I was recently asked to recall the first time I saw a reflection of myself on TV while growing up, and I don’t think I ever did. There was that shift in elementary school, after 9/11, when Middle Easterners became the villains of so many movies and TV shows, making us the collective face of an abstract terrorist enemy seeking to destroy Western civilization. The Middle Eastern or Muslim women on screen were always invariably from that same homogenous “brown skin” culture: either oppressed victims, violent extremists, or seductive haremesses. The most I had was Princess Jasmine—a cartoon—whose place in a roster of aspirational Disney princesses became my best indication that little brown girls like me belonged here, too. But even Princess Jasmine was an object of the white gaze, eventually reduced to an evil brown man’s servant, her red belly dancer outfit chained to our orientalist amusement.
I founded MuslimGirl.com to advocate for more inclusive media representation, and I often think back to when I first met TV maverick Shonda Rhimes. She described how Grey’s Anatomy correlated with a boom of women of colour entering the medical field. How many women, who finally saw themselves on a hit show depicted as smart, nuanced, unstoppable medical professionals, had been inspired to take up a scalpel themselves? And what would happen to all those brown girls like me if they grew up seeing themselves depicted in pop culture as something more than voiceless victims?
Thankfully, a new generation of talented actresses with Middle Eastern and Muslim roots is determined to answer that question. We spoke to four of them: Sarah Shahi, the television sweetheart from The L Word, Person of Interest, and NBC's Reverie; Dina Shihabi, who recently parlayed a breakout role on Amazon’s Jack Ryan into a deal to develop her own show; Nikohl Boosheri, whose role as a proudly LGBTQ Muslim woman on the Freeform hit The Bold Type is a fan favourite; and Sheila Vand, whose diverse resume includes the Persian-language horror movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, this summer's critically acclaimed indie We The Animals, and October's Viper Club alongside Susan Sarandon. They discuss their struggles with typecasting, how they're reclaiming their narrative on set and behind the scenes, and what we're really talking about when we talk about "representation." They share their different array of experiences, and their common goal: to make sure we never look at Middle Eastern and Muslim women the same way again.
AMANI AL-KHATAHTBEH: I would love to kick off this conversation with not just your projects, but with your backgrounds and who you are when the cameras aren’t rolling.
SARAH SHAHI: My parents are Persian and I was raised in Texas where all I wanted to be was white. I spoke Farsi and English but people always think I'm Mexican, so I got Spanish spoken to me more than other Mexican people that lived in Texas. And all I wanted was to assimilate. I just wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to have a mustache at nine.
DINA SHIHABI: That is so real! [Laughs]
SARAH: It's so real! I felt like nobody understood me. And the fact that my mom had one of the heaviest accents on the planet was a dead giveaway that I wasn't American. So I spent my whole life trying to pretend that I was white, and it wasn't really until I came to L.A. that I started noticing how everybody [in the industry] kind of looked the same, that they were just cookie cutter versions of each other, and I really started to embrace my differences. I also grew up with a single mom. I always say that my mom isn’t a mom; she’s an angel. She’s Superwoman. My dad was a drug addict, he wasn't around. She worked harder than anyone I knew. She came from Iran, she had nothing. After six months she started her own business, learned the language, and she made something of herself. So I often find that kids who are first generation have such perspective about the price their parents paid. You're given so much perspective. She told me: “You work hard, you read, you get yourself super smart, and you believe that there is nothing you can't do. And in the end, you are just as good as any man out there, if not better.” But I didn’t know what I had until I was older and I came out to L.A. and to be a performer. Just like you guys have probably experienced, I've been rejected for white roles for not looking white enough, and by the Middle Eastern roles for not looking Middle Eastern enough.
DINA: It was so nice to listen to you talk, Sarah. Sometimes it’s easy to think that you’re the only one that experiences these things. I was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Dubai. I moved to New York 10 years ago when I was 18, then I went to drama school and I graduated four years ago. But I grew up watching American TV shows, and when I moved to America, I thought, “I have to sound American, I have to look American in order to like be an actress.” Back then, if you told me that I'd be in a headscarf speaking in Arabic on a TV show, I would have laughed at you. I would have said, “No one wants to see that. Why would that ever happen?” In so many ways, I grew up Muslim and quite religious, and through these roles, I can connect back to that as an actor while also being the person I am now, living in America and feeling like the Western person that I am.
SHEILA VAND: Like Sarah, my parents are both Iranian. I was born and raised in California, so I guess I’m a first generation immigrant, and didn't really think of my Iranian-ness much until I came into the business and other people in the industry saw me that way. So I started seeing myself that way. I also did wanted to differentiate myself from the sea of sameness in Los Angeles, so it's kind of a tricky thing to talk about because in some ways my ethnicity that helped my career and gave me an avenue in such a competitive casting process. I'm in the Snowpiercer TV series [on TNT], which we're shooting and will come out early next year. And the race of that character actually changed after the pilot. It was originally a role named Cleo that didn't have any religion or race. And now her name is Zarah. So far all that’s changed is the name, and so it could go in a super cool direction. But it can be scary too, because I've seen that happen in the past, and sometimes you get stuck with these roles that are obviously reductive because when they want to get diversity points, they'll cast “representation” onscreen. But for me, it's not just about representation onscreen, but also representation offscreen, in the people writing and editing and creating these shows. As frustrated as I can get sometimes, I know there are more opportunities now, and I know that 20 or 30 years ago these roles didn't exist. But I'm just excited for the next phase of change when we're not just equally represented on screen, but also as the people telling these stories. It's not just about being represented, but who are we being represented by? It's not as exciting for me to play a brown role that's written by a bunch of white dudes in a room. I don't see that as an “opportunity,” and sometimes it gets presented to me as an opportunity. I think I'm more excited about playing brown roles created by brown people. As much as I want to trust that everybody wants to be thoughtful and careful and sensitive, the fact of the matter is that a lot of times they’re not. If they want to use our ethnicities to get diversity credit, then they should pull us into the conversation too. If you want to create a part that is authentic…. I'm trying to be frank but diplomatic, and it's really hard for me.
DINA: No, I totally get what you mean. I think that even if the intention is that they're wanting to include us, it's a completely different thing coming from [a writer or director] who’s from where we're from, who shares an experience that is so specific.
SARAH: When you’ve been through the reality of going through some of the things that we've been through, you understand the differences in our perspective, you understand the struggles we may have faced, and you get it.
SHEILA: What I struggle with is when I audition against a whole bunch of white girls who inevitably and inherently have less odds stacked against them, or are able to go out for more roles than I'm able to go out for. And then I get that part and they say, “Oh, well, she's Persian so let's make the part Persian.” First of all, they didn't write a brown role to give a brown actor an opportunity. A brown actress showed up and earned that part up against all of these people who had probably a lot more of a chance of getting it, and then now you want to get the diversity points for it. Part of my struggle is that I want to be excited about the role, about the opportunity to show a different kind of Persian-American girl on screen, but then the role will be changed to something else, or the character will now be Muslim, and I'm not necessarily part of the conversation about who this girl is, and it just scares me. If there isn’t a Middle Eastern or Muslim girl in the writer's room, then maybe don't write a Muslim role.
SARAH: As an actress, when they change the role on you like that and they don't include you in the conversation, then it's like, This isn't what I auditioned for.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.