“I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known. Hence, I created all things in order to be known.” – Islamic saying attributed to God
I wish I was like my friends who abstain from all media and smartphones during Ramadan. Instead, I watched “Ramy,” ready to lower my eyes during sex or violence (as always when consuming media), raising them to tear up with laughter, sadness and that rarest of feelings for Muslims watching television: recognition.
For a generation that grew up “without ever having seen a humane Arab,” as the late scholar Jack Shaheen told AramcoWorld in 2016, “Ramy” is a revelation.
The Hulu series is a love letter to an Egyptian-American Muslim family with immigrant and working-class roots living in New Jersey. By diving deep into one family, the series emerges with messy, funny, and, at times, surreal stories that resonate far beyond Muslim communities — as its speedy renewal for a second season attests.
Decades of racist stereotypes about Arabs, Muslims and Islam promoted by Hollywood and the mainstream media have instilled a Pavlovian fear response in non-Muslims surrounding our appearances and that which we hold sacred (such as mosques and prayer). Watching “Ramy,” it’s deeply moving to see our narratives reclaimed with complexity, tenderness and humor.
“Ramy” is also a love story with Islam, following the struggles of Ramy Hassan (played by Ramy Youssef, who is also the series’s co-creator), a charming, hilarious, religious millennial seeking God. The series continues important community conversations about both premarital and marital sex and relationships, as well as gendered expectations of chastity. “Ramy” highlights the critical need for and tension surrounding vulnerability and intimacy within immigrant Muslim families and communities.
After all, Ramy is not just on a quest for a fulfilling romantic relationship, he is also in a relationship with all those around him, just as we, the viewers, are in our own lives. The series poses provocative questions: If we can’t be truthful with ourselves, our parents or our fellow believers, then who can we be honest with? If we do something we’ve been taught not to, will God still accept and love us?
Women and men both struggle within the “Muslim box,” as Nour (Dina Shihabi), a Muslim woman whom Ramy goes on a date with, calls it. Being fully known by loved ones opens the possibility of rejection and expulsion from family and community — especially for women.
The scene that underscores this gender gap most is the shockingly mild disapproval that the revelation of Ramy’s affair with Salma (Poorna Jagannathan), a married Muslim woman he meets at his mosque, elicits from his father. This is in stark contrast to the overt parental and community pressure his sister Dena (May Calamawy) experiences to maintain her virginity, to dress more modestly and to keep her parents informed of her whereabouts at all times. The differences in their character development underscores how much more cultural and religious latitude Muslim men have compared to Muslim women when it comes to sex and relationships — on-screen and off.
As the editor of two books of nonfiction Muslim narratives on sex and relationships, I can attest to the fact that every single one of the 25 women who contributed stories agonized over what types of emotional, sexual or physical details they could include in their stories — even innocuous ones like holding hands with a fiance — because of the real possibility of parental or community disapproval or expulsion. Of the 23 men who shared their stories, however, not one expressed hesitation in openly sharing, and even celebrating, the full spectrum of their activities.
Some of the male writers told me that they continue to be invited to mosques even after sharing these details, upheld as paragons of virtue worthy of giving Friday sermons or speaking to youth as role models. As far as I am aware, not one woman in the anthology was invited to speak about her experiences in that space, and many were shamed for what they had shared, even when it did not relate to sexual exploration. In fact, my story, which mentioned that I dated my husband before marriage, resulted in my mother disowning me.
Any truthful account of Muslim communities in America must begin with an acknowledgement of the vast gap in women and men’s experiences and expectations within religious communities, and “Ramy” begins to address this in important ways through the brother-sister dynamic. The series also presents a nuanced view of sin and faith.
The resultant shame, silencing and disconnection has led many (including myself) to become unmosqued, that is, to practice Islam without attending a mosque, or to leave the faith completely. In “Ramy,” we find the bold proposition that sinning paired with the continual, sincere return to God are what make one a Muslim, a believer who seeks intimacy and wrestles with self and God. A rarity for American television, “Ramy” takes the longing for God in our hearts and souls just as seriously as the need for emotional and physical connection with other people.
In 2018, Gene Luen Yang, an Asian-American cartoonist, told “The Science of Happiness” podcast that stories can be mirrors or windows; both are a necessary foundation for a just society. A mirror reflects your own story back to you and teaches you to love yourself. A window allows a glimpse into the lives of those who seem different and teaches you to love them as well.
American Muslims need more mirrors — in books, film and elsewhere — so that we can see and embrace the complexities of our diverse communities. We especially need more stories from Muslim women of color, black Muslims, LGBTQIA Muslims and the intersections therein. While brown Muslim men’s stories can and should be told, of course, they should not come at the cost of the complexity of the many other stories in our communities. Media gatekeepers in particular hold a great responsibility to seek out, support and amplify these other voices, starting in their writers’ rooms, to more accurately portray the realities of American communities.
If, as the Qur’an says, all of creation is a reflection of the face of God, then “Ramy” is a welcome mirror showing us all, with humor and love, our constant need and hunger for intimacy — within ourselves, with each other, and, always, between us and the divine.