Documentary On Life As A Muslim Disguises White Woman In 'Brownface'

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A documentary film disguised a white woman as a Muslim, using a fake nose and brown makeup to make her skin complexion darker, drawing charges of "brownfacing."

A documentary set in the United Kingdom is receiving backlash for placing a white woman into the world of Muslims in Britain — darkening her skin and adding facial prosthetics to do so.

Critics of the documentary, which is titled “My Week As A Muslim,” are appalled at how directors encouraged their subject, a white woman named Katie Freeman, to use makeup and a fake nose to make her look more like a Muslim.

Fozia Khan, the executive producer of the film, defended their choices.

“We wanted to do something bold, a kind of social experiment: to take someone with no exposure to the Muslim community and give her a really authentic experience,” she explained. “The transformation in her appearance was important for that.”

Khan also wrote an op-ed for the Guardian, explaining that she had met with Muslim leaders in the community to explain the breadth of the documentary before filming.

“One of the first things we did was meet the imam from [one of our subject’s] local mosque and the chairman of the local British Muslim Heritage Centre,” Khan wrote. “We discussed our idea in detail with them to make sure they were happy with what we wanted to do. They immediately recognized our purpose and gave us their full support.”

The main subject of the documentary, Freeman, had some fairly bigoted views about Muslims before the project began. Before her “transformation,” she expressed in the movie that, “you see [Muslims] and think they’re going to blow something up.”

At the end, however, she ascribes to a new viewpoint. Seeing and living through the bigotry of others “makes me ashamed to live here,” Freeman said.

In the first week of shooting, the Manchester terror attack happened, and Freeman tried to walk away from the project. But one of the members of her host family, Saima Alvi, convinced her to stay, explaining to Freeman, “this is what I face every day.”

Although the documentary presents the opportunity for a white woman to experience being a Muslim firsthand, some were critical of the choice to darken her skin. The Muslim Council of Britain stated that, “the use of brownface and blackface has a long racist history and it is not surprising that it has caused deep offence amongst some communities. Had we been consulted, we would not have advised this approach.”

But the MCB did give its support to the overall aim of the project.

“We do, however, laud the apparent goals of the documentary – to better understand the reality of Islamophobia, which has become socially accepted across broader society,” they wrote.

Their assessment is precisely correct. While the aims of the documentary were admirable, the means by which they attempted to place a white woman into Muslim society were misguided. There are plenty of examples of white women converting to Islam — and plenty of examples of bigotry being directed against them for doing so.

While giving Freeman a darker complexion likely allowed her to experience more acts of bigotry, the documentary likely didn’t need to use makeup to make its point, or to allow Freeman to experience the prejudices that Muslims face on a daily basis.

Banner and thumb images credit: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

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