As a Muslim Woman, This Year I Won’t Be Watching the Oscars – Here’s Why

The Oscars are facing a viewership crisis. Last year, numbers dropped from approximately 40 million to a mere 9.85 million. Yet, efforts to address the decline in popularity just aren’t working.

That is because the rapidly declining viewership is especially prominent amongst younger viewers who are acutely aware that film representation has important implications for society. So it’s no coincidence viewership began tanking in 2016, when #OscarsSoWhite trended, and then dropped further in 2017, when the media industry was rocked by #MeToo allegations.

Right now, the debate is around the Academy Awards still failing to accurately represent minority voices.

Surprisingly, in a post #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter era, the Academy – despite their efforts – still fails to understand diversity is craved more than ever. And it’s not just representation, it’s truthful storytelling about minority lives. Stories which accurately depict – and award – the complexity and nuances of BIPOC experiences.

Currently, Oscars related headlines are dominated by star of Spielberg’s West Side Story, Rachel Zegler, a Latino actress who, despite the film’s seven nominations (including best film), was only invited to attend the event this week after mass public outcry. Is Zegler’s experience, who represents a community making up almost 20% of America’s population, proof the Academy’s efforts to be more diverse are smoke and mirrors?

When it comes to Muslims, the numbers speak for themselves.

A recent USC Annenburg Report found that while Muslims make up almost 25% of the world’s population, only 1.1% of America’s 100 top-grossing films from 2017-19 included Muslim characters, a number which dwindled further for black Muslims and Muslim women. And even when these groups were represented, it was for all the wrong reasons.

Normally these depictions stereotype and vilify Muslim communities. Islam is often “essentialized” or generalized, evoking negative and skewed caricatures. For instance, the vast majority of Muslim characters are racially profiled, male, and either perpetrators, or victims, of violence. And this complete lack of diverse Muslim experiences – extending to issues of gender, sexual orientation, and disability – has consequences.

Given how few Americans have ever meaningfully interacted with a Muslim, these stereotypes aren’t harmless. Onscreen representation influences wider global issues by mitigating harmful rhetoric and disinformation directed towards minority groups. Considering the epidemic of anti-Asian hate crimes in the US, including where I call home, and the spread of conspiracy theories surrounding Muslims during Covid, Hollywood should – and must – do better.

Strategies to address the clear gap of Muslim voices have already been implemented elsewhere, such as the UK’s lauded “Riz Test”, named after one of the first Muslim’s – Riz Ahmed – to be nominated for an Oscar. That Test evaluates the depiction of Muslims onscreen – calling out filmmakers for relying on toxic and prejudicial stereotypes. The test prods us to think about more than just including Muslims in stories. It encourages us to see Muslims as …well, human.  

On the day of the Oscars – which is also Muslim Women’s Day – a coalition of organizations, including Muslim Casting, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and Pillars Fund, will launch the ‘“Surviving” to Thriving: Muslim Women On-Screen Test’ which grades how films portray Muslim women. This is a welcome innovation, and could ensure incoming projects – like the highly anticipated adaptation of the Ms Marvel series featuring America’s first Muslim superhero – practice due diligence.

In my own award-winning film, Americanish, which is written, directed, and produced by a diverse group of Muslim women, we reject the exhausting trope of the timid, suppressed Muslim woman by depicting the nuances of our lives through humor. The characters work to balance their professional goals, family circumstances, personal ambitions, faith commitments, and desires for intimacy and companionship, in real ways. They are funny, flawed, and human.

However, this is still all only the beginning of a long process to rectify years of onscreen damage for Muslims, especially Muslim women.

We need more than just the film industry to act. What this is ultimately about is giving underrepresented voices the power to tell their own stories. On their own terms.

That is why we need entirely new creative platforms that give minority groups like Muslims a platform to showcase their diversity and richness.

Take for example the world’s largest Muslim lifestyle app, Muslim Pro. Designed originally to do little more than offer practicing Muslim’s prayer times and services connected to Islamic rituals, the app’s managing director Fara Abdullah recently mentioned big  plans to launch a content and entertainment service enabling people of all backgrounds to access creative content produced by Muslims.

This, she claims was inspired by a realization that not only do Muslims wish to tell their own (sometimes complicated) stories in ways that would attract audiences (whether Muslim or not) – but also by her own experiences. People, she explains, are often surprised to discover the leader of one the world’s largest Muslim tech companies is a young woman. And one reason for that instinctive presumptuousness is, she argues, the dearth of stories showcasing the complexity of Muslims around the world – a void that enables one-dimensional stereotypes to persist. 

Projected to launch later this year, such ventures are an essential part of the effort to help tell the stories Hollywood has for too long not known how to tell and could serve as vital gateways where the mainstream film industry can begin to remedy its injustices.

The film and creative industries must adopt concrete measures to enhance representation, because as we know, it’s about more – it’s about having a voice in society.

Until then, I won’t be watching the Oscars.

Aizzah Fatima
Aizzah Fatima
Aizzah Fatima is an award-winning actor, filmmaker, and comic. She is the writer and star of Americanish, a first of its kind Rom-Com written and directed by American Muslim women about Muslim women. She is also the creator of the one-woman play, ‘Dirty Paki Lingerie’, the sell-out show telling the stories of Muslim American women. Her upcoming sketch-based pilot Muslim Girls DTF: Discuss Their Faith hits the festival circuit this spring. She has been featured on NPR, The Guardian, Women’s Hour (BBC), The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post.