In 2015, TV Broke Ground By Showing Relatable Women In Hijab

Jan 1, 2016
Originally published on January 1, 2016 12:04 pm

The Great British Bake Off was the most popular program in Britain in 2015, and the show boasts a devout following in the U.S. [Ed. Note: If you're part of that U.S. following, be warned: We're about to discuss the most recent season, which hasn't yet aired in the U.S.]

The show's latest winner, Nadiya Hussain, spent weeks whipping up traditional British pastries such as cream horns and iced buns, all while wearing a crisp white apron and a traditional black headscarf. "Nadiya has brought something special to The Bake Off," raved judge Paul Hollywood during the show's October finale. "Her ideas have flair. Her emotion, her passion were all in her bakes. She just nailed the whole final and that was the best tasting final we ever had."

Hussain's win was widely seen as a triumph of British multiculturalism. And by regularly showing a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman outside the context of hate crimes, terrorism or politics, The Bake Off is part of a small but significant shift in how hijab-wearing women were represented on TV in 2015.

Across the Atlantic, Muslim women in headscarves competed on two American reality shows: Fox's primetime series Home Free, in which contestants help build houses, and MasterChef. MasterChef contestant Amanda Saab is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants and wears a hijab. She didn't take the MasterChef title, but she says her personal win was just getting a chance to be herself on national TV. She cracked jokes, showed her creative side and even cooked bacon as part of a breakfast challenge.

"And that wasn't highlighted at all in that episode, but for me it was huge," Saab says. "I mean, for me it was the first time I cooked bacon." Saab didn't actually taste the bacon, even though she prepared it. She says she had decided to use any items thrown at her in a challenge, even ones Muslims are supposed to avoid, like pork and alcohol.

Evelyn Alsultany, author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11, says good-humored, relatable people are far removed from the two kinds of hijab-wearing Muslim women usually depicted in scripted television. "Terrorist or CIA agent," she says ruefully. "Usually, if there is a character wearing hijab, it's one episode and you'll blink and miss it."

But Alsultany has recently seen a few hijab-wearing characters who are featured supporting players --inevitably, both are in dark, terrorism-related dramas. ABC's Quantico has twin sister FBI recruits and the Showtime drama Homeland featured an analyst whose hijab made her boss suspicious. In a show that also portrays Muslims as the enemy, Alsultany says the Homeland role also lacked nuance. "She is portrayed as a hyper-patriotic woman," she says, "and that is her function."

Ultimately, Alsultany finds this good-bad binary dehumanizing. "It just also reveals how basic the level of conversation [about Muslims] is ... in this country," she says. But she also saw something new this year: a hijab-wearing character in a scripted drama that has nothing to do with Islamic extremism. Mr. Robot, on the USA Network, is about computer hackers, and one happens to be a young woman in a headscarf. Alsultany hopes 2016 will bring more three-dimensional Muslim characters to our screens — including ones in headscarves.

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Here and there, television programs feature women wearing headscarves. The change here is they're just women in headscarves, not seen as anything special, not associated with terrorism or the oppression of women or with Islamist politics. NPR's Neda Ulaby has been asking what this change means.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Especially on cooking shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF")

PAUL HOLLYWOOD: Well done, Nadiya.

NADIYA HUSSAIN: Thank you so much.

HOLLYWOOD: You're the winner of "The Great British Bake Off." (Laughter).

ULABY: The most popular program in Britain, "The Great British Bake Off," has a devoted following in the U.S. too. This year's winner, Nadiya Hussain, spent 10 weeks whipping up traditional British pastries such as cream horns and iced buns while wearing a crisp white apron and a traditional black headscarf.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nadiya's triple layered, big fat British wedding cake will feature jewels from her wedding day and saris to complete a red, white blue theme.

HUSSAIN: I'm going to fill the cake. I'm going to slice them into three...

ULABY: Hussain's win was widely seen as a triumph of British multiculturalism, and this year, American Muslim women wearing headscarves competed on two primetime Fox reality shows. Amanda Saab, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, made it halfway through "MasterChef."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERCHEF")

AMANDA SAAB: My grandmother's lamb kofta with a jalapeno-dusted potato and a sumac aioli.

GORDON RAMSAY: If there's one thing I love, it's kofta.

SAAB: No pressure then. (Laughter).

RAMSAY: Seriously.

ULABY: Cracking jokes and being creative are not normally how Muslims behave on television, Saab says, especially Muslims in hijab - nor do you see them cooking bacon.

SAAB: I cooked pork for the first time. I cooked bacon during the breakfast challenge, and that wasn't highlighted at all in that episode, but for me it was huge.

ULABY: Saab says she decided in advance to cook, although not necessarily eat, anything the show threw at her. And on the reality show "Home Free," a Muslim couple with a hijab-wearing wife build and win a house.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOME FREE")

AIDAH: This will be Anissa's room. She'll never leave.

ULABY: These good-humored, relatable people are far removed, says professor Evelyn Asultany, from the two kinds of Muslim women you see in scripted television.

EVELYN ASULTANY: Terrorist or CIA agent.

ULABY: Recently, Asultany's seen an uptick in hjiab-wearing characters as featured players in dark, terrorism-related dramas. ABC's "Quantico" has twin sister FBI recruits, and last year, the Showtime drama "Homeland" featured an analyst whose hijab made her boss suspicious.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You wearing that thing on your head, it's one [expletive] to the people who would've been your co-workers, except they perished in a blast right out there. So if you need to wear it, if you really need to - which is your right - you'd better be the best analyst we've ever seen.

ULABY: In a show about Muslims as the enemy, Asultany says this role also lacks nuance.

ASULTANY: She is portrayed as a hyper-patriotic woman, and that is her function.

ULABY: Asultany finds this good-bad binary ultimately dehumanizing.

ASULTANY: It just also reveals how basic the level of conversation is that we are having in this country about Muslims.

ULABY: But this year, Asultany saw a scripted drama with a headscarf-wearing character not about Islamic terrorism. "Mr. Robot," on the USA network, is about computer hackers. One wears a hijab.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

SUNITA MANI: (As Trenton) Even if they hack into Steel Mountain, we need to hit China's data center simultaneously.

ULABY: Maybe in 2016, Asultany says, more three-dimensional Muslim characters in headscarves will show up on our screens. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.