"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.
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."
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.