‘Black Panther’ Shows Muslims Too, Can Escape Tokenism

By: Ruqaya Izzidien*

When I was six years old, I still didn’t understand the effect representation – or lack thereof, could have.

I didn’t know what it meant that only I or my Malaysian best friend was allowed to play with the other girls in class; we had to take shifts as the designated brown girl allowed in the social group.

I didn’t know what it meant, two years later when Wannabe was what every little girl in my class re-enacted during playtime, that I was only ever permitted to be Posh Spice – or Scary Spice if I so desired – a role that was perennially unfilled in my rural Welsh school.

Even when, later that year, I was told I couldn’t play with the group because I was (whisper it) “brown”, I still didn’t really understand.

While I had been plodding along from sandpit to subtraction, I had been too confident in my school play acting skills and my growing Welsh vocabulary to notice that I was the only one who thought that I was just like my classmates.

It became harder to ignore, of course.

When boys started yelling Paki at me in my small farming village, when they taunted us by banging on our door every night, when classmates asked “Why are you like this?” expecting a twelve-year-old to justify their existence.

It became harder still to ignore when the recently-arrived Polish abattoir employees saw no paradox in racially harassing two British children getting off a school bus.

Because it has never been about our passports. It wasn’t even about our religion back then, though soon enough that would be part of the ammo used against us too.

When I was 15 the only Arabs I’d ever seen on TV were dead ones
I assumed that university would be different, but I learned quickly that my cultural dress was a Halloween sideshow, and that I shouldn’t identify with one of the Bennet sisters, because – as I was dutifully corrected – nobody in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is Arab.

So when Britain talks of integration, it needs to take a long hard look at itself. Because if you’re a child of colour, no matter how British you feel, you are othered.

And once you realise that you will never be Baby Spice, once that bubble has been burst, so many other delusions pop with it.

There is nobody like you in parliament. There is nobody like you on television, nobody who isn’t blowing up planes anyway. There is nobody like you on stages or directing films. When I was 15 the only Arabs I’d ever seen on TV were dead ones.

So I am not surprised by the mania sweeping through the cinemas in the US, Britain and further afield at the release of the Black Panther movie.

To finally see blackness determined and narrated by black people. To have more than one person of colour in a social group. To have characters that are coincidentally black, rather than characters crudely pigeonholed in as the token angry/funny/violent (delete as appropriate) black person.

As Arabs, and Muslims, we aren’t there yet. We’re fashionable, of course – just look at the Muslims twins on Quantico, the endless BBC documentaries about the hijab (none of which actually enlighten anyone) or the meek hijabi, Talia, on the registry office drama Love, Lies and Records, whose lines were clearly written by someone who knows nothing about the hijab.

Token Muslims have started to appear on screen, occasionally in roles that aren’t Murdering Terrorist.

Sometimes we are the exotic backdrop for our white non-Muslim protagonists, as seen in Queen of the Desert, Babel, and Victoria and Abdul.

Heck, I’ll even take a Muslim serial killer, so long as they aren’t killing because they’re Muslim

But whatever role Muslims fulfil on screen, one thing remains constant: the characters’ stories and plotlines are always about being Muslim. They perpetuate the stereotype that the only thing a Muslim person can be, is Muslim.

Where are the Muslim coppers who struggle with depression? Where are the Muslim general public extras that Britain seems to be devoid of on the small screen? Heck, I’ll even take a Muslim serial killer, so long as they aren’t killing because they’re Muslim.

Read more: Spare us the World Hijab Day tokenism, and listen to us instead

When you grow up in this environment, the only thing you are ever allowed to be is Muslim.

To not have yourself represented is to feel like you are being erased from history. It’s no wonder, then, when I was thirty minutes into episode one of the Turkish small-screen series Ertugrul, I bawled like a baby.

I was moved to tears to watch a hero who just happened to be a Muslim
It wasn’t on account of edge-of-your-seat drama, or spectacular acting; I was just moved to tears to watch a hero who just happened to be a Muslim.

The series is a dramatisation of the life of Ertugrul, the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire and deals with the struggles of war, family and identity.

In 30 years I had never seen a character with whom I could identify, and that was demoralising in its own right. Even more heart-breaking, is that this character was a man with a sword and a beard who has been dead for 700 years, but you can’t win them all, I suppose.

I long for the day when we can have our Black Panther moment – and I’ll be saving my Ertugrul beard and sword costume for the premiere.(A/RE1/RS5)

*Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

*This article first published at The New Arab

Mi’raj News Agency (MINA)