There was a moment in the opening episode of Extremely British Muslims, which debuted on Channel 4 last night, that has stuck with us:
‘You girls are very choosy.’
Last night’s episode followed three young Muslims - two women, one man - as they attempted to find a suitable partner to marry. The girls, Bella and Nayera, are both in their twenties, university educated, and demand a marital role greater than that of the obedient wife. For the elder man in charge of the marriage bureau at Birmingham’s Central Mosque, around which the series unfolds, these demands are ‘very choosy’ indeed.
This attitude sums up many problems we see in the expression of Islam in Britain today. The origins of the faith, which introduced equality of the sexes, have, in the modern era, been manipulated by the conflation of ethnic values and religious practice. What we see now, and what we saw in the mosque’s marriage bureau, is a patriarchal culture that has become associated with Islam in Britain. The damage this causes is far reaching.
Let’s be clear: Islam has never been against cultural identity; in fact, those who convert have historically been encouraged to hold on to their roots. But within this lies an important truth - that Islam is no more aligned with one culture as it is another. But Extremely British Muslims, with its bureaus and divorce courts and males fearful of becoming a ‘man-dad’, reinforced the ubiquitous notion that Islam and misogynist culture are one and the same.
While Extremely British Muslims concentrated on a single community, primarily of Pakistani origin, this notion serves to damage British Islam as a whole, especially when it’s held by younger generations unfamiliar with the faith’s rich history of female empowerment. Ash, the young man in the episode who expected his future wife to bring him tea and bow her head, would be shocked to learn of historical figures like Khadija al Khuwalyd, the female business tycoon who employed men. She was so taken with one that she even had the confidence to ask him to marry her, no small feat given that that man was the prophet Muhammed. In Ash’s defense, he’d no doubt be shocked to learn a lot of things.
One of the most saddening aspects of the show was the idea that female aspiration was at odds with being a wife. Bella and Nayera both hope to put their degrees to good use, but their desire to forge a career is not seen as a quality, but a factor in the supposed ‘marriage crisis’: Women are too smart, too ‘choosy’ and, as one beleaguered matchmaker puts it, determined to ‘become the men they want to marry’. It’s hard to imagine Khadija, who continued to run her business (and employ Muhammed) after their marriage, abiding this attitude.
Yet it persists. And when women are denied agency in marriage, rates of divorce inevitably increase. The Central Mosque is facing more requests for divorce than ever before, including from a woman called Fatima, who’s granted one due to her husband’s history as a drug dealer having landed him in prison. The viewer hopes this isn’t the minimum requirement for all approvals.
We understand that it’s hard for a TV show to account for a religion as diverse as Islam. But in a climate when even the slightest negative idiosyncrasy is seized upon by those who wish to spread intolerant generalisations, is it responsible to make a series like Extremely British Muslims? Despite the attitude of some of the men in last night’s episodes, Muslims do live normal lives that endeavour to reconcile their faith with British culture. You could see it in the views of Bella and Nayera, who refused to give in to archaic attitudes towards marriage.
More importantly, you can see it throughout the country, in the way Muslims contribute to society, to politics, the arts, business, healthcare...the list goes on. Do we really need a TV show to prove our Britishness?