By Fozia Khan
23 October 2017
Channel 4’s My Week as a Muslim. ‘We hoped that people who shared some of
Katie’s (third from right) views would go on the journey with her.’ Photograph:
Matt Squire/Channel 4
The idea for making the documentary My Week
As a Muslim came to me after I spent almost a year in Birmingham, filming a
series for Channel 4 called Extremely British Muslims in and around Birmingham
Towards the end of our time there, the
Brexit vote happened. Almost immediately, there was an English Defence League
demonstration outside a mosque in Birmingham, and the number of attacks on
Muslims spiked dramatically. We only managed to capture a small part of this,
but in the coming weeks there were reports seemingly every day about hate
crime, and articles on Britain’s diverse but divided communities – living
parallel lives but not integrating.
I wanted the new show to bring to a wide
audience the harsh realities of what was happening. We wanted to do something
bold and experimental to achieve this. Often, when making documentaries, you
feel you are preaching to the converted. I was determined to make something
that would reach people who wouldn’t normally watch a programme about Muslims.
When we were in the research phase of
production and looking for contributors to take part, I was genuinely shocked
at some of the opinions I heard from white Britons. Emboldened by the
referendum results, people were openly hostile towards Muslims, saying things I
never thought I’d hear again.
Like Katie Freeman – our main contributor,
who puts on makeup and changes her clothes in order to pass as a Muslim – many
of those we spoke to were not aligned to a far-right organisation. Instead,
they were ordinary people who just had very little or no exposure to Muslims.
The only information they had was from newspapers and TV reports. Many were
very fearful of Muslims and felt strongly that their way of life was under
threat. They felt their voice wasn’t heard in the mainstream media.
When we found the Alvi family, we knew
straight away we had found the right Muslim family for the programme. Saima
Alvi is a strong, independent woman who I believe goes against the stereotypes
people have, and we were over the moon that she wanted to be involved. She had
lots of questions, as we expected, but we worked out the boundaries of the
programme with her. One of the first things we did was meet the imam from her
local mosque and the chairman of the local British Muslim Heritage Centre – a
local community organisation that Saima is heavily involved with. We discussed
our idea in detail with them to make sure they were happy with what we wanted
to do. They immediately recognised our purpose and gave us their full support.
When we met Katie, she had very strong
views about Muslims: that she wouldn’t want to sit next to a Muslim on a bus;
how she was fearful of women wearing the Niqab. But she also wanted to try to
understand the Muslim community and had a genuine desire to have her
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.
“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. The Guardian reports a 500% increase in
hate crimes against Muslims since the Manchester bombing. Things are bad.
The reason for the prosthetic nose, teeth
and contact lenses was simple – to make Katie look and feel different, so she
could go unrecognised in her home town, convincingly experience what it’s like
to be a Muslim woman, integrate her into her host community and experience it
Of course she would have got the chance to
talk openly with Saima regardless. Saima created an inviting environment for
Katie where she felt no question was off-limits. But as a result of the
disguise, Katie also got to experience racism first hand as “us” not “them” – a
truly shocking moment for her.
We started filming the day before the
Manchester bombing. After that happened, everyone was shaken and we questioned
whether we should continue. Katie, dressed in hijab, felt very vulnerable. But
after discussing it with Saima and Katie, and with the support of Channel 4, we
chose to continue – feeling her contribution could be more valuable than ever.
Even being out in public with Saima and Katie was difficult and I myself was on
the receiving end of racial abuse for the first time in many years.
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
Something you are taught as a Muslim from a
young age is that intention is the foundation of every action. We were very
clear what our intention was in making this programme, and I believe we
achieved what we set out to do.