A U.K. television program’s attempt to shed light on Islamophobia is proving controversial ― with some critics claiming that the show’s tactics amount to “brownface.”
“My Week As A Muslim,” which aired on Channel 4 this Monday, follows the journey of a white woman named Katie Freeman. As part of a social experiment, Freeman is immersed into a Pakistani Muslim family in Manchester who lived just a few miles away from her own home.
While the purpose was to start a conversation about Islamophobia, the documentary has been criticized for its methods. In order to go “undercover” in her neighborhood, Freeman’s skin was darkened, and she was given a prosthetic nose, fake teeth, and brown contact lenses. She also donned a long, flowing robe and covered her head with a scarf.
The racist origins of blackface, brownface, and other costumes stemming from cultural appropriation are well documented. The impulse to assume another ethnic group’s features often results in exaggerated, inaccurate, and even harmful stereotypes.
In this case, the apparent use of “brownface” had some critics appalled.
Journalist Radhika Sanghani wrote in the Guardian that while highlighting the effects of Islamophobia is a worthy goal, showing a white woman “browning up” with a larger, wider nose and fake teeth is not the way to do it.
“Instead of perpetuating old cliches and focusing on physical appearance, [the documentary] could have simply followed a Muslim family with cameras, hearing from the women themselves and observing the everyday racism they experience,” Sanghani wrote. “Women of colour are already under-represented in the media – why not give them a voice and hear from them directly?”
In a parody of the documentary, British-Iraqi freelance writer Ruqaya Izzidien, flipped the roles around ― imagining what it would be like if a Muslim went “undercover” as a white man.
“Channel 4′s My Week as a Muslim was a preposterous conception from the first minute, providing a platform for racism, brownface, crude caricatures, ethnocentrism and general all-round offence,” Izzidien wrote, summarizing her opinion of the show. “It was built on the antiquated, imperialist concept that a person of colour’s word cannot be trusted; their experiences and suffering don’t exist until they are verified by a white person.”
The show’s producer, Fozia Khan, defended the decision in a Guardian op-ed, saying that Freeman’s appearances were changed to make her “look and feel different, so she could go unrecognised in her hometown, convincingly experience what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, integrate her into her host community and experience it from within.”
″People have suggested that we could have used a different approach – such as giving Muslim women hidden cameras to show their experiences. This has been done before, and we wanted to try something different,” Khan wrote.
Khan wrote that when Freeman started the documentary, she had negative opinions about Muslims. She reportedly felt fearful about women wearing the niqab. At one point in the documentary, she says, “You see them and you think, are they going to blow something up?” But over the course of the filming, as she has meaningful conversations and experiences with Muslims, her opinions begin to change.
Saima Alvi, the Muslim woman from Greater Manchester whose family Freeman befriended, wrote about this transformation in a blog for HuffPost. Alvi said she was initially reluctant to participate in the documentary, but decided to go through with it after being reassured that she would not be misrepresented.
Watch a trailer for the show below:
After the Manchester bombing, which happened just one day into filming the documentary, Freeman and Alvi watched the footage from the attack on television together. They were both uncertain about whether to continue.
“Katie was worried that she might become a target dressed as a Muslim woman which was an important realisation. I explained that my attire is part of my identity and I must carry on in the outside world carrying this fear,” Alvi wrote. “We both decided to continue with the further five days of filming.”
After the attack, Freeman experiences what it was like to walk through the neighborhood as a visible Muslim woman during a tense time ― feeling fearful while simply walking down the street.
“I’m just sick of it, the stuff they were shouting,” she said after being heckled on camera. “But that’s, it’s only for a few days, isn’t it? You know, and I can take this off and I’ll go back to being Katie and they probably wouldn’t even make a comment, would they? But for like, Saima, if she come here and her family came here, they’d have that abuse all the time, wouldn’t they?”
Alvi argued that Freeman’s prosthetic nose and other facial changes were meant to be a disguise ― and that the makeover was never intended to mock an ethnic group, or create a caricature.
“The programme made me realise that there are genuinely decent people out there who lack the opportunity to engage with the Muslim community,” Alvi wrote in her blog. “Thus their opinions are based on the commonplace demonisation of Muslims, which is generally perpetuated by the media. Katie was willing to learn about the environment she was immersed within and therefore changed many of her former negative opinions.”
Khan claimed that her team met and received approval of the idea from Manchester’s British Muslim Heritage Centre. But The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella body of over 500 Muslim organizations, told HuffPost that they wished Khan had also reached out to the national body.
“There is value in consulting national Muslim bodies for advice, over and above the individuals in the programme, as this may help the production understand the potential national impact of sensitive issues - the strength of feeling of which appears to have been underestimated,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
The Council nevertheless commended the documentary’s participants.
“We would like to praise the participants who demonstrated some of the best qualities and characteristics in the face of real challenges.”