Finally, There’s a Bechdel Test for Muslim Representation

The ‘Riz test’ asks Hollywood to chill with the terrorist characters.

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Aug 28 2018, 7:46am

Numan Acar in 'Homeland' and actor Riz Ahmed. Photos courtesy Facebook and Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

With movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther breaking all kinds of sales records, there’s hope that 2018 might be a turning point for Hollywood representation. But even with these groundbreaking productions reigning at the box office for doing the bare minimum of centring diverse folks, I have to wonder: does this mean time has come for Muslims like me to be seen as more than just angry, Allahu-akbar-screaming terrorists on-screen?

England-based friends Dr. Sadia Habib, Shaf Choudry, and Isobel Ingham-Barrow certainly think so. They recently soft-launched their take on the Bechdel test, called the Riz test, which aims to cast a light on how Muslims are represented on film and TV shows. The test is named after and inspired by Emmy-winning British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, who in 2017 gave a speech at the British House of Commons calling for more diversity in film and TV.

The Riz test asks that when a film or TV show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language, clothing, or through the context in which they’re represented), there are five parts the test considers. Is the character:

  • Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of Islamist terrorism?
  • Presented as irrationally angry?
  • Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
  • Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
  • If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? Or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?

The Riz test matters because it’s not enough to simply see the faces of Muslim people on screen, they should also have agency and complexity as characters, according to Dr. Habib. “Look at how whiteness is presented in films. White people are not just goodies or baddies, they’re complicated, their humanity shows, whereas we find that with Muslims, they’re not humanized, and they’re not shown as complex characters, they’re mostly baddies, or victims,” she told VICE. “Images of Muslims as backwards and barbaric have existed for a long time—and they continue to persist. We feel that it’s important to challenge this, because otherwise they will continue to persist.”

I asked them what they meant by having a character who is identifiably Muslim—since there are about a billion of us spread across nations, regions, diasporas and cultures, and not two of us who look alike. The founders say they rely on simple cues, like a character wearing a hijab, or other religious context.

So how do popular movies and TV shows fare against the Riz test? “Very, very few films actually pass the test,” says Choudry. There’s actually an easy formula for figuring out what fails. If there’s a Hollywood movie produced post-9/11 set in any -stan, you’re in for a movie that will likely fail the test. Action movies fit this bill perfectly including the likes of American Sniper, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, London Has Fallen, The Siege, Rules of Engagement, Rock the Kasbah, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Executive Decision, Patriots’ Day, 13 Hours—you get the idea.

The TV series Homeland is another no-brainer. The fact that Arab artists hired to write Arabic graffiti ended up sabotaging the show and instead wrote Homeland is racist” and “Homeland is a joke, and it didn’t make us laugh” proves a point I don’t really need to make. And Sex and the City 2 deserves its own special callout for the Most White Gaze Ever In A Movie, with ridiculous amounts of Orientalizing taking place throughout the script.

All of the Iron Man films also fail, Choudry laments: “a nuanced Muslim character is too much to ask for even in the fantasy genre!” I think Iron Man 3 should get a particular shout-out here for featuring a scene where a character enters a sweatshop of niqabi women, who are voiceless, ‘frees’ them, and then says, “Yes, you're free, if you weren't before. Iron Patriot on the job. Happy to help. No need to thank me, ma'am. It's my pleasure.” It should be noted that Muslim women generally wear the niqab when they’re in male (non-mehram) company or out in the world, so the fact that they’re sitting in a sweatshop amongst themselves working while wearing a niqab is quite shoddy research for such a mega-budget movie.

The further back you look, the more problematic our faves get. A movie that Choudry thought would pass the test, but actually fails is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The 90s blockbuster has a nuanced Muslim character, Azeem (portrayed by Morgan Freeman), a wise aide to Robin Hood, who at one point has a tender moment with a young child who sees racial difference between her and Freeman, prompting Freeman’s Azeem to exclaim, “Allah loves wondrous variety.” Unfortunately the movie fails in the first scene, where there’s a dialogue exchange around “cutting an infidel’s hand off.”

Then there’s the likes of Back to The Future (1985) and Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not everyone remembers Marty McFly facing off with bloodthirsty Libyan terrorists, but yes, this happened. And while set in Egypt, the Orientalist gaze in Raiders is a sight to behold, where women rush through the souks and hardly have a voice to speak with. (Bonus: Back to the Future also fails the Bechdel test.)

Aladdin, while not of surprise to many Muslims, is a bit of a heartbreaker to put in the “fail” category. For all the nostalgia it holds for younger viewers who see their own brown skin represented in cartoon form, the Disney animation also made that very skin (and by extension our culture) a punchline. Choudry says that aside from other problematic elements and Orientalising of Arab culture, it’s the representation of Jasmine as a woman of “no agency or voice whose stuck in this misogynistic world of people making decisions for her” that is particularly jarring. Of course, let’s not forget the immortal lines in the opening song, “it’s barbaric, but hey! It’s home!

I asked Choudry and Dr. Habib about some of Riz’s own movies—particularly the British comedy Four Lions, which happens to focus on four Muslim men, who are—you guessed it—Muslim terrorists, who [spoiler alert] are irrationally angry and end up committing a suicide attack in England. “ Four Lions is a satire that exaggerates current events to comical effect but also to satirize what we see in real life in the UK,” Choudry said. “The Riz test isn’t a scientific measure of Islamophobia, it’s more to prop conversation.”

The comedy genre seems to be where, on rare occasions, Muslim characters get to be something other than terrorists. That’s why you see the likes of Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari able to reach out to a whole different segment of audience—and likely why Nanjiani’s real-life-turned-rom-com made it so big as the 2017 box-office hit, The Big Sick. The film, though criticized for its portrayal of Muslim women, finds its way onto the pass list for not sensationalising the struggles of a diasporic man trying to find balance between two cultures and actually casting brown people for roles about brown people problems. Imagine that.

Abed from the series Community also passes the Riz. He’s Muslim, but that is hardly ever the topic of discussion among raps about the library. I’ll group in Aziz Ansari’s Dev from Master of None here too, but do so with some trepidation. I applaud the fact that he’s shown as a complicated character; who can forget that episode where his real-life parents get upset at him for eating bacon, and how he manages that boundary, as I’m sure many of us Muslims have being caught for drinking, eating non-halal stuff, and yes, even those of us who eat pork. What troubles me about Dev is… his name. Dev literally means God in Sanskrit, and is hardly what Muslim parents would name their Muslim child. (But what do I know about how glocal parents are naming their children when my own name is Abeer?)

Mr. Robot is particularly lauded by the founders of the Riz test for showing Shama Biswas, aka Trenton, an Iranian-Muslim no-nonsense hijab-wearing hacker who is depicted as one of the best in her field. All references made about her are from others who are ignorant about Islam, which probably comes as no surprise when you consider the series is written by Egyptian-American Muslim Sam Esmail.

Choudry particularly appreciated that Office Space made the cut for the Riz test, because he himself works in tech. Saudi Arabian geek Samir is an on-point representation of a Muslim man whose main talking points are that he hates his job, his commute, a printer he can never seem to fix, and the fact that people can’t seem to pronounce his name properly.

Failing the Bechdel, but passing the Riz is Kingdom of Heaven, with “a very sensitive and nuanced portrayal of Muslims with the backdrop of the crusades in the time of Salahuddin Ayubi,” says Choudry, while Malcolm X and Ali are both great movies which complicate the narratives of black Muslim American men, while putting a spotlight on race issues. Honourable Riz test mention also goes to Children of Heaven, Wadjda, Persepolis, The Keeper of Lost Causes, and Ali’s Wedding.

As it turns out, there’s quite an appetite for this test, and the founders are finding themselves overwhelmed before even having properly launched their website. The site is slated to launch later this fall, as all three of the founders have full-time jobs in the tech, policy and research sectors. Dr. Habib says they’ve already received a call from someone who works at Pinewood Studios, the same studio responsible for Star Wars: Rogue One, and many other industry insiders who want to collaborate to make the Riz test a success.

Even Riz himself came across the project and gave it a thumbs up.

The founders are hoping that with enough momentum, the Riz test will ultimately be a repository where folks can see how many movies and TV shows pass and/or fail (and how badly they fail) the test, and a hivemind that serves as a cultural reference point to ultimately also be able to influence the industry into creating better, more complicated and diverse Muslim characters on-screen. Good news, considering that Jack Ryan is about release soon, and I’m not too optimistic for the Middle East trips the agent is about to undertake to solve “terrorism.”

Follow Abeer on Twitter.

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