The Riz Test calls out the terrorist and oppressed-woman Muslim stereotypes on screen

The Riz Test calls out the terrorist and oppressed-woman Muslim stereotypes on screen

The Riz Test calls out the terrorist and oppressed-woman Muslim stereotypes on screen
Culture & Entertainment
Pic: Getty Images


If there were a test for bad Muslim stereotypes in film and on TV, which of your favourites would pass? The Riz Test can tell you just that, and the results may surprise you.

The Riz Test was created by three friends in England: Shaf Choudry, Sadia Habib and Isobel Ingham-Barrow. Named after award-winning British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, the test was inspired by his speech to the British House of Commons in 2017.

 “[We] explored what a 'Bechdel Test' for Muslims would look like,” Shaf told My Salaam. “We iterated through a number of questions and criteria over the last few years, but it really came together when Riz Ahmed did his speech in the House of Commons. Riz has always been an activist, and seeing him bringing the issue to the mainstream was a catalyst for the project.”

Homeland, American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, Disney’s Aladdin and Sex and the City 2 are obviously problematic, but this isn’t just about Hollywood; Indian classics such as Roja, Gadar, Sarfarosh and Border fail as well. The Riz Test presents five criteria by which to judge a film or show:

If the film or show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language or clothing), is the character…

  1. Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of Islamist terrorism?
    2. Presented as irrationally angry?
    3. Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
    4. Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
    5. If the character is
    a) Male, is he presented as misogynistic?
    b) Female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then the film fails.

In the current socio-political context, where Islamophobia, white privilege and toxic masculinity are being called out, Shaf is positive about the shift in perspective in the entertainment industry. “It’s important to note that, just like in other movements, Muslim representation in film and TV isn’t exclusively a Muslim issue; it’s a societal issue,” he said.

Although positive representation of Muslims onscreen is great, Shaf recognises that it is not a panacea. Muslim characters are nearly always one-dimensional: Usually, they are oppressors, the oppressed, terrorists or accomplices to male terrorism. As for Muslim women, film has traditionally depicted them as harem girls and belly dancers, veiled and oppressed, having zero agency. “We need to see Muslim men and women in their fullest, as human, as brave, as flawed, as survivors, as cultural, as religious, as happy, as suffering,” Shaf said.

The Riz Test has been met with enthusiasm since its soft launch on Twitter in June. Choudry says they have been overwhelmed by requests and offers from people around the world to write reviews for them. Then in early July, Riz Ahmed tweeted, “Not sure I ever had anything named after me before, but am glad to see this. Much needed.”

And the concept certainly seems to have the potential to become a cultural movement. “Everyone from academics conducting research in this space to Muslim actors at early stages in their careers have sent private messages, but Riz Ahmed publicly showing support for the project has been a complete game changer.”

As the project is crowdsourced, its promotion has generally been community-driven. “We have been invited to the Byline Festival to speak about the Riz Test on a panel of Muslim Representation in the Arts. We have had people from a few cities in the UK get in touch who are organising Riz Test Film Nights, where people are getting together to watch a film and discuss it afterwards through the lens of the Riz Test. We are delighted at the response,” Shaf said.

The reviews are submitted through a form or via email. In the offing is a web platform where reviews can be submitted and the full catalogue of film reviews can be searched. The Riz Test team’s ultimate goal is to build a database of films and TV shows that pass and fail. Shaf said, “[I]t’s this data that excites us most. Being able to identify trends and answer questions such as which production companies are the worst offenders, or what the trends look like over a 50-year period, or even if world events have an impact (pre- and post-9/11, for instance). We’d also love to see how people use the data; we have had a number of academics who are conducting research in this space who have been in touch.”

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