Speaker’s corner: How to write about Muslims for TV – screenwriter Sabrina Mahfouz shares her thoughts

By Myriam Francois|February 16, 2016|Speaker's Corner|0 comments

Breaking the Code – how screenwriters takle writing about the underrepresented

By Sabrina Mahfouz

 Is there a secret code amongst TV writers, signifying which characters at which points in approved stories are allowed to have screen time? I doubt it is as sinister, or as simple, as this. But the reality remains – representation of non-white, non-male, non-Christian, LGBQT and disabled people on UK screens is pretty abysmal. Movements towards something a little more ‘diverse’ have been made recently and inspiring campaigns such as Act for Change and influential spokespeople such as Idris Elba have been at the forefront of holding companies more to account on this issue. Lots of page-space and inaugural speeches are dedicated to a commitment from the incumbents to ‘diversify’ (I prefer Shonda Rhimes’s term – ‘normalise’), yet the results seem too slow to me and to many others. Visual mediums hold a lot of power. I’m far from alone in feeling concerned about a society in which only one part (the dominant, most privileged part) sees it itself represented in a multitude of ways, whilst others are reserved to fulfil the roles we are already influenced to imagine they occupy.

When I was given the opportunity to write a short 5-minute character piece for a collaboration between BBC Drama, BBC Taster and BBC Writersroom to put underrepresented stories on screen, there was no question that I would choose a character who I felt I hadn’t seen before on UK TV. Being of Muslim heritage (my father is Egyptian) and having lived in Egypt for parts of my life, I have always found UK TV, film and theatre eerily empty of Middle Eastern and Arab women – Muslim or not. I have written a number of characters for the stage with this cultural background and I was excited to finally write a specifically Egyptian-heritage, Muslim woman for the screen.

I wanted the character, Musheera, to wear hijab mainly because it felt true to her character – the bright pink, the fantasy sequence in sequins – but also because the lack of visibility in our creative media of women who wear hijab is strange and ostracising. Particularly at a time when various news outlets report that Muslim women in the UK are the ones who are being targeted in the rise of Islamophobic attacks following the Paris shootings. I wanted to show a woman who was funny, likeable, (very) clever, scared, confused, determined and ambitious – who just happened to be Muslim and wear a hijab. It sounds so simple, but it is not often done.

In the piece, Musheera is a highly-skilled professional who has felt unable to tell her Mum about her career, instead lying to her and letting her believe she is a housewife, with the help of her husband and his family. We meet her as she is practising how to reveal the truth to her much-loved Mum. This omission of her real life occupation is not to do with Musheera being Muslim, but rather due to a complex back-story involving the mother’s mental health and life situations – which unfortunately couldn’t make it into a five minute piece! And so this is one of the disadvantages when writing about a character that’s not often represented. Everything they do or don’t say, think and act upon becomes a direct comment on an entire group of people – which is ridiculous and one of the main privileges of writing about the privileged – there is enough written about them, such a wide variety of stories to choose from to represent them and their experiences that one story needn’t become a comment on all such people.

When I’m staring at a blank page, it is the above which often motivates me to continue writing, the conviction that in order to counter the negative portrayals of people who don’t fit the dominant narrative, we all have to keep writing stories.


To watch Breaking The Code, please click below. Rate and share if you’d like to see more!



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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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