The Best Muslim Characters on TV Didn’t Happen by Accident

“Superstore,” “The Bold Type,” “Counterpart,” and “Élite” have made an effort to find authenticity in often tokenized or stereotypical roles.
"Counterpart," "Superstore," "The Bold Type," "Elite"
"Counterpart," "Superstore," "The Bold Type," "Elite"
Starz, NBC, Freeform, Netflix

The same week that two Muslim-American women make history being sworn into Congress, a Muslim mother and daughter were attacked for wearing hijabs in Texas. No matter what progress appears to have been made, the latter incident highlights the need for education about Muslim people, and Hollywood is slowly answering the call by increasing the number of these portrayals on screen.

“In Trump’s America, it’s not a good situation right now for Muslims and other marginalized communities,” said Sue Obeidi, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood bureau. “Being sensitive to what’s happening, the [entertainment] industry, saw an opportunity to help marginalized communities, including Muslims, be represented in a more authentic and positive light.”

Recognizing a need for representation, however, doesn’t always prevent lazy portrayals that often devolve into derogatory or dangerous stereotypes. “The Bold Type” on Freeform, “Superstore” on NBC, “Counterpart” on Starz, and Spanish-language soap “Élite” on Netflix avoid that trap though. Each TV show makes a deliberate effort to research and put thought into creating Muslim characters who have more dimension and actual identities outside of their faith, and this has made all the difference.

Take, for example, the hijab. Not understanding the varied uses or styles or even rules of wearing it alternately drew praise and ridicule for “Grey’s Anatomy.” Most non-Muslim viewers at home wouldn’t know if a head covering looked right or wrong, which is precisely why TV shows must do their due diligence in order to provide authenticity. In this vein, Canadian actress Nikohl Boosheri wanted to be sure that she portrayed Muslim lesbian artist Adena El-Amin on Freeform’s fashion-forward dramedy “The Bold Type” as realistically as possible.

“I’m Iranian, but my family left after the revolution. Iran is one of the countries where the hijab is mandatory and there are consequences for not wearing it, consequences we still see carried out today,” said Boosheri. “My mother was very resentful of having to wear the hijab, and I had my own misconceptions about that, which comes from the idea that a woman did not have a choice in the matter. But my understanding of the Quran is that it isn’t mandatory to wear the hijab, and you are a Muslim whether you wear it or not.”

NIkohl Boosheri, "The Bold Type"
NIkohl Boosheri, “The Bold Type”Freeform

Knowing that Adena is not required to wear a hijab in America, Boosheri had puzzled over why such a globetrotting freethinker would decide to cover her head anyway. The actress drew inspiration from outspoken Muslim female writers like Blair Imani and Fariha Roisin and from her own travels.

“It didn’t quite make sense to me,” she said. “But I remembered I shot a film in Beirut, and there’s actually quite a vibrant LGBTQ scene underground there. I met with women who had tattoos and wore hijabs sometimes but not all the time. In Beirut, it’s also not mandatory to wear the hijab. And so I thought, ‘Okay, then with this character, it has to be more about her freedom to choose, her freedom to express herself how she pleases and how she pleases that day.’”

Then it became a matter of ensuring that Adena’s choice of head covering properly reflects her daring and creative sensibilities. The usual hijab did not fit her personality or aesthetic, and therefore Boosheri researched online.

“I found these more modern, less traditional ways of wearing the hijab, whether it’d be like the turban or really beautiful intricate braids. Also, stunning fabrics that these young Muslim influencers were using nowadays,” she said. “I like to think that everything she owns are bought from all her different travels. For Adena there are a lot of natural silks in beautiful, warm colors, lots of oranges, lots of fiery colors. And I feel it connects to the part that she’s very unapologetic of the space she takes up.”

A fashionable hijab may be an alien concept to some considering many of the misconceptions about the rights of Muslim women, but the “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibit at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum (showing through Jan. 6) proves the range and beauty of fashions in the global culture. Adena would look at home in those vibrant colors and innovative designs.

"Contemporary Muslim Fashions" exhibit at DeYoung Museum
“Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibit at DeYoung MuseumEric Risberg/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Over on Netflix, the Spanish teen soap “Élite” also has its share of hijab-related drama. Through a twist of fate, working class siblings Omar and Nadia (Mina El Hammani) are suddenly sent to an exclusive private school where Nadia is very strongly advised to leave her head covering at home. The actress, who is Muslim herself, worked with the wardrobe department to ensure that her hijab was accurate for the character.

Eventually, Nadia deciding to bow to her new school’s wishes is emblematic of the teenage loss of identity in the face of societal pressures. “In order to be a part of society, to make the most of the chance she has been given in her adoptive culture, Nadia must sacrifice something from her culture, her religion, that is really important and dear to her,” co-creators Carlos Montero and Darío Madrona said. “It showed her struggle from the very beginning and allowed us, and our audience, to put ourselves in her shoes, to realize how hard it must be to be asked to make those choices all the time.”

Meanwhile, her fellow students make horrifying and awkward comments about terrorism and Islam to her face, while her closeted brother Omar (Omar Ayuso) becomes attracted to someone at the new school.

“We made them Arab – and Muslims – for two reasons. One, there is a big debate in Europe right now about assimilation of the Muslim population,” said the creators. “The hijab, Islamophobia – all that was on the news and we thought it was very interesting to explore it, to talk about it on the show, and doing it from the point of being Muslim teenagers.”


Madrona added, “And two, my partner [Omar Shanaa] of three years is of Palestinian origin, was born in Texas, and felt that ‘otherness’ that people like Omar and Nadia feel on the show. We drew a bit from his experiences growing up, from the stories about his sisters (One of them called Nadia) and their dad. Also, the relationship they all have with him being gay inspired a bit of the Omar plotline in the show.”

Over on NBC’s workplace comedy “Superstore,” Sayid (Amir M. Korangy) fits in just fine with the rest of the misfit workers at the Cloud 9 store. It’s not until Amy (America Ferrera) is denied maternity leave and forced to pump in a small utility closet that viewers discover Sayid is also Muslim when he is forced to share the same space with her for his prayers.

“We started talking about what indignities someone who had a very bad maternity leave policy would have to deal with,” said series creator Justin Spitzer. “The fact that he’s Muslim, it really has nothing to do with it. If anything, it’s that he is also forced to face this indignity, that he has to pray in the disgusting utility closet. In a way, the two of them are in this together.”

In another storyline, the Cloud 9 staff discovers that Sayid is a Syrian refugee, a legal status that is contrasted with the undocumented Mateo (Nico Santos). Even though the episode is full of goofy jokes and misunderstandings, much of the dialogue highlights the misconceptions that people have about refugees, such as how many conflate them with fugitives. “Superstore” spoke with Amnesty International and Define American for both episodes.

“We’ve been talking to people about portrayals, both of refugees and Muslims, about the number of times someone might pray, where are you forced to pray when you’re in a store like that,” said Spitzer. “And in terms of some of the specifics, the actor Amir himself helped with it. He helped us with the difference between a Sunni prayer and a Shia prayer, and I think he already knew how he would be praying. We’re going for comedy, but we wanted to give it as much honesty as possible.

Amir Korangy, "Superstore"
Amir Korangy, “Superstore”Eddy Chen/NBC

“We don’t want him to just be the Muslim character who’s there to pray and be a refugee. We also wanted him to have other defining characteristics. We worked with the actor since then to see what he brings to it. He’s also a little dorky. He wears adorable grandfather sweaters. He’s eager to be friends with people. He is a fleshed out character with flaws, just like anyone else. It was important for us to avoid the model immigrant kind of story.”

Define American also brought in “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” co-hosts activist Taz Ahmed and comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh to chat with the writers’ room about the character Sayid.

“When I was talking to them I was like, ‘Look, my dad works in these kinds of superstores,’” Ahmed said. “It’s so funny to me because I could totally relate. I feel like when my dad prays at various places of employment, it’s usually in the back room like that. So I thought that was really funny take on it and it was highlighting what it means to be Muslim while not making it so talk-y”.

In contrast to that humorous take on the Muslim daily prayers, “Counterpart” on Starz introduces Naya Temple (Betty Gabriel), a character in its second season who is an excellent FBI agent who is a practicing Muslim. The actress reached out to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) – which has also worked with the producers of “God Friended Me,” “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” “The Affair,” and the upcoming live-action “Aladdin” – for her own research.

The MPAC Hollywood bureau director Sue Obeidi said, “In general, the things that we see on TV and film are misconceptions about the faith. When they’re showing Muslims praying, they’re showing them praying incorrectly, when they’re quoting the Quran, there’s no passage in the Quran that actually says that. It’s almost like very loose portrayals oftentimes that we see. But that definitely was not the case with ‘Counterpart.’

At one point, the script included a line in which Temple said, “I’m going to pray to Mecca.” Obeidi said, “They actually tweaked it per our feedback to make it more authentic. The line changed to, ‘I’m going to pray to God towards Mecca,’ because we don’t pray to a place. We pray to God, so we say towards Mecca. When we caught it on set, they, to their credit, changed it right away and re-shot it.”

Betty Gabriel and Harry Lloyd, "Counterpart"
Betty Gabriel and Harry Lloyd, “Counterpart”Nicole Wilder-Shattuck/Starz

Gabriel said, “I had to really do a lot of research of the Islam world, the Islam religion. I wanted that to be very real. I had to learn Arabic. That was intense. I had to learn a lot of the Salah prayers.”

“Counterpart” also features two identical and parallel worlds that adjoin at one point in Berlin. Gabriel says that Temple’s faith about God and creation are challenged by the existence of these two realms. “It definitely makes it more difficult for her. She does have those questions,” said Gabriel. “Her form of that existential crisis has very much to do with her faith and which truth is the real truth?”

Obeidi also points out that Naya Temple’s appearance provides diversity in Muslim women seen on screen since she doesn’t conform to the usual media portrayals seen over and over.

“Naya Temple is a woman who is a Muslim who does not cover. I don’t cover and I’m a practicing Muslim,” said Obeidi. “Muslim women like us are not really represented on TV because the hijab is an identifier on TV and commercials. Having Temple not be a hijabi and be a practicing Muslim and be an African-American Muslim woman is amazing. That’s what we need to see more of: to see the different of flavors and colors of what Muslims looks like.

“Also, the reality is as we see more and more Muslim characters and portrayals on TV, American audiences need to know more about our differences,” she said. “The largest populations of Muslims in America is the African American Muslim, but in reality, a lot of times, what you see are the Arabs and the South Asians, and we’re not as many as the African Americans Muslims. So the character of Naya Temple is such a welcome to our space, to Hollywood, to the industry.”

Obeidi is also pleased to have such a positive and take-charge portrayal of a Muslim woman. “A lot of people don’t understand that women actually have more rights and are protected in Islam than men,” she said. “Typically the cultural norms are what we see on TV. We see very submissive portrayals of women, whereas in reality, in Islam, Muslim women are given more authority and rights than men. And it’s really not portrayed that way.”

While these positive portrayals of Muslim characters are a good start, Gabriel’s co-star Nazanin Boniadi envisions a future when Muslim characters can play any mundane role possible without these specific religious identifiers. She points to a bit by Iranian-American comedian, Maz Jobrani who says, “You know what? Every now and again, I just like to turn on the news and see Mohammed baking a cookie.”

Getting beyond the tokens and stereotypes shouldn’t be difficult as long as producers stop worrying about what their predominately white audiences will think. Ahmed points to Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” on Netflix as a show that doesn’t spend time explaining Muslim culture, but often refers to it.

“There’s always this idea that when we do brown things, it’s only for brown people. Well, white people do things, but no one ever talks about barriers to entry for understanding white people because whiteness is just seen as the norm,” said Ahmed. “Once you start treating brown pop culture and black pop culture and all these other people of color pop culture as the norm, then we can get real normalization in media and entertainment in society. As long as you were worried about how are white people going to enter into the space, then we’re always going to be on the margin.”

“The Bold Type” and “Superstore” are available on Hulu, while Netflix is currently streaming “Elite.” The second season of Starz’s “Counterpart” is currently airing.

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