Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Irisa R. and Palwasha A.
Ramy, the first of its kind, is a show about Muslims written by an actual Muslim. It’s goal was ambitious - to explore the experiences of a young man trying to move closer to his faith when his worldly desires won’t let him. Ramy Youssef, the writer and star of the show, addressed some of it’s more common critiques-that it was deeply disrespectful to speak about Islamic practices with such little acknowledgement of their purpose and spirituality. However, we already know, like most of you, that this show was not meant to inspire or move the audience, it was meant to explore the difficulty of being a Muslim man in a Western country.
Just like anything, the first step can be a stumble. It won’t always be perfect, and we respect the fact that a show like this could even be green-lit. However, as young Muslims we are so starved for relatable content that sometimes we are willing to consume media that, to put it nicely, is really, really disappointing.
We All Just Want Them White
Let’s discuss the never-ending respect for and chase of white women that is explored in almost every big-budget movie or show (Namesake, Master of None and The Big Sick). Ramy is the same. He is constantly, constantly trying to win the approval of white women and repeatedly shuns women of his own faith and culture to do this. Through the first season Ramy has many, many one-night-stands with different women, and while in most scenes he treats them as people with their own agency and can engage with them respectfully, there is a deeply problematic subtext to his interactions with the Muslim female characters in the show.
These women are shown to be struggling with their faith, battling with the stigma that comes with pre-marital sex and stifled by a lack of agency that shadows every decision they seem to make. Yet at every step along the way they are sexualised, objectified and undermined. This is so apparent when Ramy tells his parents that he wants a Muslim woman his mother eagerly replies, “we’ll find you any type of girl you want.” Let’s unpack this.
Firstly, for a self - proclaimed progressive show, this falls into one of the most gendered, misogynistic ideals. A tale as old as time. It rests on the assumption that essentially, a man can do whatever he wants, live how he wants and take part in whatever he desires, and then one day (when he’s ready to settle down) he will still attract any woman he wants, without a second thought. As if there are hundreds of women, sitting around waiting for men that do not share the same values or experiences as them.
This scene mirrors closely a scene in Kumail Nanjiani’s “The Big Sick”, where he was secretly dating a white non-Muslim woman named Emily, while his parents were still looking into an arranged marriage for him, inviting Muslim women to the house to meet him. Though arranged marriage is a legitimate way to meet a life partner, Kumail wrote the scenes in an unrealistic and disappointing manner, where a strew of unmarried Muslim women, one after the other, would show up to his house (completely unwanted by him) and sit with him and his parents to prove how dedicated and interested they were in marrying him.
This is not an insight into our culture, because shockingly, we don’t just knock on unmarried men’s doors, invite ourselves in and try to prove for an awkward hour how we could be a good wife. It’s really more an insight into how the men writing these shows, and the men that support these shows, view the women in their own community. It was interesting because Nanjiani wrote about Emily with respect. She was multifaceted, she was intelligent, interesting and flirtatious. By contrast every brown woman was just shown as desperate, lonely and boring. It painted a very clear picture, where white women were seen as this unattainable dream and brown women were seen as the unfortunate but must-be-endured obstacles to achieving this dream. Yet this movie was nominated for an Oscar, and heralded as a big step towards diversity and showcasing young Muslims stories. Whose story?
In episode six of Ramy, he is set up with a Muslim woman from his community, and they show that she’s quite observant from the fact that she wears the hijab and that she wants to meet him for the purpose of marriage. However, what’s really strange is that during this scene Ramy is scared, and then disinterested while she is again painted as desperate to attract him. He then delivers the most absurd monologue about how he is “just trying to be a better Muslim”, and somehow, somehow, she is seen to react to this with adoration and respect, despite the fact that he fits none of the qualities she has listed on a sheet of paper before her that she said she is looking for. Again, they don’t mind; they’ll settle because they just want to be married, because no matter how they have chosen to live their lives, the guy who falls short is still somehow worth it.
What About The Women?
The women. My god.
Ramy’s mother is portrayed as nothing but a caricature, a lonely house-wife with a borderline love-less marriage. Ramy’s sister, Dena, is denigrated to the role of the bitchy, frustrated woman who just wants to stay out late with her friends or have sex without the stigma. Nothing else. No nuance. No grey area. Both episodes that were dedicated to the women in the show, tried but failed to explore female sexuality, or create opportunities for character development beyond their sexuality.
When Ramy’s sister Dena is about to have sex for the first time, the man she is with asks her what position and she just says ‘anything.’ This in itself shows such a deep fracture between what Ramy, and his writers, understand about female sexuality and abstinence. While Ramy is characterised as having been watching porn so intensely from the age of thirteen that his friends said that he had a problem, for some reason his sister, who grew up in the same household, hasn’t had sex and therefore must have absolutely no sexual literacy. Interestingly, this entire plot line aligns with the very palatable, consumable sexual liberation argument, which is that if you are not having sex, you must be sexually repressed and also ready and willing to be sexualised by any man.
The Moderate Muslim Myth
In one of the first big turning points for the show, Ramy goes up to his parents, and, trying to finally be a ‘good Muslim boy,’ asks them to help him find a wife. His mother’s immediate, joyous question is “covered or uncovered?” Ramy replies “uncovered”. This may seem like a funny, relatable interaction (“oh of course he wants a more relaxed wife”) but this scene is indicative of a very serious issue with the representation of hijabi women on the show.
In an appearance on Seth Myers, Ramy Youssef condemned the use of the term “moderate Muslim”, explaining to Myers that it’s notion of a Muslim having not to practice to be seen as palatable or acceptable is offensive and incorrect. Yet his show, at every turn, promotes the idea of the moderate Muslim, as the desirable one, as the palatable one, as the one you can still have fun with. Ramy’s desire for an “uncovered” woman (which, oh my God, the objectification of it all, like picking a melon at the market) is a desire to keep himself happily seperate from what he perceives as the Muslims who are too “hardcore,” which apparently includes anyone who wears hijab. The undercurrent that this show really plays into is the most secular, obvious, whitewashed nonsense that having a religion is a constant, constant struggle. It’s only about sticking to arbitrary rules that get you nowhere but feeling sexually frustrated.
What we do appreciate about the show is that it’s honest. It's a truthful and vulnerable semi-autobiographical account of Ramy’s life that has allowed us to have discussions like these. Also, we can’t say we didn’t laugh. Some scenes were hilarious. Like, ‘‘throw a prayer down for my mother right now.” But one or two laughs can’t counteract the catastrophe that was nearly every episode. What’s really unfortunate about all of this, is that we really, really wanted to enjoy this. But we left feeling more alienated from the experiences explored than most other shows we watch that aren’t even slightly targeted to us. The only good thing to come from something like this, is that it will be the first of many. Hopefully, this will inspire and encourage more young Muslims and BIPOC to pick up a pen, write some witty dialogue and maybe a female character (or two) with just a bit of respect.
Editor: Tahmina R.
*This is based on our review of the first season.