A new test looks at the way Muslim women are portrayed onscreen The few Muslim women in American television shows or movies tend to be portrayed in contexts of oppression. A new test seeks assess the onscreen representation of Muslim women.

A new test looks at the way Muslim women are portrayed onscreen

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1088629002/1088879178" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Do you remember the first Muslim woman character you saw on TV or in a movie? I'm going to take a little bit of a leap here and guess that if you did, the woman who came to mind was Jasmine from the animated Disney film "Aladdin."


LINDA LARKIN: (As Jasmine) I ran away and I am not going back.

SUMMERS: Serena Rasoul is an actor and the founder of Muslim Casting, and she also thinks of Jasmine when she answers that question. And that is because, honestly, there are just not a lot of Muslim women on American screens. And the Muslim woman that we do see on screen, well, they're mostly stereotypes. Rasoul wanted to do something about this, so she helped develop a test to assess the onscreen representation of Muslim women. Serena Rasoul, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SERENA RASOUL: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

SUMMERS: We're excited to have you. I would just like to start off with Jasmine. When you look at her, what do you see?

RASOUL: Oh, boy. I see - I see Jasmine as the Muslim version of the woman who needs saving...


LARKIN: (As Jasmine) Please, try to understand. I've never done a thing on my own.

RASOUL: ...Who's the victim or the runaway. We see these particular stereotypes and tropes being used over and over and over when it comes to Muslim women.

SUMMERS: And the one thing that I sort of wondered as I was thinking about this is do we know, is she actually Muslim?

RASOUL: I don't know, but I think it's implied. There's one scene, I believe, where her father, you know, he jumps up and says, oh, Allah, at some point.


DOUGLAS SEALE: (As Sultan) My daughter has finally chosen a suitor. (Laughter) Praise, Allah.

RASOUL: So we don't actually know.

SUMMERS: And "Aladdin" is certainly not the only film or television show with examples of stereotypical portrayals of Muslim women on screen. Can you walk us through some other examples and some of the stereotypes that you see in those?

RASOUL: Yes. So I - you know, I - when I developed this test, we really wanted to take a deeper dive and look at why there were so many different portrayals of Muslim women from the victim or oppression context. There was a study that was done by the USC Inclusion Initiative last year that found 76% of Muslim characters in film were men. And the study also found that Muslim women who did show up on screen were often shown in relation to men. They were primarily wives, romantic interests or mothers. And our research at the Geena Davis Institute took a deeper look at those portrayals and found that those traditional woman roles were usually shown from an oppression context.

SUMMERS: What kind of lasting impacts do portrayals like the ones that you just described have when that is how Muslim women are presented in popular culture?

RASOUL: So one-dimensional and often Orientalist portrayals of oppression tend to flatten the personhood and richness of the Muslim women in our extremely diverse community. But that's not to say that, you know, these stories of oppression and adversity don't exist and shouldn't be told; of course not. They definitely should be told. But when that makes up the majority of an already scarce representation of Muslim women, it dehumanizes the entire collective.

SUMMERS: I am so curious what inspired you to try to do something about this, to develop this test? What was the catalyst for that?

RASOUL: Sure. So what we really wanted to do was set a standard to say these are some commonly overused and harmful portrayals. And in contrast, these are some nuanced ways that you can portray Muslim women. Often the expression of joy for underrepresented communities is seen as an act of resistance because they are so often only portrayed or shown in traumatic contexts. So, you know, one of the questions that the test asks is, is the Muslim woman ever shown expressing joy? And that question resonated with a large group of Muslim women who focused group this test before its release because we never really gave ourselves the space to ask that question. And so it was really enlightening to be a part of that process. One really great example of a nuanced portrayal in the test was what we called Muslim in motion - taking a muslim woman outside of the context of the home or school and asking, is she shown in different contexts? Is she scuba diving? Is she riding a motorcycle? Is she just hiking? Is she on vacation, right? And showing her in these very humanized contexts to really provide a three-dimensional view of the Muslim woman.

SUMMERS: That was Serena Rasoul. She helped develop Surviving to Thriving: Muslim Women On-Screen Test, which launches on Sunday. Thank you so much for your time.

RASOUL: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.