On the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, Challenging Islamophobia on TV, from “Ramy” to “We are Lady Parts”

[Warning: Spoilers throughout]

The 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, has had me thinking about an episode of the Hulu show, “Ramy.” The show is a somewhat autobiographical story of the millennial Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef. Youssef’s character is essentially a run-of-the-mill fuckboy, set apart by the fact that he’s an observant Muslim, a seeming contradiction that propels much of the show’s narrative.

In the first season, there’s a flashback bottle episode recounting a 12-year-old Ramy’s experience as a Muslim immigrant in the lead-up to and aftermath of 9/11—but also as an early-aughts tween who can’t quite work up the courage to be honest with his friends on AIM (oh, the nostalgia) about whether or not he’s actually masturbated before. These questions of truths and lies become strangely poignant when, in the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center towers, Ramy’s white friends use his dishonesty about jerking off as evidence that he’s also lying when he says he’s not a terrorist. The story is autobiographical; the real Ramy says in middle school a popular kid did start a rumor that he was a terrorist, he’s said in interviews. The way the episode layers political commentary with an everyday obsession of pre-adolescent boys reflects that even amid tragedy, the absurd and the mundane aspects of life continue. 

As Youssef recounted for the YouTube series, “The Off-Camera Show,” “How does something like [9/11] further compound with what’s already a tough experience being a kid, on top of that then an immigrant kid, on top of that a Muslim immigrant kid? How can we look at those layers, and how can we look at how that manifests?” 

There’s one scene in particular that I think about a lot. After facing Islamophobia from his classmates, at least one of whom had parents who were killed in the attacks, Ramy is tortured by questions about his own identity. In a surreal dream sequence, he goes into the kitchen to find Osama bin Laden sitting there, eating strawberries. (“Strawberries” is also the title of the episode.) This is also based on a nightmare Ramy Youssef used to have, that Osama bin Laden would come to his house, assuming that because his family was Muslim they were his friends. “I remember having all these nightmares where I’d be like, ‘I’m not like you, why are you making it hard for us,’ and like all of these things that a kid, who is 12, would think,” says Youssef.

In the episode, Osama launches into a speech about how the strawberries represent the U.S. imperialism and settler-colonialism that has destroyed the Middle East. His words are persuasive, delivered in a soft, slow whisper. The speech is worth quoting in full: 

I love strawberries. They only grow in warm weather. But soon, in a few months, it will be winter, and America will still have strawberries. Do you know how? Egypt, your home, was a land of kings. Art, innovation, science. But now, now it is weak. Now it owes money to men in suits. To pay them back, Egypt turned their wheat fields into strawberry fields. So every year, Egypt grows thousands of strawberries. But they are not for Egyptians. People need wheat for bread. Do you see what I mean, Ramy? They have less bread so Americans can have strawberries in December.

Ramy is shocked to learn this, but immediately agrees with Osama that it’s unjust that one part of the world would be able to bend the rest of the world to its will. He takes a bite of one of the strawberries from the bowl Osama has prepared.

Then Osama tries to explain that violence against people like Ramy’s friend’s mom, who died in the attacks, was warranted, to “restore the balance” between all the Muslim boys and girls who have died at the hands of American greed. That’s where Ramy realizes he’s not like Osama at all, because he does not’ support violence against innocent people, and drops the half-eaten strawberry on the table. 

As Maytha Alhassen wrote in an excellent piece for Deadline to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, “‘Strawberries’ wasn’t just one of the first times USA saw 9/11 from Arab American Muslim eyes, it was also one of the rare moments we were not a terror trope in a highly marketed Orientalist and anti-Muslim terror genre about war.”

The fact that this episode is one of the only ones in the series that explicitly mentions terrorism serves a rejoinder to the fact that the vast majority of what little Muslim representation exists in the media portrays Muslims as terrorists. A recent study found that between 2017 and 2019, just 10% of movies had a Muslim character. That is changing, perhaps, albeit haltingly.

“Ramy” itself falters in its portrayal of Muslim women, lending far more depth to its male characters, even the most villainous, than to its women characters. Though they do a good job exposing the double standards Muslim women often face, bottle episodes focusing on Ramy’s sister, Dena, and his mother, Maysa, squarely fail the Bechdel test. As Shamira Ibrahim wrote in The Atlantic on 2019, “The lives of Muslim women aren’t exclusively dominated by forlorn conversations about potential suitors and their proclivities.” In the second season, there is potential in the show’s portrayal of Ramy’s new sheikh’s daughter, Zainab, but once it becomes clear her character will become a love interest for the supremely undeserving Ramy, it veers into cringe.

Luckily, we can look elsewhere for better portrayals of Muslim women in recent millennial and Gen Z shows, though there should be many more. One example is Adena, a lesbian photographer from Iran on the underrated Freeform show “The Bold Type.” While most TV shows still view the hijab as an approximation for women’s oppression, in “The Bold Type,” Adena wears the hijab as a choice As Nikhol Boosheri, who plays Adena, told Indiewire, “With this character, it has to be more about her freedom to choose, her freedom to express herself how she pleases and how she pleases that day.”

Adena is an independent and ambitious Iranian Muslim woman, who dates Kat, one of main characters on the show, which revolves around the lives of three best friends who work at a fashion magazine modeled after Cosmo. (I’m sure I’ll talk about “The Bold Type” more, but here’s my quick pitch: this show is like stepping into a bubble bath after a long day and sighing, “I deserve this!”) 

In an early episode, Kat and Adena are walking in Brooklyn after watching a moving performance by a street violinist. When Adena answers a call from her mom in Persian, a white man in the street yells at her to “speak English” and calls her “a dirty little towel head.” Flipping the script of the valiant boyfriend protecting girlfriend’s honor trope, when Kat punches the man, Adena is furious. Someone with Kat’s privilege as a U.S. citizen wouldn’t understand the stakes of escalating such a situation. If the man were to report Kat (a biracial woman) or Adena, she could be deported or worse. The episode aired in early 2017, just after the Trump Muslim ban was enacted, but the show takes a nuanced tack rather than simply praising Kat as a heroic ally for standing up for her Muslim immigrant date. Instead, the reality is more complicated. Unfortunately, the episode winds up centering Kat, who spends the night in jail after her altercation, and learns a Very Important Lesson in the process.

There is something to be said about the fact that the show not only portrays a Muslim woman, but also makes her a queer romantic lead, one who expresses agency and exists far from the realm of stereotypes. It feels even rarer to see a Muslim woman in the media talk frankly about sex, as Adena does with Kat in the show’s second season when so often portrayals of Muslim women either fetishizes their sexuality (which the first season of “Ramy” explores in the episode about his sister) or criminalizes it.

The British comedy series, “We are Lady Parts,” which came out this year on Peacock, perhaps comes furthest of any show I can think of in shattering stereotypes of Muslim women. Created by Nida Manzoor, it’s about an all-Muslim, all-women punk band, which includes Saira, a butcher by day and frontwoman of the band; Bisma, a Black Muslim woman, cartoonist, and mother, the bassist; Ayesha, a queer drummer and Uber driver; and Momtaz, the band manager. The protagonist is Amina, a hyper-romantic PhD student and soon-to-be guitarist for the band who suffers from debilitating stage fright (she pukes every time she’s on stage). With a cast entirely made up of Muslim characters, the show steers away from portrayals that homogenize or generalize Muslim women. The characters are observant to varying levels, whether or not they wear a hijab or niqab or neither is not a focus of conversation. 

And, it’s funny. In one scene, Ayesha, the Uber driver, is driving three drunk British boys who are pestering her, assuming she’s oppressed because she wears a hijab. “Is your dad making you drive?” one asks. “Yeah,” she deadpans. “He said if I don’t drive simple, dickless pissheads around, he’s going to send me to Iraq to marry my cousin.” 

The titles of the band’s songs also not only comment on Islamophobia but poke fun at it, with song titles like “Voldemort Under My Headscarf” and “Bashir With the Good Beard.” As creator Nida Manzoor explained in Digital Spy, “Muslim women – brown and black women – have often been shown in quite a serious light, or just something quite solemn, especially with Muslim women and how they're portrayed as oppressed and victims. My experience, and my friends', is that of joy and fun and silliness. I just really wanted to bring that into it.”

Still, the show doesn’t shy away from showing how oppression and stereotyping does negatively impact the band, after an influencer writes a clickbait article that oversimplifies and distorts the band’s mission, calling them “The Bad Girls of Islam, Haramed and Dangerous.” But it’s not the band’s intention to mock their religion, and they are horrified by the negative response they get online after the article comes out. One tweet reads: “anti-West trash. Punk was about fighting oppression… you should consider yourselves lucky to be here with the freedoms u have instead of the opressions where u belong!!!”

The show raises incredibly complicated questions about Muslim identity, public image, and Islamophobia, and doesn’t dumb down the debate to help white, western audiences understand it. Though it’s unlikely a show like it would be produced in the U.S. political climate, U.S. audiences can still watch it. Perhaps shows like it can contribute to creating a more sophisticated discourse around representation of Muslim women that sees them as well-rounded, fleshed out, and flawed people, rather than vague outlines or symbols. 

As Maytha Alhassen’s Deadline piece on the “Ramy” episode eloquently explained, “Art might not offer us an explicit cause-and-effect change, but it can help us process, critique axioms, probe paradoxes and shift cultural narratives and imaginaries that make political realities possible. When we commit to rewriting the storytelling trajectory of our nation at war, domestically and globally, we will be worthy inheritors of a destiny, a freedom, beyond a collective night terror we have yet to wake up from.” 

As we know all too well, representation means nothing if not paired with structural changes. The Muslim ban is no longer in place, and Donald Trump is no longer president, but the ethos and institutions he empowered, paved by George W. Bush and the entire political establishment over the course of the U.S. war on terror, are still alive and well. And so long as the dissonance between celebratory multiculturalism and exclusionary politics—and neocolonialism—persists, even the most nuanced representation rings hollow.