This post was written by guest contributor Maria Salman.
Marriage: The one word on the tip of the tongue for many young Muslims. The difficulties in searching for the elusive One experienced by the Muslim diaspora is a phenomenon that is well documented. Google the phrase “Muslim marriage crisis,” and a substantial number of hits comes up – especially about the dearth of eligible Muslim bachelors and the struggles of over-30 professional Muslim women in finding a suitable mate who is on par with their educational background. Judging by the flooded comment sections in almost every blog post or article discussing the search for a spouse, the topic definitely hits a nerve amongst the Muslim community living in the “West.”
Recently, a friend sent me a link for a BBC Three documentary titled Strictly Soulmates, a four part series that aired in February 2012. The series briefly chronicles the adventures of “religious” young British singletons as explained by this introductory summary on its YouTube page:
“Looking for love is tough at the best of times and it can be even harder when your pool of potential partners is small. Welcome to the world of being young, single and religious. This is looking for love as it’s rarely been seen on TV before – with religion in play there are a whole new set of rules and it can be seriously tough to find ‘the one’. Strictly Soulmates takes a fun, entertaining and emotional look at the real life trials and tribulations of a group of singletons trying to find their perfect match from four different religions: Evangelical Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish.”
Reading this synopsis, I was both intrigued and apprehensive about watching the documentary, particularly the Muslim episode. Intrigued because the documentary showcased individuals navigating primarily religious expectations while finding a life partner – reflecting processes that my friends and I are currently undergoing as well. Apprehensive because BBC Three does not exactly have the best history in representing Muslims and tends to develop simplistic caricatures of Muslims – as evidenced by their Make Me a Muslim documentary so ingeniously critiqued on MMW recently by wood turtle.
The Muslim episode of Strictly Soulmatestakes a look at three young British Muslims in a narrated format peppered with interviews from different Muslim men and women: 23-year-old Zubair, a fresh engineering grad from Manchester University with the goal of returning to Pakistan (and with no experience of talking to women, as the narrator keeps pointing out); Naila, an accounting student who just turned 22 and has begun the process of an arranged marriage with the help of her mother; and Tabassum (otherwise known as Dimpy), a 32-year-old doctor who has turned down numerous suitors in the persistent hope of marrying a doctor. Although I appreciated the stories of these three smart, confident individuals, the documentary had several shortcomings in how it depicted Muslims.
After being introduced to the Muslim singletons, I noticed that all three of them were of Pakistani background, born and bred in the U.K. It was disappointing to see the lack of diversity in the documentary when it attempts to showcase a religion with more than a billion followers. The narrator never explicitly highlights the cultural background of Zubair, Naila and Tabassum – it is only when the participants mention Pakistan or speak in Urdu that one realizes all three are Pakistani.
There is nothing wrong with displaying the experiences of three British-Pakistani Muslims but when the documentary employs definitive phrases of what Islam is and what Muslims believe, it fails to acknowledge the multiplicities of Islamic beliefs and practices. The show unfortunately squanders an opportunity to represent diverse perspectives by failing to ensure participants from all walks of life in terms of ethnicity, nationality, sexuality or sect.
The obvious lack of diversity is made worse when the narrator makes highly problematic, sweeping generalizations about Muslims and their religious mandates. In one instance, the narrator states that most Muslim girls marry young, which is not only a generalizing characteristic of a vast group of women but an unfounded assumption. There are quite a few scenes that are edited in a way which enforce stereotypes about Muslims, particularly the traditional, strict ones in opposition to the modern ones.
At a marriage event, as Zubair discloses to a group of singles how uncomfortable he would be if his wife did not wear the hijab, the camera flashes to a woman’s gold studded high-heeled sandals. The narrator notes that Zubair is the “most traditional male’ at the event, at which the point the camera does a close-up of another male participant in a pink shirt with a faux hawk haircut. In this way, the documentary’s editing implicitly encourages the audience to make assumptions about an individual’s religious identity based on physical appearance.
Another segment of the documentary involves interviews with other Muslims (mostly men) who speak assuredly about gender relations in Islam, as if no other point of view exists. Again, a limited version of Islam emerges when one man, quite matter-of-factly states that the Quran “actually, specifically” stipulates that men and women cannot exist in the same space. The men also strongly imply that Muslim individuals who have ever engaged in drinking alcohol or going to pubs are not actually Muslims at all.
The issue with these little interview snippets is not about the validity of these statements but that there is no deeper discussion about the social realities of what it means to be a Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim environment. Instead, the men come off as being highly judgemental and narrow-minded. There is no attempt to explain that these interpretations are just one in a broad spectrum of Islamic beliefs; that these activities or beliefs are unacceptable to some Muslims, not all. Hence, the depictions of religiosity are seen as something static and fixed.
In presenting a Muslim woman who wore the hijab (Naila) and a Muslim woman who did not wear the hijab (Dimpy), the show keeps perpetuating stereotypes associated with the overused media trope of Traditional versus Modern when describing Muslims. Dimpy explains that, although she has a very strong faith in Allah, she is not a very “practising” Muslim in terms of praying five times a day. There is also a great deal of close-up footage highlighting Dimpy’s consumerist indulgence, from her knee-high leather boots and colourful dresses to her designer bag shaped birthday cake.
In contrast, the documentary follows Naila as she performs prayers, goes to the mosque and helps her mother in domestic tasks. There is no mention of how Naila practises her faith – the viewer is led to assume that she rightfully adheres to Islamic practices because of her visible status as a hijabi woman. On the opposite end, a similar approach is applied to Zubair, whose beard serves as a consistent reminder that he is a “strict” Muslim man.
The term “practising Muslim” implies a hierarchy of authenticity, which places Naila over Dimpy as the more devout Muslim woman. The show implies that outward appearances are sufficient in determining whether one is an authentic Muslim or not. The reality is more complex and nuanced, for there is no single, monolithic understanding of Islam. How a billion people from varying cultural and ethnic contexts practise their beliefs is significantly more complex and nuanced than what is depicted by the documentary.
Overall, Strictly Soulmates provides interesting insights into the lived experiences of three British-Pakistani Muslim individuals negotiating religious and cultural boundaries when searching for a marital mate. However, it does have its limitations, since it fails to represent diverse experiences and fall backs into perpetuating superficial binaries. I have yet to watch the other episodes but it would be interesting to see if the show delves into the complexities of different religious beliefs in the Jewish, Hindu or Christian episodes. I am not holding my breath.