Channel 4’s ‘My week as a Muslim’: Recognition or Racism?

Channel 4’s new documentary, ‘My week as a Muslim,’, airing tonight at 9pm, follows Katie Freeman, a white Mancunian woman’s experience of ‘looking like a Muslim’ and living with a British Pakistani Muslim family just days after the Manchester terror attack earlier this year.

For a white woman to portray the exterior of a Pakistani Muslim woman to highlight the experiences of Islamophobia the British public’s perception of Muslims is contested.

A self-proclaimed anti-Islamic woman takes to Manchester’s streets dressed in a hijab, displaying a prosthetic nose, yellowed teeth and is, to the majority of the public’s shock, ‘brown faced’.

My Week as a Muslim: Katie is third from right Photograph: Matt Squire/Channel 4

It is predominantly this ‘brown facing’ that has fuelled a public backlash, with Channel 4 being criticised of “racial stereotyping” and “pigeonholing”, as reported by the Huffington Post.

A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain said,

The use of brownface and blackface has a long racist history and it is not surprising that it has caused deep offence amongst some communities. Had we been consulted, we would not have advised this approach. We do, however, laud the apparent goals of the documentary – to better understand the reality of Islamophobia, which has become socially accepted across broader society.

The Guardian has reported that Shelina Janmohamed, author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, responded to the trailer that aired last week, by stating,

 “Increasing understanding of Muslims at a time when divisions and hatred are rising – some of which is violent – is more vital than ever.”

“It’s a shame if efforts are derailed by basic errors such as ‘brownfacing’ which reinforce rather than challenge such prejudice. I hope the programme lets the experiences of Muslims shine through rather than being a form of television tourism.”

The intent of this documentary, as outlined by executive producer Fozia Khan is that of a “social experiment”, for greater purposes than simply entertainment. Khan expressed that the rise in Islamophobia that followed the EU referendum, and subsequently Brexit, sparked the idea for this documentary.

We saw divided communities, people living side by side but not mixing. We wanted to do something bold, a kind of social experiment: to take someone with no exposure to the Muslim community and give her a really authentic experience. The transformation in her appearance was important for that.”

If we’d done it for entertainment purposes, I can see why it would be offensive. But its purpose and intention needs to be understood. I feel really proud of it and I hope that when people see it, they will understand why we did it.”

The programme allowed Katie to meaningfully walk in the shoes of someone from a different background and to experience what it is like to be part of the British Pakistani Muslim community, rather than observe it as an outsider.

There has been much controversy surrounding this new programme, harbouring polarised perceptions and sparking a rampant social media debate. Both Muslims and non-Muslims alike have expressed their views through media outlets.

A woman called Firdos wrote,

“You continue to hijack our stories & distort them and US. We are not your Halloween costumes. Stop using us, we are not a cultural commodity.”

To exhibit the everyday experiences of a Muslim woman during one of the worst terrorist atrocities in recent British history is provides insight and acknowledgement of Islamophobia and the plight of British Muslims. What Channel 4 has done, however, is showcase the plight of Muslim women through the eyes of a white, non-Muslim woman.

The voices of Muslims, and Muslim women specifically, are seldom given an avenue to inform the wider British population of their plight. Although Channel 4 attempted to provide a national platform that unveils the current climate of Islamophobia, it did so with a negative underlying tone that not only reinforces prejudice, but shines light on the orientalist lens through which many Muslims are perceived.

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