Whenever I’ve watched women – Muslim women – like me on TV, in films or on the news, each story always covered the same territory. A woman in a forced marriage, the victim of an honour killing or a terrorist. The last time I saw a Muslim woman in a hijab of Bangladeshi heritage who grew up in a Western country, it was airport security footage of a teenage ISIS bride leaving England.
None of these have ever been close to any of my experiences or of those in my community. Each of those women on the news or in TV shows, real or fictional, were, and have continued to be, completely foreign to me. As someone who grew up in suburban Canberra devouring novels and loving TV and movies, the absence of everyday Muslim women like myself was glaring.
Growing up in Australia as a '90s kid, I always felt like I had to prove my Australianness.
I remember Pauline Hanson from the first time around. I remember being barely ten years old when 9/11 happened. I was a Year 5 student who went to a school with a view of Parliament House. Overnight, I had to become a theologian, public relations officer and a scholar in order to be able to justify my faith to my classmates and others around me.
The things that politicians were discussing less than a kilometre from my classroom suddenly seemed to be constantly about people like me. When parliament debated whether or not to ban the hijab in schools, it felt like they were talking about me. I remember wanting the politicians, and all of those who supported them, to be able to just meet me, and other women and girls like me, to actually see who we were.
I never saw anyone like me in the media
It was not long after 9/11 that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to study International Relations and become a diplomat, to understand how these things happened, so I could ensure they never would again. Telling stories for theatre and screen, as I do now, was completely unthinkable. Girls like me did not get to do things like that.
Growing up, I never heard of Muslim women being accepted into NIDA or saw any Muslim characters in TV shows or movies.
I never saw anyone like me in the media, particularly not Australian media, outside of SBS newsreaders, like Lee Lin Chin and Indira Naidoo. My experience is backed up with the stats - A Diversity Arts Australia report recently found 95 per cent of leading arts and culture organisations in Australia feature zero culturally and linguistically diverse leadership. Even ABC boss Ita Buttrose has said "much of the media is white and we are not all white".
The matter has become more urgent, as Black Lives Matter has emphasised how damaging it is to live in a white-dominated media and arts landscape and the importance of underrepresented groups owning and telling their own stories.
It's a vicious cycle - how can we become what we can't see, especially when institutions have historically sidelined us or approached our stories as niche, rather than universal?
I started off like many young people of colour without access to resources or connections, as a spoken word poet, then started writing plays and then moved into screen.
Screenwriting is something that came about because I knew that the audiences I wanted to speak to were not finding their way to the theatre. Whatever it was, whether it was cost, distance or because actual theatres felt inaccessible, diverse crowds were not coming through the doors.
I turned to films from other countries, like Bend It Like Beckham, by British director Gurinder Chadha and even Disney’s Mulan to feel a sense of connection to characters whose experiences came even close to approximating mine.
Telling stories for theatre and screen, as I do now, was completely unthinkable. Girls like me did not get to do things like that.
So, when I finally had the opportunity to write my own female Muslim character, I knew it was time to tell a different story. Nashrah, one of the main characters in Carpark Clubbing, an ABC webseries I co-created and co-wrote, is funny, overly enthusiastic about statistics and possibly a bit pretentious, in a word, complex. She is worlds away from the Muslim women I’d seen onscreen since 2001.
One of my favourite characters has always been Jane Austen’s Emma. Not because I admired her but because she’s gloriously complex and flawed, and that’s what I’ve always loved about her. Writing Nashrah for Carpark Clubbing felt a lot like that.
Nashrah is a young Australian Muslim woman of Bangladeshi heritage who grew up middle class in the suburbs. As a result, she’s a bit entitled, maybe even obnoxious, which we, in the writers’ room, loved. Here was a woman who could not easily be pushed into a stereotype. Fellow writers Monica Kumar and Sophea Op grew up in Western Sydney - we all had few options to hang out as teens except loiter in carparks and this is where the idea came from.
Nashrah pursues a cute guy on her own terms. She keeps sharing grisly facts about crime. She makes friends with foul-mouthed young women in carparks.
I had a friend of Indigenous heritage watch the show with his mum and Aunty and tell me that they all loved it. I did have another Muslim filmmaker friend saying that she really enjoyed seeing a Muslim woman lead as someone worth desiring and pursuing. Although, we did take pains to ensure that Nashrah was doing quite a lot of the pursuing, in an empowered way, because we get to see it so rarely. It was nice to be able to make her more complicated than the common trope of the oppressed Muslim woman.
It turns out that being truthful to what you know can transcend, connect and make people finally feel seen. It's 2020 and it's about time.
Tasnim Hossain is a playwright, screenwriter and actor, and is currently serving on the board of the Australian Theatre for Young People.
This article is part of SBS Voices emerging Muslim women writers’ series. If you have a pitch, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.