There is no doubt that representation in the media is a thing of utmost importance in society. However, since the subject of diverse inclusion has taken a bigger space in publishing, the question of what is regarded as the good or bad representation has been very close on its heels.
This article is written for a general audience but I believe there are points in here as well that can greatly be of benefit for specifically non-Muslim writers.
I don’t label representation good or bad and before I go on to the how-s, I believe it is important to know why:
The representation of a group of people in the media cannot be placed into the big bold boxes of good or bad because there are notable differences in each individual. Even within the #ownvoices bracket (as it is called when a person in a community includes a notably different part of them and their society on the page), there are particular variations. This can be caused by familial culture, ethnicity, religion, etc.
Lived experiences dictate what we put onto the page as writers, and amongst a mostly close-knit community like the Muslim community, they can be very different.
What fair Muslim representation entails:
- The representation should stay true to the basics of that society and in this case, the Muslim society.
- Even when the characters are sinning, the voice of the prose reflects that it is a sin and not accepted in the creed of the religion itself.
- The characters don’t compromise too much of their faith and if they do so, the resolutions are drawn out in a generally satisfying manner.
If most of these come back with a check, then you are probably looking at a book with fair Muslim representation.
Now, on to the main bulk of this article, how do you write accurate and fair Muslim representation?
Non-Muslims, buckle up. Muslims, you too, because you just might learn a thing or two.
What you should not do:
- Assume you’re entitled or allowed to step into society without truly asking yourself if it is your story to tell? You must be considerate of the difference in the lens you’ll see through and that of those in the community you’re writing about.
- Research focusing only on what seems “exotic” about the new world you’re writing. This will include but not be limited to romanticising the hijab and other practices of the Muslim community.
- Project stereotypes, desires, or fantasies about a particular gender when writing characters instead of making them dynamic people and real people e.g the oppressed Muslim woman saved by a non-Muslim man trope.
- Assume that you can instantly gain expertise through limited time or experience, and show such superficial knowledge off in a self-important way. Be open to criticism by those in the society and be ready to listen and hold yourself accountable.
What you should do:
- Have an honest curiosity and willingness to learn, and the ability to ask questions from experts when help is needed. Expert being practicing Muslims in the Muslim society and most times, more than one.
- Have an awareness that you should respect cultural boundaries and differences and not impose your own biases.
- Have an ability to compensate the community for their experiences, whether through financial means or meaningful, equal knowledge-sharing.
- Realise that a story offers a visit to a new experience, but efforts must also be made to boost the originators/ those who exist in those cultures or society.
- Because this one is worth repeating: Is it your story to tell? It is important to consider what advantages you may possess, and how your story might overshadow or limit opportunities for a marginalized community.
- Do your research: museums, interviews, academic sources, holy books, courses, trusted members of that community, cultural centres for those communities i.e mosques, and so on.
- Get Sensitivity Readers: Sensitivity readers act like a critique group, except what they do is evaluate the authenticity and point out any possibly incorrect or damaging elements. Always use more than one reader, as one person should not be treated as if their advice represents an entire people.
Change readers with each major revision to maintain a fresh perspective. Be prepared to get some great insights, but also be ready to act accordingly if a sensitivity reader says a story aspect is offensive or inappropriate and must be scrapped.
Sensitivity readers should not be treated like stamps of approval, but as advisors whose opinions must be taken seriously. Also, be sure to fairly compensate sensitivity readers—their work is equivalent to a developmental edit and should be treated as such.
- Be open to criticism: Even after you have done all your research and gone through multiple sensitivity readers if the society you write about has pointed out something wrong in your writing, listen to them.
I hope I have shed some light on how to write fair Muslim rep and have created some necessary thoughts. Happy Writing!