Viewers asked why documentary makers gave ‘brownface’ disguise to white woman rather than following an actual Muslim.
My Week As A Muslim showed Katie Freeman, who previously supported banning the burqa, facing abuse that included drinkers in a Manchester pub asking her whether she planned to blow them up.
But many viewers were left wondering why Channel 4 felt that the way to show this Islamophobia was to find a white woman and put her in ‘brownface’ make-up.
Many asked pointed questions about why the documentary makers couldn’t have simply given a hidden camera to one of the hundreds of thousands of women in the UK’s 2.7 million-strong Muslim population.
“Millions of Muslims in the UK experience racism,” wrote one viewer. “Channel 4 didn’t ask them but thought better to brownface a white woman.”
Khuram Ahmed, a Muslim lawyer based in Manchester, where the documentary was filmed, wrote: “Because our oppression does not exist until a white person experiences it and legitimises it.”
Another viewer complained: “I want to see a programme following a Muslim woman. Not a white woman made up as a Muslim woman. This is insulting.”
The use of ‘brownface’ to disguise a white woman as someone of Pakistani origin had also been criticised before the documentary was aired, when Fiyaz Mughal, founder of anti-hate crime charity Tell Mama, told The Independent: “They did not have to do the ‘blacking up’.
“You could have experienced what Muslims experience by shadowing, using a secret camera. This could have been done without pandering to some quite silly 1920s stereotypes.”
Mr Mughal added that idea for the documentary was “coming from a positive place”, but the manner in which it was executed was “offensive”.
“The most offensive bit,” he said, “Is the gross exaggeration of features of the face, and that blurs the line, pandering to stereotypes of race and religion.”
After watching the programme, many viewers expressed similar views, reacting with varying degrees of anger and mockery to the brownface make-up and the use of prosthetics to change the shape of Ms Freeman’s nose.
“A face mould?” asked one viewer. “Really? Don’t we all have a face with two eyes, a nose and a mouth?”
There was also criticism of the views expressed by Ms Freeman, 42, before she went undercover as a Muslim.
The documentary showed her saying: “Banning the headdresses and burkas, I think it would make a lot of people feel a lot happier, a lot safer. I wouldn’t want to sit next to them because I’d automatically assume they’re going to blow something up.”
But she condemned such Islamophobia after dressing as a Muslim during filming that coincided with the Manchester Arena terror attack.
Ms Freeman was seen reacting to being confronted by pub drinkers asking if she was going to blow them up by saying: “That’s what they have to put up with all the time don’t they? What harm am I doing walking down there? Absolutely no harm.
“And what did they [mean] about blowing things up and stuff like that? F***ing idiots. It just sickens me the stuff they’ve shouted to me.”
By the end of the documentary, she had concluded: “You can’t blame the whole of the Muslims for one person’s mindless act of terror can you? Just because they choose to live their life differently to me doesn’t mean they’re any less welcome to be here.
“We have to be strong and put on a united front.”
Her move towards a more sympathetic view of Muslims ensured that the programme was welcomed by some viewers.
Hassan Mohammad, a Birmingham-based viewer, commented: “It’s easy to call Katie a racist but at least she’s open to learning more about being Muslim. If only more were the same.”
Shakil Seedat agreed, saying: “To all those criticising My Week As A Muslim, there’s no better way to learn empathy and cure ignorance than walking in someone else’s shoes.
Channel 4 responded to the criticism with a quote from Fozia Khan, the executive producer of the documentary, who said: “The programme allowed Katie to meaningfully walk in the shoes of someone from a different background and to experience what it is like to be part of the British Pakistani Muslim community rather than observe it as an outsider.”
In a Guardian article ahead of the transmission, Ms Khan said: “People have suggested that we could have used a different approach – such as giving Muslim women hidden cameras to show their experiences. This has been done before, and we wanted to try something different.
“I was determined to make something that would reach people who wouldn’t normally watch a programme about Muslims.
“We hoped that people who shared some of Katie’s views would go on the journey with her. I think the disguise element was an absolutely crucial part of this.”
She added: “The reason for the prosthetic nose, teeth and contact lenses was simple – to make Katie look and feel different, so she could go unrecognised in her home town, convincingly experience what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, integrate her into her host community and experience it from within.
“’Blackface’ or ‘brownface’ has historically been used as a form of entertainment to mock non-white people. This film is the antithesis of that. Its purpose is to inform and promote understanding between communities, not to caricature them.”