The Riz Test Brings Muslim Representation to the Forefront of Discussion
The Bechdel Test. The Duvernay Test. The Mako Mori Test. There are a variety of tests out there to measure a film’s worth in terms of diversity and representation, and now we can add a new one to the list: the Riz Test. Posited by a group of film buffs, the test is designed to measure Muslim representation in film and television using a simple list of stereotyped traits, ranging from the character being seen as irrationally angry to having oppressive views on gender dynamics.
“There is no nuance when it comes to Muslims. Instead we are highly likely to be portrayed as one dimensional: the men are mostly depicted as terrorists, while the Muslim women are seen as oppressed veiled victims. Essentially Muslims – men and women – are often presented as dangerous, as a problem, as posing a threat to the West,” said the founders of the Riz Test— Shaf Choudry, Sadia Habib, and a woman identified as Izzy —in a joint interview conducted via email. “As we know film and television are super powerful mediums that audiences often take for granted, so what does this mean for Muslims who are subjected to these deeply negative representations? Well, we think this is deeply Islamophobic and racist.”
Named for and inspired by activist and actor Riz Ahmed, the Riz Test focuses on different facets of Muslim representation in film and television, and is something that has been a long time coming. The creators of the test wrote:
“There have been a number of academic studies and articles written outlining the issue of Muslim representation in the media, but to the best of our knowledge we haven’t as society addressed this in the mainstream. The thing that is most concerning is the ‘otherisation’ of Muslims as terrorists has become so normalised that we don’t even notice it anymore. Taking a look at some of the film classics that we grew up with; Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Arc and even Aladdin all fail the Riz Test.
A 2007 study by the Islamic Human Rights Commission argues that Hollywood and the media at large have cruicial roles in influencing popular opinions of Muslims. We also live in a world where Islamophobic hate crimes are on the rise in the US and Europe. What we hope to achieve with the project is to start the conversation in wider society, for people to realise that lazy stereotypes relied upon so heavily by writers and producers aren’t just offensive but they have real life implications.”
A quick scroll through the Riz Test’s Twitter shows them reviewing films based on a set of criteria, and that very few films, from classics like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to newer films such as Sicario 2, are passing the test. One reviewer writes of British drama Next of Kin: “the narrative of Muslims in TV for the past 17 years has seen this almost symbiotic relationship of Islam and Terrorism. Writers can’t help but combine these [two] things together when portraying my faith onscreen.”
While writing this piece, I personally tried to remember the last time I had seen a Muslim character onscreen who was a heroic character. The Riz Test provided one recent example of a favorite portrayal: the character of Trenton (played by Sunita Mani) from the TV series Mr. Robot. They wrote of the character:
“Trenton is central to the story and is presented as an elite hacker with exceptional talent, who also happens to wear a Hijab. Her hacking skills are at the forefront of the narrative and any references to her religion are framed through a lens of ignorance of other characters. Trenton features from season 1-3 and throughout there are references to her Hijab, visiting the mosque and her Iranian heritage/ One thing that strikes us as significant is the season 2 finale where Trenton appears without her Hijab for the first time. Her character is on the run from the authorities and therefore by taking off her Hijab she is assuming a new identity in a new location, not a cliched ‘liberation’ of an oppressed Muslim woman relieved of the ‘shackles’ of the Hijab. Above all else it’s an awesome show that had us gripped.”
They did add that, unfortunately, few films pass the Riz Test, though they noted that 1999’s Office Space had a Saudi Arabian character who is just portrayed as the average office worker rather as a stereotyped figure.
The Riz Test also has specific criteria defining the treatment of male characters vs. female characters, based on stereotypes about gender roles. Too often, Muslim women are forced into roles in which they are actively oppressed by their male counterparts; in contrast, Muslim men are portrayed as oppressors. There is very little nuance there, something the Riz Test hopes to combat. “We need to see women who have agency, who control and resist the narrative, and we need to see men who are not sexist,” they wrote. “We need to see it how it is amongst the heterogeneous Muslim communities throughout the world. There is no one archetypal Muslim community, no one typical Muslim male or female. Let’s represent Muslim diversity and complexity.”
The narrative of Muslims in TV for the past 17 years has seen this almost symbiotic relationship of Islam & Terrorism. Writers can’t help but combine these 2 things together when portraying my faith onscreen.
— Shibbir Ahmed (@Shibbir1) January 8, 2018
The response to the Riz Test has been positive from the community, including from Ahmed himself, who publicly showed support for the project on his Twitter page. The support will help the creators achieve both their short term and long term goals with the project, which are all centered around engaging with the industry, collecting data, and to change future generations of films.
“We want parity with the ways in which White people are presented in film – as complicated characters, not just ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’. Like you said, nuanced characters and deeper themes,” they wrote. “Themes that are universal, that speak to humans about communities, about belonging, about identity. But also with the usual genres – thrillers, action movies, romances, animation etc etc – filmmakers should consider how they depict Muslims.”
To close, I’ll leave you with a quote from author Junot Diaz that the creators of the Riz Test also shared as part of their interview: “…if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
(Image: Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
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