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What I Learnt From Writing a Muslim Character

Writing a Muslim Character: What I Learnt

For my main story, The Queen of Freaks, I always had a Muslim character in mind. I wanted her to be strong, successful, fun and modest. It was important to me that she was a good representation of a Muslim woman: someone who is devoutly religious, kind and capable. I wanted her to use her struggles as a way to empathise with the oppressed people around her. She needed to be a great role model.

Zaynah was named after a friend I made in a summer camp-type thing I did back when I was 16. I was inspired by how fun she is to be around, how she is full of life and always cracking jokes. Although my fictional character has a very different personality, she shares my friend’s essence. So, it was essential for me to get her right and make sure that I knew as much as I could about writing Muslim characters well.

So I went on a hunt. I learnt a little bit about religious holidays, modesty, greetings, beliefs… you name it! It was a fascinating and eye-opening experience for me. Mainly, how much I knew, but how little I understood. I live in London, which is very diverse. This made it easy for me to make friends from all walks of life! Muslim friends were easy to come by. And I have quite a few of them!

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That didn’t stop me from being a bit ignorant, though. Stereotypes, fear and old-fashioned people sharing bigoted beliefs are all over the place. It made me realise how important characters like Zaynah really are! I’m not a Muslim activist and I don’t know nearly enough to give you all the info you should have about writing Muslim characters, but let me share with you what I learnt.

It Was Easier Than I Thought

Humans are humans. We have a lot in common. The fact that Muslims are pretty much just like everyone else was one of those things that I logically knew was true but had never come to terms with on an emotional level.

I fought for Muslim characters to be represented well in writing. I endorsed threads on the ShanniiWrites Forums dedicated to teaching people about Islam and hijabi fashion. I’d defend any Muslim I knew from hate. I’d say I was an ally, for sure. When it came down to it, though, and I set to work creating my Muslim character on Notebook.ai, I panicked. Sure, I have loads in common with my Muslim friends. That’s why we’re friends, after all! Sure, I knew that the best I could do was to make sure I was aware of the stereotypes and make Zaynah into a well-developed character. But could I really do it? Could I do it well?

Yes, of course, I could. Muslims are people. I am a person. Most people, Muslim or otherwise, experience love, anger, sadness, joy and amusement. All I really needed to do was to do exactly what I had done with all my other characters. She needed a backstory, motivations, fears, struggles, flaws and good qualities just like everyone else. I was making an issue where there wasn’t one.

The Problem

The big problem was that I was letting all the negative press get to me. You see, many of us on the left who care a great deal about representation tend to overcompensate. We see the bad in the world and we try our very best to correct it, but not always in the best way.

What do I mean by that? Well, there is a hell of a lot of bad representation of Muslims out there. So many Arabs are villains. Way too many Muslim women are oppressed and silent. A great deal of our media makes Islam look alien, weird, bad, or even downright evil. I had to make sure that I avoided doing the same! I didn’t want Zaynah to be just another character in the long list of Muslims being represented badly. It was essential to me that I was better than that.

So I just sat and stared at my screen. Some part of me had decided that I needed to avoid every single thing that every negative portrayal of Muslims had ever done. If I wanted to write a Muslim character in the right way, I had to throw out every aspect of all that had come before me, right? No! That is such a limiting idea! How are you ever supposed to write anything if you have to spend your time thinking about how to be different from everything else? Not only is it limiting, but it also completely ignores a little thing known as nuance.

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For all of my talk about how easy good representation really is, I was struggling for all the wrong reasons.

The Solution

The solution is so darn easy and, deep down, I knew that. I needed to stop throwing out every single aspect of a Muslim character just because the overall representation is a negative one. What do I mean by that? Well, not all negative portrayals are equally bad.

Of course, you have the characters who seem to just be there to make Muslims look bad. We know they exist. However, there are also the writers who meant well and accidentally added a few insensitive things to their characters. You have the writers who did fairly well for most of their portrayal but threw in a few bad Muslim stereotypes here and there which brought the whole character down. Not all bad is equally bad. The nuance to thinking about Muslim characters is being able to separate the good elements from the bad.

What I really needed to do was spend some time thinking about Zaynah more as a character with her own personality and character arc, rather than as a representation of Muslim people. If you want to write a Muslim character well, you need to think of them as a character first and a Muslim second.

I took some time off writing to read The Kite Runner and think of all the things that the Muslim characters had in common with other characters in other media I’d consumed. This really helped me to get into the right mindset to write: Muslim characters can, and should, be just like everyone else! Once you think of them as a character, you can go back and make sure that you haven’t accidentally stereotyped in any way. Doing it this way around will help so much!

Muslims Are a Diverse Bunch

There are Muslims of all different walks of life. They can be liberal or conservative; slimmer or thicker; black or white. You have devout Muslims and those who see Islam as more of a culture than a faith. Lots of Muslims are good people. Some are bad people. The list just goes on.

Muslims are not a monolith. They all have their own thoughts, feelings, goals, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses just like everyone else. I always knew this, really, but it can be hard to get away from portraying the same Muslim character over and over again.

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I am so sick of seeing Muslim women as meek and subservient in the media, and I’m not even Muslim! All too often in film and TV, a woman has to reject Islam and leave her hijab behind in order to find her voice and fight the oppression in her life. Muslim men, on the other hand, are seen as brutish, sexist and sometimes even violent! You so rarely see a Muslim man support his successful wife in her goals. And that’s when the Muslims in the show aren’t just straight-up terrorists.

Just like with every other religion and belief system that exists in the world, there are loads of denominations with their own interpretations of Islam. Then you have different political leanings and ways that Muslims are called to help others. The way you read the Quran could inform your way of life, and the way you live could inform the way you read the Quran.

Of course, each human being has their own personality. That is true of Muslims, too! Don’t get stuck with the same types of Muslim characters all the time. That’s where stereotypes come from!

They Don’t Need a Hijab to Show That They’re Muslim

For a long time, I thought that how much a woman covered up was a sign of how religious she was. I can blame a few of my Muslim friends for that misconception, and boy is it hard to shake!

When speaking about women in niqabs, it is true that they tend to be very religious. However, that makes it seem as though any woman who doesn’t wear a niqab or a hijab is less religious, or not religious at all. That is not necessarily true.

Sure, some women feel that way. They might not be that religious and so they don’t feel called to cover their heads or faces, and that’s fine! But as I was saying before, different people have different interpretations of the Quran and Islam. Some people believe that Muhammad called for women to wear a veil. Others do not. Wearing a hijab or niqab is an individual choice. Choosing not to doesn’t mean you aren’t religious. Plus, why not have a non-religious Muslim character? Muslims are a diverse bunch, after all!

There are many ways in which a devout Muslim may express their faith. Sure, my Muslim character chooses to wear a hijab. That is her choice and I had to think about why she made it. If you want to write a Muslim character and she’s a woman, you may want to think about whether or not you want her to wear a veil. If you do, make sure to think about why she made that choice.

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Sure, a hijab can be a great way to tell if a character is Muslim if you’re writing for a visual platform like Episode. However, don’t feel bogged down by it. There are many other ways that you can show your reader that your character is Muslim!

Islam Is Not So Different From Christianity

Did you know that Christians who speak Arabic also call their God “Allah”? Or the fact that charity and respect for your neighbours is a huge part of being a good Muslim? What about the fact that Muslims recognise and respect Jesus? On my hunt to find resources to help me write my Muslim character well, I discovered so many cool facts about Islam that we hardly ever hear in the West.

I always knew that Islam was an Abrahamic religion like Judaism and Christianity. After all, I have Muslim friends who told me what Islam teaches about Adam and Eve and Jesus and Abraham. It has its differences, sure! I mean, if there were no differences, it would be the same religion! And I certainly don’t agree with people who claim that belief in one leads to belief in the other. However, it’s really interesting how much I, as a Christian, have in common with my Muslim comrades out there.

Just like Christianity, Islam has loads of different denominations that believe slightly different things. You have Sunni and Shia as the two main branches (a lot like Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity), but you have loads of other little groups within the main ones such as the Nation of Islam (like Christian Anglicans and Methodists).

Islam gets a bad rap these days. Let’s face it, though, every religion has its bad eggs. All you have to do is look at the weird Christian cults that exist out there in the world to see that today. I don’t even need to go back to the Crusades or Spanish Inquisition. We have the Westboro Baptist Church as an example!

Both religions are complex with many unique followers. Disagreements are inevitable!

Hijabs Can Be Gorgeous and Expressive

There are many ways to express your individuality. Some people choose to do their hair in funky styles and colours. Some get tattoos. When it comes to hijabi Muslim girls out there, some of them get creative with their hijabs to help them express their unique personalities! It’s awesome!

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When I was looking for resources on how to write my Muslim character well, I came across so many cool things people do with their modest headscarves. I spoke to a girl who chose her hijab colours to match her mood. I found blog posts recommending different styles, and giving women tips on how to choose a hijab colour to complement their skin tone. Then, of course, there’s one of my favourite cosplayers: a hijabi girl who proves that modesty doesn’t have to stop you from dressing up and having fun!

People often associate hijabs with oppression, but it doesn’t have to be that way! The hijab can mean so many different things to different people! There are women who wear a hijab so that people focus on their words more than their looks. Some people do it to show solidarity to all the Muslims in the world who don’t have the freedom to do the same. There those who wear it to embrace and celebrate their culture. The hijab can be a form of expression!

The Biggest Villain is the Fear of the Unknown

Most of the worst stereotypes out there come from the fear of the unknown. It makes us do stupid things and act in awful, bigoted ways!

There are bad people in every religion. Many of these bad people use their religion to justify their bad beliefs and actions. If you listen to them, you might be fooled into thinking the religion itself is bad. Many of us are tricked like that! But none of the major religions in the world today are inherently bad or good. It’s the way that they’re interpreted that can make or break.

When I was doing some research on how Muslim characters are perceived in the media, one of the big things I noticed was how much misinformation people had written! They fear so much when it comes to Islam because of how Muslims are portrayed in films, TV and even in the news. In reality, though, they don’t know much at all about Islam as a religion!

There is nothing more fear-invoking for us humans than something we don’t know or understand. So if you want to write Muslim characters well, the best thing you can do is learn a little about what it means to be Muslim. It will help you to get over your own personal biases and make you a much more empathetic person.

Learning Greetings and Phrases Can Be Helpful

Sometimes, it can come across as forced if you just shove it in someone’s face that a character is Muslim. Of course, there are contexts in which a person would just come out and say that they’re Muslim in real life, but you have to be aware that they might not always get the chance. If there is no natural way for a character to mention their religion in your story and you just try to put it in there anyway, it can seem fake or forced.

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There are many ways that you can show that a character is Muslim other than just “Hi, I’m Muslim by the way”. You can have them ask if some food is halal, say that they can’t meet their friends on Friday because they’re going to Mosque or just have them slip off to pray at midday. There’s the hijab, too, but as I said before, don’t feel confined to having all the Muslim women in your story wear one. Not all Muslim women do!

So why not try some of these phrases and greetings instead? They are easy to naturally slip into a conversation and hint to the reader that your character might be Muslim.

Phrase/GreetingMeaning
As-Salam-u-Alaikum“Peace Be Upon You”. Can either be used as a “hello” or “goodbye”.
Wa alaikum assalaam“And Upon You Be Peace”. The response to “As-Salam-u-Alaikum”.
Inshallah“If God Wills It”. Usually used if the person is talking about something that they hope will happen in the future.
Mashallah“God Has Willed It”. Used to express amazement, joy or gratitude. When something good happens, a person may say this to praise God.
I’m not an expert, but this is a good start!

It’s An Ongoing Learning Process

Islam is a fascinating and complex religion! The followers are even more complex! So there is always something to learn about writing Muslim characters! Don’t be afraid to ask questions, admit when you make a mistake and grow as a person! It will help you a lot in the long run!

I know I don’t know a whole lot myself. I learn new things all the time! In fact, if you are a Muslim reader and I’ve made a mistake or you want me to add a phrase or greeting to the table, please feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below!

There is always help out there if you need it, so make sure that you take it! Don’t be too proud to admit that you need advice! You can’t know everything about a religion or a group of people in a day!

Happy writing!

Recommended2 recommendationsPublished in Diversity, Resources, Tips, Writing Advice, Writing Beginners
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