Abra-Cadabra: NBC’s Community Makes Burqa Jokes

I don’t know how you spend your Thursday nights, but mine are usually spent in front of the television for NBC’s Thursday night comedy line up. And usually, Community is one of my favorite shows. It’s a comedy about a misfit group of community college students.

This weekend, I saw the “Basic Geneaology” episode while I was catching up on all the episodes I missed from the past few weeks. This episode showcased “Family Day” at Greendale Community College. Everyone’s family was coming, and Abed (who is my favorite character despite all the racial issues with casting a South Asian actor as an Arab student) was bringing his father and his cousin from Gaza, Abra.

Abra (left) and Abed on NBC's Community.

Abra (left) and Abed on NBC's Community.

Abed’s father (who is also played by a South Asian actor) shows up with a woman in a niqab—Abra (shown left). I admit, the niqab (referred to as a “burqa” by Abed—cringe!) irritated me. A niqab, really? They couldn’t possibly have portrayed a young Gazan woman in a headscarf? Or no scarf?

The rest of the story line revolved around how Abra wanted to play in a bouncy castle at Family Day, but Abed’s father wouldn’t let her. The same basic Muslim-woman-under-a-male-family-member’s-thumb routine.  But, considering all the Homeland Security jokes that the show uses, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

A somewhat positive scene was when Shirley’s young sons bait-and-switched Abed’s father, dressing themselves up in Abra’s niqab so that she could slip away and finally jump happily in the bouncy castle. It was a cute twist, but didn’t cleanse the icky taste of burqa jokes from my palate.

Shirley's sons in Abra's niqab.

Shirley's sons in Abra's niqab.

Anyone else have thoughts on the episode?

If you’re in the U.S., you can see the episode on the NBC website.

  • http://www.feministreview.org Feminist Review

    LOST also has a South Asian actor playing an Arab Muslim. I wonder what the thought process is behind that exactly.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-28727-Woodside-Family-Examiner RCHOUDH

    Uugh this episode sounds stupid and cliched (not to mention the cliched notion of confusing South Asians for Middle Easterners and vice versa!)

  • Person

    Unfortunately, I think I am trying to give the show to many benefits of a doubt. They at least tried to make it clear that Abed’s father being Muslim wasn’t the problem, but the problem was him just being really uptight and retentive (the way he reacts to Shirley’s sons and when he goes to get the extra shirt he keeps when soda gets spilled on the one he’s wearing). The dialogue about why she can’t jump gives the reason as he’s afraid she’ll get hurt and her father will be mad at him.
    With that said, the only reason for portraying her in niqab leads up to the switch-a-roo at the end. I think it was really lazy on the part of the writers and does play on stereotypes even though they try to make it clear Abed’s father is just generally uptight. For goodness sakes, they could have showed her in just the headscarf, or none at all, and had the boys purposely spill soda on Abed’s father’s pants so she could jump in the bouncy house when he was changing his pants.
    Also, I read in real life Abed is South Asian and Polish. On the show he is apparently Arabic and Polish. I find it interesting they decided to keep the Polish ancestry but not the SOuth Asian one.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist

    I didn’t see the episode so I cannot comment, BUT I AM TIRED OF THEM PUTTING BURQAS OR NIQAB ON MUSLIM WOMEN!!! I DON’T KNOW ANYONE WHO WEARS THE NIQAB OR BURQA.

  • Veronica

    I was mostly annoyed with the continual reference to it as a burqa. Would it be so hard to use apt terminology?

    But I wouldn’t necessarily characterize the entire bit the way you did – while yeah, it’s not really representative to have a Gazan woman wearing a niqab, the dress was necessary to pull off the gag with Shirley’s sons, and it was never described as something she was “made” to do. They just said “she wears a burqa.” (Again, I winced, but it was never presented as something forced on her.) Moreover, at least the way the exchange between her and Abed’s father was described, I wouldn’t say it fit neatly into the under-a-male-relative’s-thumb stereotype. At least from what I remember, the father mostly expressed concern for her safety – overprotective, yes, but not the kind of stereotypical situation I’m used to seeing whenever the media shows Muslim characters, and she challenges this directly and even calls him a name in response.

    But I’d agree it definitely wasn’t on of the show’s finer moments, and even with all the nuance I just tried to create, I’m sure most people would just impress their own notions of it, anyway.

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  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    who cares if the actor is south asian? he’s an ACTOR. would you honestly be able to tell the difference if no one told you he was s. asian? Spanish people play Mexicans and and Colombians play Argentinians and South African play Nigerian and Vietnamese play Indonesian people ALL THE TIME. Its what acting is! It’s not like he was wearing blackface or anything.

  • Asiah Kelley

    I love Community, and I love Abed. But I didn’t like this story line. It wasn’t funny or enlightening.

    However, I’d like to highlight the Valentine’s Day ep. They had a hijabi doing the electric slide in the background of the dance scene. And they’ll often have hijabis walking around as extras. I don’t know how common that’s gonna be a community college in real life, but I like that. Helps to show Muzzies are just like the rest of Americans: they walk, they go to school, they get down to the electric slide.

  • http://southernmasala.blogspot.com Southern Masala

    Agreed DIMA.

    The reason they confuse South Asians and Arabs is because to many Americans “all brown people are the same.” Also why racist bigots shot and killed sikhs post 9-11. Because brown guy in turban must equal Muslim.

    I have never been to Gaza, but I’ve never seen media footage from there showing any women in niqab or burqa. Do many Palestinian women even wear niqab? I mean, the only places I’ve traveled where I see a far amount of niqabis are Gulf Arab states and in Karachi.

    The premise of the show sounds like a total fail (I haven’t seen it), but it sounds like the niqab has been forced on Abra (by her father?) otherwise she wouldn’t sneak out of it at the end to bounce in the bounce house, right?

  • Dude

    @Feminist Review:

    LOST also has a South Asian actor playing an Arab Muslim. I wonder what the thought process is behind that exactly.

    Perhaps there are more South Asian actors available? Perhaps they are more willing to play stereotyped roles?

    Perhaps we need more data before complaining?

    I agree with Rochelle. Some movies/shows warrant attention to detail, and this doesn’t sound like one of those. This is done often with a lot of cultures – including among “whites”.

    @Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist:

    I didn’t see the episode so I cannot comment, BUT I AM TIRED OF THEM PUTTING BURQAS OR NIQAB ON MUSLIM WOMEN!!! I DON’T KNOW ANYONE WHO WEARS THE NIQAB OR BURQA.

    I know a whole bunch.

    And…um…interesting Web site you’ve got there.

  • http://ohmonkeytrumpets.blogspot.com/ Kaitlyn

    Asiah Kelley – I think it is realistic to see so many women in hijabs on a college campus. I don’t go to a CC, but I see many students wearing them, all different colors. And it is a sign that Muslims aren’t a scary other – one girl in my class picked on me for wearing flip-flops (I thought it would be warmer!) and she has Coach shoes.

    And then I saw a hijabi wearing a hot pink hijab with a bright shirt today and it made me smile, because it reminded me of my (Christian, leaning Catholic) sister. Many people think that the hijab will “restrict” women, but the muslimahs on campus accessorize like the rest of us (or better!).

    I do think that the timing is interesting – many of the undergrads on campus who went from high school to college (not grown-ups) grew up with September 11th at an important time – I was in 8th grade, and knew nothing about the Middle East or international politics or anything. (Except that Saudi women couldn’t drive.) I educated myself, and I think many young Muslim women are embracing their Muslim identity with the hijab, especially with the relative tolerance and freedom of college.

    About the show, I’ve never seen it. I don’t need to watch a college show while in college, you know?

  • Zara

    I love the show, but when I saw this episode, I was more than a little disappointed. I feel that the niqab was completely unnecessary for the plotline, and like another poster mentioned, simply included to have the gag with Shirley’s two boys. For an otherwise brilliant show that usually handles stereotypes well, this episode seemed out of place.

    However, I don’t understand the objection to South Asian actors portraying Middle Eastern characters (or vice versa). If the actor is convincing and does justice to the role, I have no problem. Frankly, I’m just glad to see more people of color onscreen with substantial roles.

  • Calvin

    I like making fun of white people as much as anybody else, but I can recognize a double standard when I see one. White people don’t get upset when they see a movie where an Irish guy plays an Italian. Hell, Daniel Craig has played a jew in 3 movies and I’ve never heard a complaint from Jews. For some reason we don’t care about when white people play different roles, but when a south Asian plays an Arab there is outrage and accusation of misrepresentation. Should Cubans hate Scarface cause Al Pacino is actually Italian?

    I stopped caring three lines into this article.

  • Fatemeh

    The point of the article is not about whether South Asians are playing Arabs, and so I will not launch into a discussion regarding the politics of white people or people of color in roles not of their own ethnicity/race/etc.

    Tangents do not an article make!

  • KC

    Even if you insist that you aren’t going to comment because it wasn’t the “point of the article”, Calvin is correct.

    The West, not unlike the “Muslim Morld” is not homogenous and there are significant cultural and lingual differences between Russians, Italians, Brits, Americans, Germans, etc. etc. etc. Despite that, the practice of having individuals play characters of a different ethnicity by faking accents, changing style of dress, and self reference is extremely common. The fact that a South Asian was cast to play an Arab is in that same tradition and is not in any way an indication of ignorance or myopia.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a writer on this site throw out some ludicrous claim that is challenged by a commentor, and then refuse to respond to the challenge on the basis that it wasn’t the main point of the article. Its a pretty weak excuse if you as me.

  • Arwa

    Being White is almost always a position of power though. White people have no problem with representation.

    Being lumped into the ambiguous “White” race is never disempowering, though. Why would it be? It has no historical relevance. Grouping “colored” people into one big monolithic blob does.

    Why don’t they let Arab actors play Arab characters? Why don’t they let Asian actors pay Asian characters (hello dragon ball z). And why won’t they let gay actors play gay characters?

    Hollywood sucks.

    But I digress: This episode was O-KAAAAY. I was not entirely sure whether or not I was offended. The nigab was entirely unnecessary, and the fact that the Shirley’s two kids had to “save” Abed’s cousin. And then she was “liberated” and was having fun on the jumping castle like a normal girl. Meh. It made me uncomfortable.

  • Dude

    Being lumped into the ambiguous “White” race is never disempowering, though.

    Italian Americans, and some Irish Americans, tend to disagree.

    For me, the only time I care is when the race swapping in roles is one sided. Often, for example, white men are used to represent someone historically who was not white (e.g. the movie 21, where the cast was mostly white, but the original group had a lot of Asians). Even that, on its own, is not worrisome – only the overall trend in movies is.

    And I frankly don’t see how letting an Asian play an Arab and vice versa is at all disempowering. Letting a white play what should be an Arab may be.


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