How Ackley Bridge season 5 shakes up role of Muslim women on screen
As Ackley Bridge returns to Channel 4, lead writer and executive producer Suhayla El Bushra opens up about why she wanted to create new character Asma Farooqi and how she differs from the depictions of Muslim women we've seen before in TV drama.
As any scribe from an under-represented group will tell you, it can be hard writing about your community. The weight of responsibility to ‘get it right’ can be overwhelming, especially when most mainstream depictions of your culture have been negative. It’s not enough to speak your own personal truth, you also have to disprove years of damaging tropes.
We writers of British Muslim heritage have grown up seeing ourselves represented as terrorists and abusers. Women are often victims with no agency. The obvious creative response is to counter these stereotypes by denying problems exist, to paint a picture of ‘kick ass’ empowered women aligned with their culture, but this isn’t entirely honest, or useful.
I started writing because I rarely saw my own experience reflected back at me, and because the effect, when I did, was powerful. I remember hiding behind my mum’s chair as she watched My Beautiful Laundrette, keeping quiet so she didn’t realise I was there. It was the first time I’d seen complex Muslims on screen, as messy and human as the ones I knew in real life.
It was groundbreaking, a landmark film. I had to wait 10 years before I’d have that experience again, this time with East Is East, where Ayub Khan Din’s portrayal of a Muslim father struggling to contain his unruly, Westernised children had so many parallels with my own family, I wondered if he’d been secretly recording us.
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Ackley Bridge is a show that has, since its creation, strived to explode stereotypes; a funny, naughty, multi-stranded drama about the culture clash between Muslim and white kids in a struggling, Northern comprehensive, it’s always featured a range of strong-but-flawed female Muslim characters.
In the beginning there was studious, gay Nas, swigging cider in a skip with her white best friend, her quirky sister Razia, and of course their traditional mum Kaneez, who became an unlikely champion of gay rights. Later series saw the introduction of cheeky double act, Ruki and Spud, shy, mixed-race brainiac Kayla and her prickly, outgoing partner in crime Fizza, who’s caught between her drag queen dad and devout mother Miriam.
Series 5 is no different, with the addition of new character Asma Farooqi. A fish out of water, Asma is a Home Counties, privately educated, English teacher who is not typical of our Ackley world. Her secular dad spent more time at the country club than he did at the mosque, and pushed her into a career as a hot shot lawyer.
Young Asma drank to cope with the stress, eventually having a breakdown before finding comfort and meaning in Islam. She retrained as a teacher and has come to Ackley with a romanticised view of the effect she’s going to have on her students, not realising that she has as much to learn from them as they do from her.
It felt important to tell a story about a Muslim woman and alcoholism. We’re not saying it’s prevalent, but it does sometimes go on behind closed doors. The conflict this creates in Asma as she tries to be ‘a good Muslim’ while failing to live up to the high standard she’s set for herself is interesting, and not one we’ve seen on our screens before.
Like all our characters, it’s Asma’s quirks and idiosyncrasies that make her relatable. I’ve learnt over the years that there’s no such thing as a ‘typical Muslim woman’, so there’s no point trying to write one. The only thing we can do to improve representation on our screens is to create unique individuals with their own specific circumstances and concerns, and write as many of them as possible, in the hope that one day we might begin to scratch the surface of our collective experiences.
It’s what we’ve always tried to do on Ackley Bridge. Of course we’re not there yet - how could we be? But Asma feels like a welcome and refreshing addition to our cast of imperfect, bolshy Muslim women, and we hope our viewers feel the same.
Catch Ackley Bridge on Monday 11th July – Friday 15th July, two episodes a night on Channel 4. The show is also available now as a box set on All 4.
Elsewhere, take a look at our other Drama coverage, or find out what else is on with our TV Guide.
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