Channel 4’s ‘brownface’ documentary is no way to portray Muslims | Radhika Sanghani | Opinion - World Big News

Channel 4’s ‘brownface’ documentary is no way to portray Muslims | Radhika Sanghani | Opinion

In World


Katie Freeman is being given a prosthetic nose. It is larger, thicker and wider than her existing nose. Next come a selection of teeth covers – all of which appear slightly yellower and more crooked than her existing teeth – and brown contact lenses. Then the piece de resistance: her white skin is covered up with a dark layer of makeup.

This is not a tasteless Halloween costume. It is a scene from Monday’s Channel 4 show My Week As a Muslim, where a white woman is “transformed to look like she’s of Pakistani origin”. The idea is for Freeman, a 44-year-old British healthcare assistant who genuinely wonders whether every woman in a burqa might be covering up a suicide belt, to spend a week undercover in Manchester’s Muslim community.

The concept is a worthy one. Islamophobia is on the rise, with anti-Muslim attacks in Manchester soaring by 500% after the suicide bombing in May (which took place during Freeman’s week as a Muslim); while just 20% of working-age Muslims are in full-time employment in the UK, compared with 35% for the overall population, with discrimination seen as a major factor.

It is important to raise awareness of these issues and to remind people like Freeman that neither a veil nor skin colour defines a person. But showing a white woman “browning up” and being given a larger nose and teeth to pass as Asian is not the way to do it. As a woman of Asian descent, I’m disappointed that Channel 4 opted for such a hackneyed, stereotypical approach to race.

Instead of perpetuating old cliches and focusing on physical appearance, it could have simply followed a Muslim family with cameras, hearing from the women themselves and observing the everyday racism they experience. Women of colour are already under-represented in the media – why not give them a voice and hear from them directly?

Of course there is a power in seeing a white woman slowly change her views towards her Muslim peers, but Freeman did not have to spend a week in brownface to do this. The most poignant moments of the show come simply when she spends time with her British Pakistani hosts and talks to them openly, woman to woman.

We learn most about Muslim women when we hear Saima Alvi, 49, chatting with Freeman about dating – “My daughters wouldn’t want to marry someone who isn’t Muslim, because it’s about having things in common with them” – and when Alvi’s daughter tells the dinner table: “People always tell me to go home. But I was born here so I’m like, you want me to go back to St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester?”

The problem with the show is not Freeman’s desire to learn more about Muslims, but the execution. Several years ago, I spent 24 hours in a niqab and took a flight to see how Muslim women were treated in London and Brussels. Neither made for a pleasant experience. In Brussels I was subjected to racial abuse from airport staff, while in London I was completely ignored. The experiment forced me to realise that I been guilty of assuming all niqabis were quiet, reserved, and craved invisibility, solely because of the clothing they wore.

Walking in another person’s shoes is always a valuable exercise. My day in a niqab – sans prosthetics and offensive makeup – reminded me of the importance of empathy and the dangers of making unfounded judgments. For Freeman, a first-hand experience of racism led to a change in views. It even (spoiler alert) ended in an epiphany: “I’m amazed. They’re just the same [as us], aren’t they?”

But sadly, her week as a Muslim doesn’t just depict the reality of life behind a hijab – it implies that all Asian women look a certain way, and sends out the damaging message that brownface, with all its historical and racist connotations, is acceptable. Fozia Khan, the documentary’s executive producer, did have the laudable goals of wanting to create a “really authentic experience” for Freeman to live as an insider rather than an outside observer. It’s just a real shame that for Channel 4, authenticity meant putting on a big nose and crooked teeth and browning up.

Radhika Sanghani is a journalist and novelist. My Week As a Muslim is on Channel 4 on Monday, 23 October at 9pm.