Two young Muslims discuss how Skam portrays Islam

Fans got what they had been wishing for when season four chose to focus on Sana Bakkoush, but how well is the show doing in telling the story of a teen Muslim?

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Chris, Eva, Sana, Vilde and Noora in Norway’s hit show “Skam”Courtesy of NRK

If you believe in The Secret, it was practically predestined that season four of Norway’s popular television show Skam would focus on the Muslim character, Sana Bakkoush. Fans of the show had been relentlessly law-of-attracting on Twitter. Daily polls asked who should be season four’s ‘main’: Sana, Vilde, Magnus or Evak (a portmanteau of Isak and Even). Sana was by far the favourite. Fan accounts hoped to catch the roving eye of series creator Julie Andem. She’s made it known in the past that she often checks out pointed fan theories and feedback.

It was a grassroots campaign not only for Sana – a hijab-wearing, unfiltered firebrand who says it like it is – but for Islam, an opportunity for the minutes-long clips posted throughout the week to normalize the Muslim faith in a digestible way. Dismantling stereotypes is what Skam has expertly done over three seasons, with episodes about coming out, bipolar disorder, slut-shaming, eating disorders and rape. The expertise is in ferrying the message to viewers without beating them over the head with it. Here was its chance to tackle irrational fear of the ‘other’ while politicians were signing declarations into law banning Muslims from entering America. Now that fans have got their wish, Sana’s onion layers are being slowly peeled away to reveal a multi-faceted teen girl that struggles with both boys and her beliefs.

Some aren’t too happy. After the credits rolled on Isak and Even’s gay tryst in season three, many just wanted more of the same. The characters – two big reasons Skam reached a larger international audience in the first place – were now sidelined for a yarn about a critical girl who… spews rude comments? Prays? It wasn’t exactly clear what the season would deal with, besides her faith. Detractors feared this might be the season audiences were beat over the head with a message. When the first few clips were posted, they began publicly airing their frustrations with Sana’s storyline on social media.

“If you aren’t connecting with season four – cause Sana's life and her experiences are so far from your own then lmao, welcome to the life of every minority,” Agge Fayzal clapped back in a post in the international Facebook fan group for Skam. “And since 90 per cent of all movies and TV shows are centred around white, cis, able-bodied heterosexuals, I think y’all can take a back seat for a season. After all, us Muslims have put up with being reduced to stereotypes, one-dimensional characters or just a walking apology, and any TV show that has represented us in a realistic manner has never gone mainstream.”

Not all of the mudslinging originated with non-Muslim fans either. Another recent post devolved into a heated debate as one of the episodes portrayed the religious washing ceremony called Wudu, a ritual preparation for formal prayers. Sana was wearing trousers and makeup, both of which are frowned upon by Muslim traditionalists. “Muslim women aren’t allowed to pray with makeup on or wearing pants, and that’s exactly what Sana did before she went to tell Yousef to turn off the music,” a frustrated Muslim wrote on Facebook. “Second, in Islam, after exposing your face to a man you’re not allowed to pray unless you do ‘wodoaa’ (another name for Wudu) again.”

The focus somehow shifted to whether or not Sana, a fictional character in a TV show, was a “good” practicing Muslim. Still, any portrayal of Islam would inevitably lead to questions. Mouna Lemsaadi, 17, felt she could answer. From her home in Morocco, she posted a status in the Facebook group saying she was willing to “answer any question about Islam” people had as a result of watching Skam. It sparked an enlightening discussion – precisely what the show was designed to do.

For 22-year-old Sofia Nesrine Srour, how Islam threads its way into Skam’s fabric is secondary to Sana being allowed to play a normal teen girl. Nesrine Srour, who lives and studies in Oslo, was asked to participate in a focus group led by Julie Andem and producers of Skam before the series went into production. They wanted to crowdsource opinions about how to sensitively approach Islam now that Skam had become mainstream. (In China, four million people reportedly pirated season three of Skam.)

Her feedback has directly influenced how Sana’s story unfolds. A teen hijabi who is devout, she steals into side rooms at high school parties when Siri-like reminders pop up on her phone reminding her to pray. On the other hand, she questions why men can marry whomever they want while women can only marry Muslim men. Sana is not a poster girl for Muslims, but she’s effortlessly sandblasting etched-in stereotypes about her faith simply by questioning it, living it, and figuring it all out with a little help from her friends.

Here, Sofia Nesrine Srour and Mouna Lemsaadi address how Islam is portrayed in Skam season four.

I saw a discussion on the Skam International Facebook group where some people were arguing about how Sana did Wudu wrong by wearing trousers and not removing her makeup. Have you noticed any religious traditions in the show not accurately portrayed?

Sofia Nesrine Srour: OK, so here’s the thing. The Muslim community is very diverse. You’ll find everything from liberal to strict and more reserved people. Since we’re so diverse, we’re also different in how we practice some of the rituals in our faith: some Muslims pray with their arms folded (like Sana does), while others pray with their arms hanging. Some perform Wudu (the washing) differently as well, and there are different rulings on washing and praying with makeup on. We see Sana washing her face even with a full face of makeup and praying with pants, which I personally wouldn’t say is wrong.

Unfortunately, in some of the Muslim communities, someone will always judge harshly... Muslim girls and women, especially, are constantly having their “Muslimmness” doubted because of the way they dress, act or talk.. A lot of us girls have heard things such as, “You’re not Muslim” if you wear tight pants with your hijab, put on makeup or hang out with non-Muslims and party. I see Sana as more of a laid-back teenage girl who does her own thing regardless of how people will view her, and that’s what’s so cool about her character. I wish more people could have a more relaxed relationship with religion, like Sana seems to have so far.

How do you feel about Skam’s treatment of Islam so far?

Mouna Lemsaadi: I loved the way religion has been portrayed in the fourth season of Skam. It seems that (the showrunners) weren’t taking a position or any opinion. Instead, they showed a realistic picture of a Muslim family, a person who is no longer Muslim (Yousef), the way an Arabic family treats their children and a Muslim girl’s everyday feelings in today’s society.

I definitely didn’t like the fact that (commenters in the Facebook group) hated on Muslim girls who wear makeup or pants with hijab; the show didn’t do anything wrong in portraying that. It is somehow ironic because some girls do wear makeup and pants with hijab and they get hate for it, just like Sana’s character got hate from some people who watched Skam for it. The fact that people get involved in other people’s choices and beliefs in general makes me sad. And in my point of view, Muslims who criticize other Muslims for their practicing don’t do it for Islam; I think they do it because they were raised that way. They maybe were raised in a way that made them think that people who don’t practice the same things as them are bad people.

Do you think the Muslim faith should be a focus at all this season?

Sofia Nesrine Srour: Yes and no. I’ve always loved Sana as the cool, tough, very mature person that she is. I don’t like labelling people, and I don’t view her as “the Muslim hijabi of the school”. But her religion is a big part of her identity and who she is, so it’s only natural that the viewers are introduced to seeing her praying, for example. What matters in the end is that Sana has her own personality, her own values and opinions. Not everything is about religion. Sure, she doesn’t drink or practice premarital sex, but she fits in and blends really well with the others. She seems to have figured out how to balance it out. This season shouldn’t be about Islam, but about her as a “normal” (whatever normal means) teenage girl with normal teenage problems such as struggling with sexuality, body image, friendship problems, falling in love, issues at home and so on.

“What matters in the end is that Sana has her own personality, her own values and opinions. Not everything is about religion” – Sofia Nesrine Srour, age 22

Mouna Lemsaadi: I think it should be a focus on Sana’s choices, because she is religious. So it can represent something realistic, I think it should focus on Sana’s religion along with her everyday choices, which is happening already in Skam, but not as much as the whole season becomes about religion.

How did you come to participate in the NRK focus group?

Sofia Nesrine Srour: The meeting at NRK was actually a workshop arranged by the Skam crew (producer Mari Magnus and creator and showrunner Julie Andem, among others). We were around 10 girls of Muslim backgrounds discussing our issues in society today, both as a part of the bigger community and in our own communities.

I’m not sure why I was among the invited, but I’d guess it’s because I already knew Iman Meskini (the actress who portrays Sana) personally and that I had been very vocal in the public debate on topics such as social and sexual control of girls in minority communities and reserved communities. This debate actually sparked last year in spring after two other girls and I had written articles on these issues. We called ourselves “The shameless girls” and spoke out against honour and shame societies which we know exist in reserved communities, including in some Muslim communities, where girls especially are being controlled and shamed for not acting, dressing or living in certain ways, and for not living up to the concept of the ideal and “perfect” Muslim girl. So, to us, “shameless” means to be free from the negative norms in these societies, restricting our freedom and shaming us for living authentically – we’re shameless, because we have nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t own other people’s shame.

Last year, I actually wrote a blog post about Sana as “a shameless girl” because she doesn’t fit into the box of stereotypes in the bigger community, but she also challenges the idea of what a perfect Muslim girl should be like. In a strict Muslim community she would most likely be shamed for hanging out at parties, holding beer bottles, dressing the way she does, using makeup and even just texting with or talking to Yousef. Let’s not forget the “hijab-police” in the first season whom at first we thought were behind the comments on Instagram calling Sana as “slut” and writing “sharmuta (slut)” on her locker at school. It turned out it wasn’t the “hijab-police”, but this is something that could actually happen in reality.

Do you notice, watching the show, whether or not NRK have taken your feedback into account?

Sofia Nesrine Srour: So far, I guess they have. My main message in the meeting was that I really hope they’ll let Sana be a teenager in this season, and that this won’t be yet another contribution to the exhausting debate on Islam... and that Islam wouldn’t be the main focus. I want to see her as a person, her private life, her network, her hobbies… And luckily we are seeing a lot more of her now.

I mentioned I already love Sana the way she is, and that she should stay as the cool, strong girl she is – but that we also need to see a more vulnerable side to her. Sana is one of the most mysterious characters in the show, and we all want to know what lies behind the strong appearance, what makes her so mature, how is she such a great leader, always backing up her girls and counselling them, fixing problems and taking care of her friends? I hope we get to see what lies beneath the surface, and we’re slowly getting to know her now. We clearly see that she’s a tough person around her friends, but at the same time she’s kind of reserved. For example, on their way to the party with her brother and his friends, she walks behind them while they’re all laughing together. On the subway, she stands alone. Sana is also more insecure than we thought: she uses Google to find good tips on how to succeed with a Russebuss, so she’s clearly trying hard for people to take her seriously, because people have prejudice against her.

I also said that I hope they won’t be careful when it comes to her love life, because although Muslims don’t practice pre-marital sex or relationships, we’re not asexual! We have feelings too; we fall in love. So I’m extremely happy to see her so in love!

And one important thing: I mentioned social control, and how in some of our communities people expect more from girls than boys. I addressed the double standards, and I’m happy to see that these things are casually expressed in the show so far. One example is the scene in the kitchen where Sana’s mom asks who’s gonna cook when she gets married if she doesn’t know how to, and Sana says, “My husband will cook”. Another example is when Sana asks her mom why she doesn’t ask Elias about prayer at the mosque as well and not just her. There’s also a scene where Elias tells her that Muslim girls who are on a Russebuss get more hate because they’re girls, and that it’s easier for boys.

Can we also take a moment to appreciate how awesome it is that Sana asked the difficult questions in the last episode? She challenges her mother on why Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women, but how Muslim women are only allowed to marry Muslim men. That reminds me of myself when I was her age throwing tantrums and challenging double-standards myself.

There are a lot of double standards when it comes to raising girls and boys in some of our communities, and I love that Julie Andem puts that into focus.

Should Sana be seen as a poster girl for the Muslim faith?

Sofia Nesrine Srour: What I mean by not speaking of Sana as a poster girl for the whole Muslim community, is that Sana is just Sana – her own person – and not someone who represents a whole religion or community. While Sana is a character whom a lot of Muslims can relate to, she’s not a spokesperson. And that’s what I hope she won’t have to be. I hope this season of Skam doesn’t end up being a contribution to the everlasting, exhausting debate on Islam. She’s just a really, really good nuance of all of this, a human trying her best in a complicated world. I love her character.

Mouna Lemsaadi: I think faith is different between one person and another, no person can represent the life of another Muslim person. But in general Sana’s character is excellent. Except for some little things, like in the first season when she told the other girls to hook up with the boys in the bus meeting because she can’t do that since she’s Muslim. I think a religious person like Sana wouldn’t have done that. But still, season four is showing an average everyday life of a Muslim girl living in a non-Muslim country. Sana also doesn’t take off her hijab when she’s only with the girls or at home because the actress is Muslim, and I love that because they respect the actress’ choice and that way Skam viewers respect that too.

“I hope Skam viewers see how difficult it is for a person to feel different and an outsider. And how much everybody sees girls like Sana only as ‘the Muslim girl’ instead of just Sana, a girl like other girls” – Mouna Lemsaadi, age 17

Why do you think Sana tells Noora that “Muslim boys just want to mess with Norwegian girls and then dump them”?

Sofia Nesrine Srour: Well, on one side I think she said that to Noora out of jealousy. She’s maybe scared that Noora will develop feelings or interest for Yousef and she’s probably a little insecure about that, so maybe she was trying to get Noora to lose interest. Instead, Noora asks, “Don’t you think that’s generalizing?” I partly agree that it’s generalizing, but we do see it happening. I do know that some Muslim boys like to mess with Norwegian girls and when they settle down they want a “good Muslim girl”.

Why would Russebuss be against her faith?

Sofia Nesrine Srour: Russebuss wouldn’t necessarily be against her faith, but in her community it might be against what “good Muslim girls” do because of all the partying, drinking and sex that is involved. Her brother, Elias, actually highlights this: when he asks if their mom knew about the Russebuss, and she says no, he then goes on to say that he’s only asking for her own sake since she’s a girl and will have a lot of haters. He could be referring to people spreading rumours about her and calling her a bad girl, shaming her. Then he says that he, on the other hand, is a boy and wouldn’t be met with the same reactions. This shows that girls in some reserved communities get talked about more than boys, and have to be careful with what they do so they won’t be shamed. Sadly, girls in strictly religious families and communities do live like this, afraid of “what people will say”, while boys are more free to do what they want. There’s a double standard here, that girls and women have to be decent, honourable and careful – while nobody cares what the boys do.

What do you hope viewers take away watching this season of Skam?

Sofia Nesrine Srour: I hope Sana helps break a lot of the stereotypes and prejudice against Muslim girls out there, be it in the whole society in general where we’re viewed as “oppressed”, “in need of saving”, or be it in some of our own communities where there are strict rules to how “good Muslim girls” should act. I hope we all learn something new.

Mouna Lemsaadi: I hope Skam viewers see how difficult it is for a person to feel different and an outsider. And how much everybody sees girls like Sana only as “the Muslim girl” instead of just Sana, a girl like other girls.

What do you hope happens on this season personally?

Mouna Lemsaadi: I personally hope Sana gets a happy ending with Yousef and William comes back looking for Noora.

Sofia Nesrine Srour: I hope Sana ends up in trouble. Not to sound like a sadist! (laughs) But I don’t want to see her as the perfect Muslim girl who does everything right and never fucks up, as if she’s “too smart” to mess up. Maybe we get to see her as the one needing help in this season, and not as the one always helping and fixing. I hope we get to see her character develop like we’ve seen with the other characters as well.  Sana does seem like a person who has it all figured out, but there’s a lot more to her – she’s flawed, she’s insecure, and she has some prejudice against Norwegian teenage culture.

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