Of course we cheered. When artists, briefed to add “authenticity” to a set depicting a Lebanese refugee camp for the new series, daubed “Homeland is racist” on the walls, in Arabic – well, we whooped at that. It was subversive and it worked – the scene, part of a new, fifth series of the US political drama, just aired carrying this graffiti message. It was funny because it was Homeland unwittingly calling itself racist. It was funny because Homeland absolutely deserved it, because the show sucks when it comes to portraying the Middle East. And that’s especially true for the way it presents Arab and Muslim women.
In case you’ve forgotten just how bad it is, cast your mind back to the promo pics for Homeland’s last season, based in Islamabad, Pakistan. Those images depicted Carrie, “cry-face “ protagonist, bi-polar Carrie, the CIA’s flawed but brilliant agent, luminescent blonde hair peeking out of a bold red hood and blue eyes gazing out at us from a crowd of burka-clad women. It’s hard to imagine how this could be more carelessly offensive. Its like saying: behold the Western woman, a beacon of colour and confidence and light, against an indistinguishable, disempowered mass of females in Islamabad. (Women mostly don’t wear burkas here, but why not just conflate a spectrum of Muslim women into one covered-up cliché.)
If you wanted a summary of the kind of big-ish roles Homeland has for Muslim women, that was pretty much it. That last series featured a Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence officer, Tasneem Qureshi, who was just pure evil and colluded with terrorists. And then we had Fara Sherazi, an Iranian-American analyst who worked for the CIA, thus fulfilling the “good Muslim” role – so good, in fact, that she compromised the safety of her own family, in Iran, for the greater cause that is the US intelligence agency. Because, really, no lesser commitment could possibly pass as patriotic while wearing a hijab.
If you’re female and Muslim in Homeland you get a choice of roles, but mostly that choice is between being oppressed or being a terrorist
Back in series two, we had another non-minor Muslim female character, this time masquerading as a sophisticated, Westernised journalist, when actually she was part of an international terrorist network all along. Tick the box that says: Muslim women, even ones that look like us, can never really be trusted.
So, to recap, if you’re female and Muslim in Homeland you get a choice of roles, but mostly that choice is between being oppressed or a terrorist. Or, wait: you can also sell out your family for the CIA.
There’s no point arguing that this is all just harmless telly, because we know that TV shapes our perceptions, rather than just reflecting them. And this portrayal of women across the Muslim world is particularly dangerous because it dovetails so neatly with Western justifications for military interventions in the Middle East, where so often the pretext is about “saving” helpless, oppressed women. You know, like when the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 liberated women by reversing their hard-won freedoms: Iraqi women were leading the Middle East in terms of legally secured rights and education, until that war and its aftermath bombed everything back by about 30 years.
But there’s another huge cost to the sort of shallow, racist stereotyping of Muslim women, as seen in Homeland: it erodes the potential for a shared, global feminism, one premised on equality and diversity and intersectionality, one recognising that common causes show up in myriad forms. Western women hardly have a monopoly on freedom, or a failsafe template for what feminism is. And there’s just no place in feminism for assumptions of women as inevitable victims to be “saved” – that’s true the world over.