Studies continue to show that diversity is a win for all, and the writers at Orange is the New Black understand that very well. Over the course of the show’s five seasons, the inmates at Litchfield penitentiary have represented the rich demographic landscape of the country to a degree rarely seen in series television. While nonwhite characters mostly occupy supporting roles, OITNB elevates their experiences and engages in an often uncomfortable conversation on race and class in America.
As part of that ongoing commitment, the Netflix series introduced the first Muslim inmate to the world of Litchfield in its fourth season, which debuted on the streaming service last year. Muslims have most frequently been portrayed on American television as terrorists seeking to destroy the beloved values of the country, and even when they’re not, depictions of Muslims on American TV shows have drawn criticism for failing to explore their lives except through the lens of terrorism.
Cherien Dabis, a Palestinian American screenwriter, expressed her frustrations over this obsession in a 2016 New York Times article:
I think we need real depictions. I was developing a show [in 2013–14] about a Muslim family in Dearborn, [Mich.,] which is the largest community of Arabs outside of the Middle East. I wanted to create this authentic family drama. When I took it into the marketplace, every suggestion was that I needed to have some kind of terrorist component. Ultimately I ended up incorporating it in a way that looked at false accusations of terrorism. But I lost interest in the show because I was like, we can’t keep showing Muslims as terrorists, even if it’s just a false accusation.
Introduced in OITNB’s Season 4, the hijab-wearing Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen) is transferred to Litchfield after the prison’s new for-profit owner decides to expand the number of inmates. As soon as she arrives and sets up her bunk, Alison exchanges harsh words with Black Cindy, a recent convert to Judaism. Not even five minutes into their introduction, Cindy starts joking about Islamic terrorism and Alison’s brothers going on a jihad against the country. Alison responds with some disses directed toward Judaism, but as their friendship develops later on, these jokes are merely laughed off.
Black Cindy’s initial response is perhaps the OITNB writers’ attempt to shine a light on Islamophobia and slurs directed toward Muslims in America. But with stand-up comedians and other TV shows playing off the same tired stereotype, a little creativity would have done wonders. The residents of Litchfield’s Spanish Harlem take their share of taunts, but the jokes directed at them rarely involve border crossings or stealing American jobs. They’re criticized for their appearances or their skills in the kitchen—qualities unique to them and not derived from some generic stereotype.
More troubling is Alison’s backstory, which the show began to explore in Season 5. It’s revealed that the show’s only Muslim inmate was engaged in a polygamous marriage and grew jealous of the other wife. Although the Quran does allow Muslim men to take a maximum of four wives, with the rationale being that Islam spreads through the patriarch, the practice is hardly widespread, especially among Muslims residing in the U.S. According to one estimate, “less than 1 percent of American Muslims indulge in the practice.”
Most American Muslim women are not confined to the same four walls, instead striving for financial independence, and they can hold their own when their men work their last nerve. Although unhappy with the disproportionate attention her husband lavishes on his second wife, Alison continues playing the role of the good wife while her husband takes out the other half on ice cream dates with Alison’s daughter. As most Muslim women, including myself, will tell you, that calls for a “let’s talk,” if not a Gone Girl action scene.
Outside of her flashbacks, Alison rarely partakes in the humorous banter in Litchfield’s cafeteria and only joins in conversation on serious topics like criminal justice reform. Her serious demeanor is comparable to that of a nun isolating herself from all kinds of temptations—except that even the devout Sister Ingalls occasionally lets her deadpan face drop to indulge in a joke or two. Pennsatucky may be a fundamentalist Christian, but that doesn’t stop her from developing a close friendship with the butch lesbian Boo.
Just like OITNB’s Christians, Muslim Americans have a complex relationship to their faith. On Netflix’s Master of None, Dev, a liberal Muslim played by Aziz Ansari, tries to hide the fact the he eats pork from his his devout Muslim parents. As Slate’s Aymann Ismail wrote, it’s “a familiar story that can be told from the perspective of any religion. The only reason it happens to come from a Muslim perspective is that Ansari was raised Muslim. Swap this family for a Jewish one, or swap bacon for meat on Good Friday, and you’d have the same scenario.” Ansari’s co-creator, Alan Yang, told the Washington Post they wanted to make sure the show’s depiction of religion would be “a specifically funny, relatable thing.”
Orange Is the New Black’s season ended this year with the inmates being escorted out of the penitentiary and onto the grounds, where, for the first time, they saw Alison without her hijab. It was a surprising moment and hopefully a sign that the show might explore the Muslim inmate in more nuanced and realistic ways next season.