LONDON – A Channel 4 documentary that included browning up a white woman to show Islamophobia has triggered reactions with varying degrees of anger and mockery, with many questioning why the channel did not use a Muslim.
“Millions of Muslims in the UK experience racism,” wrote one viewer. “Channel 4 didn’t ask them but thought better to brownface a white woman,” The Independent reported.
Khuram Ahmed, a Muslim lawyer based in Manchester, where the documentary was filmed, wrote “Because our oppression does not exist until a white person experiences it and legitimizes it.”
Another viewer complained “I want to see a program following a Muslim woman. Not a white woman made up as a Muslim woman. This is insulting.”
The documentary, My Week As A Muslim, was aired on Channel 4 on Monday, October 23.
It showed Katie Freeman, who previously supported banning the burqa, going undercover as a Muslim in Manchester to experience the British Muslim way of life from the inside.
The use of ‘brownface’ to disguise a white woman as someone of Pakistani origin had also been criticized before the documentary was aired.
“They did not have to do the ‘blacking up’,” Fiyaz Mughal, founder of anti-hate crime charity Tell Mama, told The Independent.
“You could have experienced what Muslims experience by shadowing, using a secret camera. This could have been done without pandering to some quite silly 1920s stereotypes.”
Mughal added that the idea for the documentary was “coming from a positive place”, but the manner in which it was executed was “offensive”.
“The most offensive bit,” he said, “Is the gross exaggeration of features of the face, and that blurs the line, pandering to stereotypes of race and religion.”
The disguise was further criticized after airing the show.
“A face mould?” asked one viewer. “Really? Don’t we all have a face with two eyes, a nose and a mouth.”
Despite anger and mockery, the documentary won some sympathetic views from Muslims who welcomed it.
Hassan Mohammad, a Birmingham-based viewer, commented: “It’s easy to call Katie a racist but at least she’s open to learning more about being Muslim. If only more were the same.”
Shakil Seedat agreed, saying: “To all those criticising My Week As A Muslim, there’s no better way to learn empathy and cure ignorance than walking in someone else’s shoes.”
Channel 4 responded to the criticism with a quote from Fozia Khan, the executive producer of the documentary, who said: “The program allowed Katie to meaningfully walk in the shoes of someone from a different background and to experience what it is like to be part of the British Pakistani Muslim community rather than observe it as an outsider.”
In a Guardian article ahead of the transmission, Khan said: “People have suggested that we could have used a different approach – such as giving Muslim women hidden cameras to show their experiences. This has been done before, and we wanted to try something different.”
“I was determined to make something that would reach people who wouldn’t normally watch a program about Muslims.”
“We hoped that people who shared some of Katie’s views would go on the journey with her. I think the disguise element was an absolutely crucial part of this.”
She added: “The reason for the prosthetic nose, teeth and contact lenses was simple – to make Katie look and feel different, so she could go unrecognized in her home town, convincingly experience what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, integrate her into her host community and experience it from within.
“’Blackface’ or ‘brownface’ has historically been used as a form of entertainment to mock non-white people. This film is the antithesis of that. Its purpose is to inform and promote understanding between communities, not to caricature them.”