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Do we need to brown the face of a white woman to highlight prejudice in the UK?

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

They say that if you want to understand a person you should walk a mile in their shoes.

And I imagine that’s what producers of a program that was aired on British TV on Monday intended to do.

‘My Week as a Muslim’ followed Katie Freeman, a white woman from a mostly white town who transformed her appearance in an attempt to immerse herself in Manchester’s Pakistani Muslim community.

Using prosthetics and having her skin darkened, Katie went to live with a Muslim family for a week to see what life was like. She mingled with members of the community who believed she was a Pakistani woman.



Katie, who had previously admitted to being fearful of Muslims and feeling strongly that her way of life was under threat, had previously had no exposure to Muslims.

Preconceptions challenged

She said she wouldn’t want to sit next to a Muslim person on a bus and admitted to being fearful of women wearing the niqab. However, she said she wanted to try to understand the Muslim community and had a genuine desire to have her preconceptions challenged.

But viewers felt Channel 4, which is known in the UK for airing alternative content that the channel says ‘challenges the status quo’, had gone about their aim to highlight life as a British Muslim in the wrong way.

Indeed, TV critics, journalists, anti-hate crime charities and viewers all voiced their concerns about a white woman ‘browning up’.

“Before even watching the show, I heard she darkened her face and wore a prosthetic nose. Straight away I thought that was wrong even before they had begun their mission to find out what it's like to be a Muslim,” said Brit Saima Khan.

“People can be white and Muslim. Muslims come in all shapes, sizes and colours.”

“To be honest it's hard for dark people generally. Being Muslim makes it harder and being a Muslim who dresses in Islamic clothes becomes even harder. So I understand why they did that. But if the producers wanted to know or show how hard it is for Muslims, they should have just asked a few Muslims or filmed a week in the life of an actual Muslim.

“Maybe their intention was in the right place. But I think they went about it the wrong way.”

Similarly, fellow Brit Victoria Richardson said: “I thought it was unbelievable. Do we really need to black up an idiot to gain a better understanding of the Muslim community? Why not follow a Muslim family and have more in-depth interviews with them? That would be far more interesting and if it was explored in more detail it would explain to some of the idiots watching why Muslim people live life the way they do.

“Show us what goes on in a mosque as this seems to be where there is most misinformation.”

Disguise

The show’s producer, Fozia Khan, said that she and her team hoped that people who shared some of Katie’s views would go on the journey with her. And she said the disguise element was ‘absolutely crucial’ to this.

She told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that she wanted the new show to bring to a wide audience the harsh realities of what was happening in post Brexit-vote Britain.

She said: “We wanted to do something bold and experimental to achieve this. Often, when making documentaries, you feel you are preaching to the converted. I was determined to make something that would reach people who wouldn’t normally watch a programme about Muslims.”

British TV fan Danny said: “Are people racist towards skin colour or are they Islamophobics? You could argue that a white person who is a Muslim could face a different type of racism. The fact she appeared as what a lot of people probably stereotype as a typical Muslim will be a more similar experience to other British Muslims. They didn’t brown her face to make a joke.”

And fellow viewer Aaryan Singh said the documentary opened his eyes.

In one scene, filmed just after the Manchester terrorist attack in May this year, a Muslim woman in a niqab tells her friend how she was warned by her son not to go out in Manchester for fear of abuse or revenge attacks.

He said: “I have many Muslim friends but I had no idea how bad things were for people from their community. I’ve since spoken to friends about the abuse they get and they’ve said it’s a normal part of their life. That made me really sad.

“The white woman admitted to having bigoted views at the start but after she walked past a pub in her traditional dress and was verbally abused (a scene captured on camera) I think she realised why prejudice is so toxic. Many people will share that woman’s point of view and I think this documentary will have challenged their opinions.”

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Eve Dugdale is a British freelance journalist and mum of one with over 12 years' newspaper and online experience in both the UK and UAE. From court reporter in Manchester, UK to Deputy Features Editor at 7DAYS, Dubai, these days she manages her passion for writing between changing nappies and singing nursery rhymes.