With the latest terrorist thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" released today, I have been pondering whether or not I should go and watch it in a theater. My hesitation isn't just based on reviews that the film normalizes torture and portrays it very graphically. A close friend of mine described the torture scenes as so graphic that she needed to step out. All of that aside, my fear of going is because I wear the hijab (headscarf). You may ask yourself, what does hijab have to do with it? To be honest: everything.
As a young American Muslim woman growing up in South Florida, my biggest challenge wearing the hijab was... the heat. Deciding to wear it at the age of nine shocked everyone, including my own parents who felt I should wait until I got older. Being the stubborn person that I am, I wore it anyway and the rest is history.
As someone who is very "visibly Muslim" I feel unsafe and quite honestly, extremely uncomfortable watching a film that makes me feel like I am guilty of something that I am not. I, obviously, recognize that I have nothing to do with the characters on the screen and that the motives behind the acts of real life terrorists who claim Islam to be their religion is not the Islam I grew up loving. The unfortunate reality is not everyone in America can make that distinction.
As the Young Leaders Program Coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, DC, I work with young American Muslims aspiring to go into government, media, business and technology and even Hollywood. My work with these youth surrounds the notion that they too are a contributing member of society that has a place in those industries and fields. With many young Muslims around the country wanting to be part of Hollywood but feeling that their faith is often displayed negatively, these types of films only reinforce their feelings of exclusion. It makes it hard to convince them that they do have a place in an industry like Hollywood that portrays Muslims, at times, in such a negative light. But with positive examples of individuals like actor Faran Tahir, screenwriter Sameer Gardezi and Emmy Award winning director Iman Zawahry, a real sense of hope can be found for Muslims wanting to break into the industry.
Films like "Zero Dark Thirty" and shows like "Homeland" capitalize on an already tense environment of suspicion and fear. They make people question whether their neighbors, co-workers or even that man with a beard and kufi walking down the street might be less than upright citizens. These portrayals put people who look like me automatically into the "other" category. Since 9/11, Muslims and individuals of other religions and ethnicities who are perceived to be Muslim have faced incidents of hate both physically and verbally. According to the FBI Hate Crime Reports, hate crimes with an anti-Islamic bias increased by over 50 percent from 2009 to 2010 and has been on the rise since. And with the recent incidents of people taking measures into their own hands such as the recent fatal pushing of a Hindu man onto the NYC subway tracks by a 31-year-old woman who openly stated her hate toward Muslims -- these films can negatively impact national feelings toward certain communities.
It's time for Hollywood to evaluate what they are putting out for mass viewing. It's time to stop feeding into the stereotypes that already exist in our society and creating an environment of fear. 2012 was a very dark year for our nation. We witnessed some of the highest numbers in gun violence sweep our country and affect some of the most vulnerable of our communities: children. Hollywood needs to acknowledge the role they play in the culture of violence we live in today; a young woman of any faith should never be left feeling like she can't watch a movie in a movie theater.