This past week, I went on a show which I can’t name since it hasn’t aired. But the story arc I was involved in took place in a mosque where an older woman has seizures but her daughter is prevented from getting help. Most of the cast was South Asian but not Muslim, and we all had a difficult time following the plot for a few reasons.
One, when medical help in the story arrived, everyone had to keep praying even when the woman collapsed. I don’t know about mosques but I have a feeling that like any other place of worship, if a congregation member grows sick, there is concern. If nothing, there is morbid curiosity as gossip mongers gather around to find out what happened. It really bothered us that we couldn’t look up or help the woman.
Two, when medical help was allowed, none of the men could look at the sick woman. The husband in the story also made a big deal that male medics were looking after her. This latter bit of information I can understand, but as the story was set up, it didn’t make sense. As the scene was shot, the women, though segregated, were allowed to pray right behind the men. In most mosques, women are usually in a different room all together. For men and women to be in a mosque in the US and in the same room meant there was already a certain amount of liberalism. In which case, the men would have no issues in turning around or helping out. And given how many South Asians are Muslims and doctors, trust me: there would have been one doctor in a crowded mosque!
Was this a case of stereotyping or demonizing? Turns out: NO. One of the writers of this episode — or at least writing consultant — was Muslim. The director and producers seemed very earnest and actively involved in ensuring cultural and religious accuracy in details. For that, I give props.
But more interesting was that no one Muslim minded. I asked over a dozen of the Muslims either in it or watching the shoot, and the common response was “no, this probably wouldn’t happen but it’s a show.” Or, “of course men would help and a husband would get help but this is for drama.” It seemed the non-Muslims were more upset about how Muslims may potentially be depicted than the Muslims themselves.
Amongst the South Asians, we discussed how we would have stood up to say something because we’re sick of the patriarchal, abusive husband stereotype — as if there wasn’t a woman being beaten every 12 minutes in the US. We discussed how in our variety of professions — one was a performing artist, another a musician, etc — we wanted to harness the power of the media. But here, we remained silent — it was not our faith, and therefore not our place no matter what the depiction was. Especially if the consultant and other Muslims had no issues with it. Were we the ones missing something? Was it, “just a show” and “all for drama”?
I don’t know but what I do know is that growing up, India was known, when it was spoken of at all, as a backwards country. Classmates would ask if there was running water or elephants in the streets. It is not just the IT boom and the talent and hard work of South Asians, but all good work needs to get the word out. There was very conscious media handling that have made Indians a model minority, gracing primetime TV, winning Pulitzers and Bookers, bringing Bollywood into everyday American language. In less than one generation, the stereotypes once associated with India have been redefined.
I’m about to interview a Pakistani Muslim musician who is seeking to do the same conscientious redefinition of Islam in media. I think there needs to much more of it. To me, it’s not an apologist approach — it’s just savvy media know-how. Perception does make reality, sadly. No more oral traditions to pass on culture; TV shows and films are our new mythology and its global. Better to define one’s own self than leave it to others.