|source / image description: cover image for Channel 4's My Week As A Muslim documentary.|
This October, Channel 4 released a documentary titled My Week As A Muslim, in which a white woman named Katie Freeman from a predominately white area visits a Muslim family in Manchester in order to learn more about the everyday experience of British Muslims; later on in the documentary, a team of makeup artists uses prosthetics to transform Freeman’s appearance so that she can live ‘as a Muslim’ for a few days.
At first, the documentary looks and feels fairly harmless, almost humorous. Katie is 42 years old, formerly worked in the RAF, lives in Winsford, Cheshire and is terrified of Muslims. At the beginning of the documentary, Katie states that her dislike of immigrants is rooted in her belief that people are coming to Britain and stretching its resources – in perfect timing, the voiceover of the programme notes that Winsford is one of the whitest areas in Britain and that Katie rarely mixes with people outside of her own ethnicity. Katie even relates an anecdote in which her daughter was frightened by a burqa-wearing woman in a shop, prompting them to both leave the shop immediately.
This attitude is what makes Katie’s visit to a Muslim family in the heart of Manchester’s Islamic community so shocking to her. Saima, a 48-year-old mother of five who works as a teacher, is aware of views like Katie’s, but hopes to change these views of ‘ignorance and fear’ by inviting Katie to spend a week with her, her daughters and her son. At first, seeing Katie in Saima’s home is rather hilarious: a particular favourite moment of mine is when Katie remarks at the fact that she’s never eaten Asian food before, and Saima replies, ‘I thought curry was the most popular dish in this country!’ Various outburst of cultural ignorance like this combined with Katie’s shocked face as she watches the family pray almost make this programme feel like satire.
Things turn sour when Katie undergoes a transformation into a Muslim woman called Khawlah. Like a twisted, more racist Wife Swap, Katie is turned into a British Pakistani Muslim, with a prosthetic nose, fake teeth, contacts and – most controversially – makeup to darken her skin, as well as a hijab. Katie – who previously supported banning the burqa – is shown facing abuse that included drinkers in a Manchester pub asking her whether she planned to blow them up. This leads to Katie concluding:
‘You can’t blame the whole of the Muslims for one person's mindless act of terror can you? Just because they choose to live their life differently to me doesn't mean they're any less welcome to be here.’
Although this revelation might have affected some of the documentary’s previously Islamophobic viewers, many of its viewers – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – were left wondering why Channel 4 felt that the right way to show that Islamophobia exists in Britain was to put a white woman in ‘brownface’ make-up, instead of following around or giving a hidden camera to an actual Muslim – after all, there are over 2.7 million Muslims in the UK. Khuram Ahmed, a Muslim lawyer based in Manchester, tweeted that ‘our oppression does not exist until a white person experiences it and legitimises it.’ Arguably, this programme implies that all South Asian and/or all Muslim women look a certain way, and sends out the damaging message that brownface, with all its historically racist connotations, is acceptable.
In an article for the Guardian by Fozia Khan (a producer for the documentary), however, the use of brownface is justified: Khan states that ‘[this documentary] is the antithesis of’ what blackface/brownface has historically been used for (e.g. entertainment to mock non-white people), and that My Week As A Muslim’s purpose is to ‘inform and promote understanding between communities, not caricature them.’ Khan justifies Channel 4’s decision not to use hidden cameras instead, saying that this has been done before and she wanted to do something different. Online, many agreed with Khan, saying that – despite My Week As A Muslim’s various shortcomings – there is no better way to learn empathy and cure ignorance than walking in someone else’s shoes. In the same vein, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain lauded the ‘apparent goals of the documentary – to better understand the reality of Islamophobia, which has become socially accepted across broader society.’
If you haven’t watched My Week As A Muslim, you can do so on Channel 4’s online catchup service and decide for yourself.