Looking at Sarah from Little Mosque

The third season of Little Mosque on the Prairie has just started up, so I figured it was time to have a discussion about it. Actually, I’ll be honest and admit that really, the reason I’m talking about it is that I wrote a paper on it for a class on popular culture last week, and figured I’d multi-task by tweaking the paper to post on MMW as well. But still. Although Little Mosque has been discussed on MMW a few times already, there’s always lots to say..

Image via the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Image via the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

As a white Muslim woman who doesn’t wear hijab, I’ve always paid particular attention to the character of Sarah, played by Sheila McCarthy. In fact, for a really long time, she was the only representation (real or fictional) that I had ever encountered of a Muslim woman who shared my ethnic background and didn’t wear a headscarf. It’s hard to explain why this was so significant, but in our society where Muslims are so often illustrated as necessarily the “other,” it feels sometimes like we’re told that you’re either Muslim or you’re white, and those images can get confusing for someone who fits completely into both categories. Since I don’t wear a scarf, and have an English-sounding name, I’m always seen as white (and therefore generally assumed not to be Muslim, which can lead to weird situations.) I was excited to see that Little Mosque had a character who was similarly located in terms of identity.

Although there are a lot of problems (which I will get into in a second), I do have to say that I really appreciate that Sarah’s character is there. She is clear about the fact that she is Muslim, and makes a point of mentioning her Muslim identity in several of the shows, even when she is not following traditional Islamic practices. This may allow the audience to understand the definition of a Muslim in ways that they may not have previously considered: she doesn’t “look” like (their impression of) a Muslim, she doesn’t “act” like a Muslim, so what is it that makes her a Muslim? Sarah’s mere presence on the show has the potential to demonstrate that “Muslim” is, for many people, first and foremost a personal spiritual affiliation, and not an identity that has to be read from the outside. Given that the category of “Muslim” seems to be increasingly racialised as always a foreign identity in the media, political discourses, and elsewhere, alternate images are hugely important.

There is a (not entirely unfounded) stereotype among Muslims that those who have newly embraced Islam tend to immediately take on many of the most conservative understandings of Islamic practice, and distance themselves in many ways (changing their name, adopting new clothing, and so on) from the cultures in which they were raised. I appreciate that Sarah’s character diverges from this image. The construction of her character affirms that people who become Muslim don’t automatically have to become model followers of the faith, and that it is possible to be Muslim without this being the main defining feature of someone’s life. Sarah manages to become Muslim without the rest of her life changing in massive ways, which may convey that Islam is not as incompatible with Western society as some people assume it to be. Sarah’s presence on the show is an important tool of disrupting notions of who gets identified as “Muslim” and of what that identification actually means.

On the other hand, I worry that certain aspects of Sarah’s character may actually bolster some negative and even harmful images of the relationship between Muslims and white non-Muslims in Canada. Sarah rarely says anything positive about Islam; she self-identifies as a “bad Muslim” (which is a whole other discussion in itself), complains about the Islamic lunar calendar (proposing they change the month of fasting to December rather than Ramadan, because days are always short and shopping is good), whines about missing Christmas, and scoffs at various other Islamic traditions. Although Sarah’s identity as a Muslim might challenge viewers’ impressions of who Muslims are, her dismissal of so many of Islam’s beliefs and practices may confirm for the non-Muslim audiences of the show that such concepts are still foreign, archaic, or just plain weird. The value of having a Muslim character who shares the ethno-cultural background of mainstream Canadian viewers is negated to some degree by the fact that this character allows such viewers to remain relatively comfortable in their suspicion of Islam.

Sarah also demonstrates that she knows very little about Islam, even the basics. She defines herself repeatedly as a “bad Muslim,” and lacks elementary knowledge on practices such as the ritual prayer, despite presumably having been Muslim for at least a couple decades. In the episode entitled “The Convert,” Sarah makes a bet with her daughter that she will be able to pray five times a day for an entire month. It only takes a short while for this effort to make her exhausted and disoriented, with no time for her work. On a personal level, I am annoyed that the one popular culture representation of a Muslim who looks like me is so flaky; on a broader level, I am concerned about what message this sends about Islam’s requirements. Praying five times a day is one of the most basic pillars of Islam, and is followed by millions of people around the world, most of whom still manage to function just fine in the other aspects of their lives. While Sarah’s inability to cope with this practice can certainly be taken as simply indicative of personal flaws in her own character, I do worry that it could also convey a message that following Islam is an unrealistic burden that just doesn’t fit within a Western lifestyle. (At no point does the show demonstrate to us that other characters likely do pray five times daily, and unlike Sarah, manage to go normally about their lives.) I also worry that the fact that this “bad Muslim” doesn’t wear hijab implies that all the rest of us non-hijab-wearing Muslim women also don’t pray regularly (or know how to do so), or don’t know much about the religion, when of course there is a wide range of knowledge and practice both among those who don’t wear hijab and among those who do.

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Another thing that bugs me about Sarah’s character is the way that she may reinforce the common stereotype of (most) Muslim women being oppressed. For example, during the “Barrier” episode in the first season (see the clip above, starting around 5:30), a group of white women from the town come to the mosque to protest plans to build a barrier between the men’s and women’s sections of the prayer space. As they chant, “Oppressed Muslim women of the world, cut your chains and be free!” Sarah says that she will handle the situation. She approaches the women and whispers that she completely agrees with them, then proceeds to loudly berate them about how they are infringing on the rights of Muslim women to make their own decisions about how they would prefer to pray. She points to Fatima, a woman who actually wants the barrier, and criticises the protesters for making assumptions about the needs of women of colour. As the leader stammers an apology, Sarah whispers to her that she appreciates that they came, and that she will call them if she needs their help.

While Sarah’s louder comments were actually quite poignant (and much more consistent with my own position on what those protesters needed to be told), she undermines them with her secret identification with the protesters, implying that Muslim women do in fact need white non-Muslim outsiders to save them, and legitimising the kinds of imperialist feminisms in which many white non-Muslim western women engage. Her whispered contradictions of her more loudly-stated points also suggest that Fatima should not, in fact, be trusted to make her own decisions, and that it is indeed entirely appropriate to make decisions on behalf of marginalised women. Sarah’s own whiteness allows her to maintain her own voice and agency within this discussion, without challenging common conceptions of most Muslim women as oppressed victims in need of saving. I’m concerned that scenes such as this one, and others where Sarah voices her disagreement with other facets of Islam, may actually allow the audience to hold on to their personal prejudices about Muslims, and may even lend validity to these perceptions.

So I’m a bit torn on how I feel about this (and about other aspects of the show, but I’ll stop at Sarah for now.) Does Sarah’s character challenge the idea of “Muslim” as a foreign identity, belonging only to those who look “different” or come from “over there”? Or does she reinforce ideas of Islam and its practices as strange and often oppressive, with its traditional practices being largely incompatible with mainstream Canadian culture? My own impression is that she does both, and while I still appreciate her presence in the show, I am not convinced that this presence is always a positive force. I do keep watching though, largely out of sheer curiosity, but also out of hope that its effects on Canadian (and global) viewers will ultimately be more beneficial than harmful.

  • Sobia

    Excellent analysis! You’ve voiced my own ambivalence about the show. I love that there are “normal” Muslims on mainstream Canadian TV. I love that the show is ethnically diverse, something very rare. I love that Muslims are shown as being able to laugh at themselves and having experiences similar to non-Muslim Canadians. I love that mainstream Canadian television is normalizing Canadian Muslims and making non-Muslims comfortable with us and our presence in Canada.

    However, I’ve always had problems with the depictions of some of the Muslim themselves as I’m sure you’ve noticed in my posts earlier. As you mentioned, Sarah is the air-head of the show (seriously – not knowing how to pray after so long?!). And I’ve definitely noticed that she is also the convert without a hijab. I’ve always wondered about the connection myself and if the show was trying to say something. I’ve always read something into it. As I have into the character of Laila, the rebellious teenager who refuses to wear hijab and likes boys. I’ve never thought this was a coincidence. For me the underlying message here is that if Muslim women look or act like Sarah and Laila then they are bad Muslims. But if they look and act like Rayyan and Fatima then they are good Muslims.

    And of course the men of the show have their own stereotypes. What’s up with Baber always wearing shalwar kameez

    Oh, and of course not to mention what the show says is and isn’t Islamic has irked me. First of all it depicts only Sunni Islam from my understanding and depicts it as Islam. But anyhow…that’s a bit off topic.

    To get back to your post, it is interesting what you mention about White converts to Islam. I too like that it looks like Sarah is able to be Muslim without making massive changes in her life. However, many non-White Muslims also hold certain stereotypes about White Muslims. When considering life partners I’ve always been warned about converts – “You know how they can get – he’ll make you wear hijab.” The stereotype about the ‘born again Muslim’ is rampant. And I admit that I too held this belief until recently. Therefore when you say:

    “….I worry that certain aspects of Sarah’s character may actually bolster some negative and even harmful images of the relationship between Muslims and white non-Muslims in Canada.”

    I agree. And this may occur among Muslims themselves too.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Sobia: COSIGN!

    Great post!

  • http://ruinedbyreading.wordpress.com Sakina

    I love LMOTP and I agree with everything you’ve said. I like that she’s white and doesn’t wear hijab and shows people that you don’t have to look like Fatima or Rayyan to be Muslim. But at the same time I hate how she’s flakey and to some it might seem like she only converted for her husband and besides him she doesn’t care for the religion at all.

  • Shagufta

    Short comment for now, but I don’t think the show has an agenda of showing “if Muslim women look or act like Sarah and Laila then they are bad Muslims. But if they look and act like Rayyan and Fatima then they are good Muslims.” I think it’s trying to create a nuanced, complex picture of a Rayyan and a Fatima, characters that perhaps the show’s viewership have a lot of stereotypes about.
    The show’s creator mentioned in a talk once (at least from my notes) that the different characters demonstrate that it is possible for a strong, deeply faithful, intelligent personality to emerge from a household that is nominally religious (As the Yasser-Sarah household). There are lots of households like this and the show is simply depicting a common trend. Yasser and Sarah are great parents on the show, but their lack of religion I think gives viewers something to think about as they discover that Rayyan’s commitment to her faith is not because her parents forced Islam onto her.

  • Sobia

    @Shagufta:
    But how is Yasser nominally religious? You never see him drinking or eating pork. We know the character can pray. He may be a little conniving when it comes to his work but rarely is seen as doing things that are highly unethical – just silly things.

    And why is Sarah nominally religious? Why not Fatima? Now that would be breaking stereotypes.

    I understand that Rayyan’s character is there to show that practicing Muslim women who wear the hijab can be very independent and ambitious, and that is a necessary image. But I get the feel it is at the expense of other stereotypes.

  • Krista

    @ Shagufta:
    I agree that I’m not sure there’s necessarily an *agenda* to paint “good Muslims” in certain ways – but personally, it’s not the agenda that I’m worried about, but the effects that come out of it. I also totally agree that there are a lot of ways that Rayyan’s character breaks a bunch of stereotypes, which is really cool.

    But I’m still concerned, as Sobia said, that the hijab=good/practising Muslim (and no hijab=bad/not practising) image is alive and well on the show, and I’m not comfortable with what that says (both about people who wear hijab and about people who don’t.)

    @ Sobia:
    Thanks for all your comments, those reflect a lot of my thoughts on the show too. I have to say that I have seen the stereotype of fanatical-new-Muslim play out a LOT among some people I know, so it’s not only non-white Muslims who have this impression, and frankly, it’s often accurate! But of course, it’s not the only story, which is part of why I was so happy to see that at least Sarah didn’t fall into that category, and I do think it’s really cool for Muslims and for non-Muslims to see a representation of a white woman who is Muslim without having to change everything about her life. (On the other hand, there was an episode, called “The Convert,” that had a guy becoming Muslim and totally fitting the crazy new Muslim stereotype, to the point that he drove even Baber crazy!)

    @ Sakina:
    Exactly. I often see Sarah complaining on the show and think, well, why did you become Muslim if you were going to just spend all your time whining about it? And I think you’re right that she can seem as if she’s only Muslim because her husband is, which might give off the impression that, well, she’s Muslim, but she doesn’t *really* want to be.

    Something else I was thinking of is that I think there are a bunch of writers for the show, and not all are Muslim (in fact, I think that most aren’t, but I could be wrong on that.) I wonder to what extent that affects the ways that some of the images on the show reinforce certain stereotypes people have about Muslims, since perhaps the people writing the shows don’t always have access to enough alternate images? I don’t mean to say that the show isn’t also breaking some stereotypes, because I think there are lots of things that Little Mosque does well, but I wonder what the effect is of a mostly non-Muslim writing team (and if I’m wrong on that, please correct me.)

  • http://www.liquescent.net/blog M. Landers

    I suppose my only question is when does a sitcom get to be just a sitcom? I understand the inclination to look for a full, complete picture of muslimness and western muslimness in a Canadian program about muslims, but really, one show can’t carry that burden. I’ve seen criticism of this show from a great many perspectives, but they all seem to come down to the same thing … “it doesn’t represent my muslim reality (or, in some cases, my muslim idealism) enough.”

  • Krista

    @ M. Landers:
    That’s an interesting question. I do agree with you that the show can’t do everything, and that it would never be able to portray all the different realities of Muslim life in Canada. And I think Sobia’s first comment on this article summed up my own dilemma in critiquing it – I really appreciate that the show exists on mainstream Canadian TV. It’s great to have a show out there where Muslims can laugh at ourselves, and can even deal with some of the more serious political discussions in a lighthearted way. It’s certainly a welcome addition amidst all the other representations of Muslims out there. Every so often, I do ask myself why I’m so critical of the show, since it’s just a TV show, and it’s doing some really cool things.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that Little Mosque has ever been “just a sitcom.” From the beginning, it was created with particular goals, and in today’s context, any attempts to affect the perceptions of Muslims in Canadian society are necessarily political, whether they intend to be or not. The coverage that the show has received – from all over the world – also shows that it is being read not simply as a sitcom but also as a new perspective on the ways that Muslims are depicted. (Of course, it’s not like no one was proposing alternative understandings of Muslim identity before little Mosque came along… But it is unusual in the widespread attention it receives, as a show that is broadcast on national television (and Youtube!) every week.)

    It’s not necessarily *right* that it should be like this, but given the lack of representations of Muslims in the rest of our media (especially representations of Canadian Muslims, and ones who aren’t supposedly terrorists or oppressed), the show has a lot more potential to influence people’s perception of Muslims than it would if it were about a group of people that’s more commonly presented in mainstream media. I would LOVE to see a day when Little Mosque could be “just a sitcom.” But until then, I think we do need to pay attention to the images that it’s showing, and to make sure the show isn’t causing further alienation of Muslims.

  • http://www.luckyfatima.wordpress.com luckyfatima

    Actually though Krista I am not sure that you are really as alike to Sara as you think…there are a lot of white women married to native Muslim men, who have accepted Islam after marriage somewhat nominally, perhaps to appease in-laws or whatever. They act very much like Sara. Right down to mocking Islam and their husbands’ native cultures, often behind the back of the Muslim community. At the same time, they adopt a lot of Muslim practices and although God knows what is in their hearts, they seem that they actually are accepting of a lot of Islamic beliefs and take them to heart, while at the same time remaining skeptical about many issues, missing Christmas, or even creating some kind of syncretic Islamo-Christian belief system.
    I kind of always thought of the Sara character in that light, because I do know women like her. I guess they are still Muslims and part of our very diverse Muslim community, non-traditional as they may be, it is just reality. though I know that more traditional Muslims often frown on these women, and personally I find their mocking ways to be somehow racist/imperialistic and damaging to their mixed-race/bicultural childrens’ identities.

    I am not a huge fan of the show because I find the humor cheesy and have only seen it a few times on youtube, but I really liked reading your analysis, you brought up many good points about representation…

  • amirah

    i love this show little mosque on the prarie is actually very popular here in canada amongst muslims and non muslim….. i live in toronto and there a tons of muslims here you cant go anywhere without seeing at least one muslim. most people here are used to muslims now …we have ISLAMIC HISTORY MONTH in oct. thanx to parliment. i have had non muslims ask me about things in the show and i just tell them but i think the show . is trying to say hey muslims are normal like you and me. also the US is going to be getting a version of lmotp too. i think fox is going to show it but not sure when it will come out

  • Sobia

    @amirah:

    Islamic History Month? Where is this? I’ve never heard of this and have lived in Canada all my life. Maybe its a Toronto thing. Or maybe it’s not advertised enough. Why aren’t Muslim organizations taking advantage of this and hosting educational/art/cultural etc. events? Or are they?

  • Krista

    @ luckyfatima:
    Yeah, I agree with you that I don’t actually have that much in common with Sarah’s character. In fact, we have almost nothing in common aside from our backgrounds and appearances. But I think that in a culture where “Muslim” is understood and represented as necessarily being outside of the dominant culture, and (especially in the case of women) represented specifically as being *visibly* “different” in some ways from the mainstream white Canadian identity, there’s something interesting (and often confusing) about having an identity that fits completely into both categories. It’s rare to see that actually depicted, so it was interesting to see Sarah on this show, and I’m always curious to see what she’ll do next. But yeah, I don’t share much else with her, and her own experiences and relationship to Islam are really different from my own.

    @ Sobia:
    Really, you didn’t hear about Islamic History Month? It’s new (I think was just decided by the government last year), but it’s a cross-Canada thing… Guess it hasn’t really caught on though yet, since it hasn’t existed for long. There’s been lots of stuff happening in Toronto, but I’m not sure about anywhere else in the country.

    @ amirah (and everyone):
    We’ve talked about some of the good things about the show, but I do have to say that I’m conflicted about the “hey, Muslims are normal” images that the show is trying to convey. I worry sometimes that the show is trying to say “we should respect Muslims because they’re just like us,” in a way that normalises the “us” (ie, white non-Muslim Canadians) and reinforces it as the “normal” Canadian identity that Muslims should try to emulate. While I’m glad to see something suggesting that Muslims aren’t actually a whole different species or something, I’m concerned that this emphasis on claiming that “don’t worry, we’re just like you!” in some ways reinforces an idea that Muslims should be respected primarily because of their attempts to conform to some pre-determined identity, rather than arguing for respect on our own terms. Does that make sense?

  • amirah

    @sobia

    http://www.islamichistorymonth.com/

    i mean parliment said its suppose to be for all of canada lol….. here in toronto they teach islam in the public schools during the month… every morning they even do a muslim scientist……and in toronto there are events at the museums, and events at libraries etc…….

  • Sobia

    I had no idea about Islamic History Month. I wonder if there is preference/funding etc given to certain organizations in a certain city or province (yeah…I’m a Toronto hater :) ). How did the government go about telling people about this month?

    My brother is an executive member of a provincial Muslim society (not Ontario) and I know they have not heard of it.

    Very odd. Good to know that this happens and I’m glad to see it does but it seems useless if people don’t even know.

  • American sister

    Assalamu alaikom,
    I have watched LMOTP since the first episode. I love that there is a sitcom on tv about Muslims. (I worry how the American version is going to play out.) I agree with what you’ve said about Sarah. As far as I can recall, there have only been two converts on the show, Sarah and the crazy white guy who de-coverted by the end of the show. That really bothers me but I am not going to complain too much because this show is a terrific start (towards the goal of acceptance, tolerance, the normalization of Muslims in the broader society.)

  • Krista

    @ Sobia:
    I definitely remember seeing something about it when I lived in Vancouver – so it’s not *only* Toronto. That’s weird that it didn’t get more widely publicised though.

  • Fyre

    Islamic History Month is also going on in Windsor. They’re are some lectures that are going to happen at the University from what I’ve heard.

  • http://www.shadjar.wordpress.com Inal

    I wish I could watch this show-but I realized as I reread the post, that you can watch it on YouTube (sorry behind the times). And I wonder if I will see specks of myself – a Spanish Muslimah that unfortunately takes umbrage to being glumped together with African American Muslims when we don’t share heritages in enough quantities to be thought the same- whose only outwardly public accommodation I have made is the hijab and haven’t caught on to giving dawah to her staunch “other religions” clan members. That they respect my space in this world is good enough for me- does that make me…what? Like Sarah?, traditional?, liberal?, hypocrite? What I wonder?

  • Melinda

    Great topic, Krista. Thanks for writing this.

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