate, not offend. – Fozia Khan, The Guardian
Image credits – SBS