"We can use the laundry room to wash and shroud the dead bodies," said Baber, the crusty, bearded Muslim patriarch in front of a suspicious white interloper who had come to spy on the local mosque.
That's a line I wrote for the pilot of Little Mosque on the Prairie, a sitcom I created in 2007 about a group of desperate Muslims in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, who can't afford to build a mosque, so they rent out space from an equally desperate Anglican church in need of funds because of a dwindling congregation. It was aired in Canada by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The premise was pretty hokey, so everyone was surprised, including the network, when the show became a ratings bonanza. The CBC was thrilled to have, at long last, a hit.
My Muslim community, not so much. As the episodes rolled out, its members began to squirm.
Yes, some mosques do have rooms to wash dead bodies before burial, but why make that public? Don't people already think that Muslims are a bunch of whack jobs? I was literally washing our dirty laundry on air. Then there was the episode where an overzealous convert named Marlin irritates the mosque members so much they pretend to be terrible Muslims by eating ham and drinking alcohol in order to scare him off. The CBC got letters from Muslims concerned that I had gone too far. Converts shouldn't be pushed out of the community, one woman wrote. Marlin should be treated with patience until he calms down.
I was literally washing our dirty laundry on air.
The idea for the series came out of a documentary I made in 2005 titled Me and the Mosque. As a child growing up in Canada, I loved going to the mosque but I had noticed that women were forced to pray behind curtains or in balconies where they couldn't be seen by the men. The idea was that women were a distraction during prayers. In the documentary, I revealed that these barriers in the prayer space didn't originate with Islam. They actually stemmed from an eighteenth-century puritanical reform movement called Wahhabism that took hold in Saudi Arabia, and unfortunately oil money made it possible to fund imams who then spread cultural misogyny to mosques all over the world. Some remnants of equality linger — women and men pray side by side during the hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca) — but much of the community remains segregated.
My idea for Little Mosque on the Prairie was simple: what would happen to a mosque if the imam believed passionately in gender equality?
Feminism as an origin story would be considered strange for any comedic TV series, much less one about Muslims, but it worked. I planned to also draw on the tensions I had as a child. Growing up, Halloween was always a sore point for my mother. She felt it was the devil's holiday, so my brothers and I had to sit in the basement while our house got pelted with eggs.
On the show, the imam tries to make Halloween more acceptable to the conservative members by suggesting the kids dress up like creatures in the Qur'an, such as ants and figs.
We got letters about this as well. Some wrote their opinions on various blogs: "She's trying to dilute Islam and make up her own rules" or "The Imam was clean-shaven and Westernized" or "She has a liberal agenda." In one episode, a character pinched his wife's butt in the prayer hall in a private moment. I was asked to denounce this moment at a Muslim conference. I refused. It may have been unorthodox behavior, but it was certainly not un-Islamic. But for some conservative Muslims, "there was too much sexual innuendo on the show."
I was asked to denounce this moment at a Muslim conference. I refused.
A few episodes in, my local community issued a petition to have me removed as a member from the Islamic Association of Saskatchewan. I was making fun of them (translation: I was making fun of Islam) so I couldn't be part of the mosque anymore. It was a huge shock, since going to the mosque had been one of the most important aspects of my life growing up. I withdrew my membership and decided to take a break from attending my local mosque for a while. Instead, I prayed on the mosque set of the show.
Old friends would corner my beleaguered parents and tell them that their daughter was "selling out the Muslim community to make money." My elderly mother-in-law's medical specialist from Libya would tell her I was giving our community a bad image. Eventually, I had to call him and give a cease-and-desist order because I was worried she'd get an ulcer from her visits to the doctor.
With all the anger and vitriol coming my way, I had to make a decision. I couldn't please everyone. I decided the show had to reflect my reality growing up. I'm sure Friends didn't reflect every white person's reality either. Not every American frequented coffee shops, rarely interacted with minorities, lived in meticulously decorated New York apartments on paltry salaries, or was stick-thin and blemish-free.
With all the anger and vitriol coming my way, I had to make a decision. I couldn't please everyone.
What I learned was that comedy doesn't always translate from one culture to another or even from one generation to another within a culture. The president of the Islamic Association of Saskatchewan was from Indonesia. "I don't understand a word of this show, but my son loves it and laughs at every joke," he told me with worry in his voice. "Just tell me you're not insulting Islam." I assured him my intentions were honorable.
Despite the pushback from some, mostly older parts of the Muslim community, a younger generation of Western-born Muslims was thrilled with the show. One young man commented on my Facebook page that hearing the joke about washing the dead bodies "broke my brain like a glow stick because I didn't know we were allowed to talk about our own experiences in comedy, much less on prime-time TV."
By the third season, the more reluctant members of my community started to come around. At the water cooler, non-Muslim colleagues were telling their Muslim friends how relatable the situations and characters were. Turns out every church, temple, and soccer association has a conservative misogynist wreaking havoc on people's lives.
People started to tell me about the balconies and curtains that existed to separate women from men in their synagogues, or how some Christian denominations also don't celebrate Halloween, or how many converts were overly enthusiastic when they first joined a new religion. I began to understand that we had much in common.
I began to understand that we had much in common.
Although the mosque was a new setting for a sitcom, the stories, in one iteration or another, had been told before. Muslims hadn't invented weirdness or the patriarchy — humans had, and we were part of that family. I started going back to my mosque. The shock of being the subjects of a first-ever sitcom featuring Muslims had worn off, and people were able to laugh at themselves.
Ten years after the documentary Me and the Mosque aired, the largest Islamic association in North America passed a petition asking for mosques to do away with partitions and barriers, separating women from men.
I'd like to think that a documentary and a television series that used Islam as a framework to talk about gender equity helped propel some of that change. What I learned from the painful and often heartbreaking experience of writing this show is that you don't always have to throw away religion to grow feminism. In fact, sometimes, faith can be your ally.
Zarqa Nawaz is the creator of the TV series Little Mosque on the Prairie, which streams on Hulu, and the author of Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, which was just released in the United States. Learn more at zarqanawaz.com and follow her @ZarqaNawaz.