Satire has been used in a number of different ways throughout history and opinion still remains divided on what purpose it should serve. Where Enlightenment figures used it to challenge prevailing social attitudes, today we have modern, politically-driven satire that has served to contest powerful and often unaccountable social, economic and political forces. For me, good satire is about revealing hidden truths by holding a mirror up to society; it forces us to confront the issues we choose to conveniently brush aside.
It is also fundamentally underpinned by power. For this reason, in any evaluation of satire we have to look closely at who is doing the satirising and who the subject of the satire is, and herein lies my basic problem with the BBC’s ‘Real Housewives of ISIS’ sketch that took social media by storm.
Quite simply, the creators of the satire are two white men, the subjects are mostly brown Muslim women, and in any context this is problematic. Brown women should be telling their own stories and their lived experiences should be told through their own lens rather than white men feeling they have some entitlement to sell the stories of those they don’t understand or cannot relate to for mass consumption.
This coupled with the fact that they are satirising the subjects of subjugation and brutality rather than the perpetrators is even more problematic. These young girls and women are, after all, the victims of grooming and sexual violence. What’s incredibly perplexing is why the writers couldn’t find any better sources of entertainment; it’s not as if there is any shortage of material from ISIS themselves who have been a long running joke with deadly consequences for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
If satire is about challenging the powerful, then surely there has been a massive oversight here. With Muslim women’s lives and bodies in Europe having been politicised against their will, from the niqab and burkini bans, to endless inferences about the downtrodden Muslim woman, they are hardly a powerful entity to be challenged against. I wonder if the producers simply view these vulnerable Muslim women as easy targets. In the backlash against Islam and anything visibly Islamic, Muslim women have evidently become the first line of attack – the weakest link. Perhaps there’s an element of cowardice in those that ridicule the victims instead of the perpetrators.
The ‘Real Housewives of ISIS’ characters look and dress like the thousands of Muslim women and girls up and down the country. If you walk down Whitechapel or any other street in the many parts of our metropolitan cities, it’s the most common form of Muslim women’s dress. The subjugated women of ISIS do not wear just abayas and scarves, they are expected to be completely anonymous. But clearly, the producers forgot that if you are going to poke fun at things, the joke is in the detail. More worryingly, in one fell swoop, the producers have made the everyday clothes of many Muslim women synonymous with terror.
Not everyone gets satire in the way it is intended (no matter how ignoble the aims are) and these primitive and problematic representations give Islamophobic elements a medium through which they can channel vitriolic opinions and, more dangerously, it legitimises them. In the climate of Islamophobia where visibly Muslim women have been the subjects of physical attacks, this is an irresponsible move on the part of both the creators and those who have commissioned it. Representations of Muslim women are already so behind the curve – just look at Alia of another BBC comedy, ‘Citizen Khan’ – and depictions like this do not advance understanding in any way. In fact, they only serve to stunt them and make light of a very serious situation.
It is so easy for people who cannot relate to the context in which this satire is being shown to cry ‘censorship’ and opine that religion must be ridiculed when in reality, the lampooning of terrorism has been long overdue. In the meantime, Muslim women remain disenfranchised, their voices stifled, their person politicised, and all the while they are forced to accept the conflation of their religious identity with ISIS and terrorism in the name of ‘artistic license’.