Looking at Little Mosque’s Layla

It’s been a little while since we last discussed Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian television sitcom about a Muslim community in a small (fictional) town.  We’ve written before about its handling of the question of separate mosque entrances for men and women; the character of Sarah, a white Muslim woman; an interview with the actress who plays Rayyan; the reaction to Layla’s crush on a boy at the mosque; and a couple general overviews of the show from back in its earlier days.

Season Four of the show began this fall.  Episodes can be seen here (at least, they can in Canada.  If the link doesn’t work for you, you should be able to find the episodes on YouTube.)  To be honest, I haven’t been especially impressed with most of this season’s episodes, especially given how unbearably obnoxious the new church reverend is.  Those of you who’ve been following will probably know what I mean.

However, there has been one moment this season that I really appreciated, and that actually responds to some of the biggest issues that I’ve had with the show up to this point. The five-times-daily prayer is almost never mentioned on Little Mosque, so I was especially annoyed that the one time that it came up was in the context of how hard it would be.  On a more general level, the equation of hijab=good Muslim, no hijab=non-practising, bad Muslim is something that has arisen in a lot of our MMW critiques of Little Mosque.  Fatima and Rayyan both wear it, and are generally depicted as the ones following Islam, whereas the major characters who don’t wear it (and, in fact, the only Muslim women depicted without it) are Sarah, the clueless white woman, and Layla, the rebellious teenager.

Layla from LMOTP. Image via the CBC website.

Layla from LMOTP. Image via the CBC website.

It’s Layla’s character, however, who is becoming more interesting as the show progresses.  For the first couple seasons, she seemed there basically as someone for her father, Baber, to attempt to control, and most of what we saw of her were her continued attempts to resist her father’s rules (and who could blame her?), although father and daughter always reconcile in the end.  It seemed, for a while, as if Layla’s interactions with Islam were shown only as her transgressions against her father’s very strict religious interpretations: talking to boys, refusing to wear hijab, and so on.  It was hard to see whether Layla herself really cared much about being Muslim, because what we saw of her character was so dominated by her rebellion against her father.

I don’t mean to suggest that Layla wouldn’t be an authentic or positive character unless she demonstrates how important Islam is to her identity, but there have been a few recent scenes when she has started to articulate the personal importance that her religion holds for her, and this adds an interesting complexity both to her own character and to the possible range of “Muslim” identities that the show depicts.  In one episode last season, Layla’s father bans her from going into the local health food store (despite its delights of alcohol-free vanilla and gelatin-free gummy bears), because he can tell that she likes the boy who works there.  Layla is clearly upset with her father and finds him unreasonable; it’s the typical Baber/Layla kind of argument.  Where it changes is towards the end, when Baber is outside of the store, and the boy in question goes on a bit of an anti-religion rant.  Layla’s disgust at him is apparent, and she emphasizes how important Islam is to her.  It’s one of the first instances where Layla articulates her own connection to being Muslim.

In a recent episode this season (and, I think, one of the funniest episodes yet), Layla goes to live with Rayyan for a while because she and her father aren’t getting along.  When things don’t start off especially smoothly between Rayyan and Layla, Rayyan says that they need to set down some rules, to which Layla assumes that this begins with Rayyan wanting her to wear hijab.

A conversation follows:

Layla: “No offence, I just don’t get how you deal with it.”

Rayyan: “Wearing hijab is how I choose to show my devotion to God and Islam.”

Layla: “Well, I guess I’m not as ‘devoted’ as you, I just can’t wear it.”

Rayyan: “I’m not saying you’re not devoted.”

Layla: “I don’t drink, I don’t date, I pray five times a day, but it’s never enough for my dad.  Or you, I guess.”

Rayyan: “Layla, you’re a great Muslim.  It’s not about what’s on your head.  It’s about what’s in your heart.  [...]  Don’t worry about what’s good enough for us.  It’s between you and God.  Just figure out what’s right for you.”

I’m not saying this scene is perfect – defining what makes a “great Muslim” is always problematic, and Layla still defines it here largely in terms of outward actions – but I still think it’s one of the more honest and realistic portrayals that Little Mosque has had of the struggle to balance one’s own religious beliefs and practices with the external pressures that exist.  It also puts Rayyan’s choice to wear hijab into context as one, but not the only, way to express a connection to God, and challenges its position as a marker of what makes a good Muslim.  And, praying is shown as a regular part of Layla’s life, not as something impossible to take on, as Sarah’s character had suggested a few seasons previous to this one.

This is only one scene, and it does end with Rayyan policing Layla’s interactions with her male friends, so it’s not exactly revolutionizing the whole show.  However, I think it’s still important that it’s there, and I hope that Little Mosque will continue to chip away at some of the other simplistic and stereotypical identities that have arisen.

I also hope that the show manages to get rid of the new reverend, but I’m not holding my breath on that one…

Rear View: LMOTP Tackles Mosque Segregation

Image via CBC website

Image via CBC website

This piece was written by both Sobia and Krista and originally posted at Muslim Lookout.  Viewers in Canada can now watch full episodes of the show here.  This review looks at Episode 18, “Baber Makes an Entrance.”

Sobia: It’s been a while since I’ve written about Little Mosque on the Prairie. Unfortunately I haven’t been watching it on a regular basis. However, after seeing this week’s promo my curiosity was peaked. The premise this week: Baber, the ultra-conservative Muslim is convinced by the uber-conservative Muslim, Faizal, that the mosque needs a separate, women’s only entrance. Another entrance is hastily “created” – the back door used for throwing out and stacking garbage gets the label “women” placed on it – and the women are forced to enter the mosque after making their way threw piles of garbage. Meanwhile, Amaar, tries to get these super conservative men to somehow change their minds.

Knowing Zarqa Nawaz’s strong opposition to segregation in the mosque I already had a suspicion of how the show would proceed and I was not disappointed. The separate entrance is depicted as the injustice it is. The women, in protest, refuse to come to the mosque. Baber only has a change of heart when he realizes his daughter has to go through the humiliation of walking through garbage to get into the mosque. Amaar, to show the ultra-conservatives how wrong the idea of segregation is, devises a plan which, as a woman, I thought had quite satisfying consequences.

Krista: I really liked this episode, and I was also pretty satisfied with Amaar’s plan. Part of me still wishes that he had laid down the law more firmly in the beginning (I know, I know, that would have been totally out of character for him!), and I was frustrated that in both of the meetings that he had with the men and women all together, he seemed much more concerned about having the men’s approval than the women’s. That said, I guess the point was that he was trying to get the conservatives to decide themselves that separate entrances were a bad idea, rather than having that concept forced on them.

I especially appreciated that the motivation for Baber and Faisal wasn’t about piety or modesty, but was specifically discussed in terms of proving how conservative they are. They want to one-up the mosque that Faisal went to in Winnipeg not because they want to show that they’re better Muslims, but because they want to show themselves to be more conservative. I couldn’t imagine this discussion actually happening in these terms in real life, but I liked how it was scripted here, to suggest that separate entrances really are a matter of particular ideologies, and not a measure of piety.

Sobia: Those who know me know that I have had my issues with some of the portrayals of Muslims and Islam in the show in the past, but I have been appreciative that the show does exist. This episode had one particularly highly enjoyable segment. As part of the plan Amaar agrees to having two separate entrances but only if the men use the back, garbage door. They begrudgingly agree but when they try to enter the back door for Friday prayer they find the door won’t open. They can’t get in and are stuck listening in at the door to Amaar’s khutbah. As I watched this the comment on women’s sections in various mosques was certainly not lost on me. Men leaning in trying desperately to hear the khutbah over the noise of the garbage truck behind them reminded me of so many women’s sections in which women desperately try to hear the khutbah over the noise of playing children every Friday. It was nice to see men being so inconvenienced. Although I am not sure how many Muslim, mosque going, men will recognize their privilege after seeing this (if they haven’t already that is) but let’s hope that at least a few have a change of heart and recognize that being able to actively be a part of the mosque is a luxury they have. Nicely done, LMOTP!

Krista: I completely agree about hoping that this will show some Muslims (men in particular) the ways that segregated spaces often make for profoundly unequal spaces that can seriously limit the potential for women’s participation. Is it bad that I felt a guilty kind of pleasure in seeing the men, for once, as the ones having strain to hear what was being said? Of course, for some mosques, a more realistic representation would have been if that back garbage area WAS the women’s space, with a few screaming children thrown in too, just for fun.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating (and possibly a little bitter.) Overall though, I think this might be the most useful/powerful LMOTP episode yet.

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.