Hala, released today, December 6, on Apple TV Plus, follows a Pakistani-American hijabi teenager as she struggles to reconcile the duality of her identity.
Muslim Impossible usually reviews titles written by those outside the Muslim and/or Arab communities. Hala was written and directed by a Muslim, Minhal Baig, but we’re breaking protocol since we consider the promotion of this narrative above others, and the involvement of many other stakeholders and producers (including Jada Pinkett Smith) grounds for inclusion and review.
Islam and oppression
The eponymous Hala is close to her father, sharing a love of crosswords and literature. She skateboards, and she’s attracted to her white classmate, Jesse. As she awakens to her father’s chauvinism, and discovers his infidelity, she rebels against her upbringing by eating non-halal food, kissing Jesse, showing him her hair, and, eventually, sleeping with him.
Hala’s Muslim, Pakistani upbringing is continuously in conflict with her happiness. She argues with her classmates that, “You can’t make a choice if you never knew you had one. What would you know about that anyway, all you’ve ever known is freedom.”
When Hala’s parents realise she has been out with Jesse, her once permissive, caring father is transformed into a possessive brute. “Did he touch you?” he demands, before slapping her, leaving her with a black eye. “Tell me the truth or I’ll bring the Quran our and make you swear on it.”
Why, must we be incessantly subjected to this tired old storyline? It’s not that Muslim girls don’t struggle with their religion or hijab, or with controlling parents, but it’s that the only stories that are commissioned and created are ones in which Muslims are oppressed, or made violent, by Islam.
Putting a skateboard in Hala’s hand is a transparent attempt to vindicate this storyline, but it fails to add enough depth to mask the stereotypes. Without the slightly redeeming mother-daughter storyline, Hala would be one skateboard removed from the worst perpetuators of Islamophobia in cinema.
“She can’t change the way she looks, she can’t ever be anything but herself. And the worst part is looking at yourself and not being happy with what you see.”
Hala’s mother, Eram, eventually divorces her father, and Hala leaves to study at university. First she bows down in prayer, then she removes her hijab and walks off into the university sunset. Finally, she is at peace, but only after she has sacrificed something of her religion, her hijab. This is what it is to be a modern, happy American.
Time and again, on the big and small screens, and consequently in the news, commentaries, in politics, the hijab is linked to oppression. Where are the films about Muslim girls whose whole life isn’t determined by her hijab?
Hala manages to be both lazy and tiring, making little effort to break from the oversaturated market of one-dimensional Muslim girls. Tell us about her skateboarding, about her poetry, not the regurgitated storylines that define the Muslim woman only by what is on her head.
The film opens with Hala reciting a prayer, and then cuts straight to her masturbating in the bath. Is this to show that her two halves are in conflict, or is it just, like much of the film, to titillate the white audience?
Hala is continuously disrobed, sexualised and oppressed. These are the films that studios want to promote. The only Muslim story of value is the one that fulfils the exotified colonial gaze that still permeates into all entertainment today.
There are many other ways to deal with an identity crisis than by sleeping with the nearest white boy or, perplexingly, trying to kiss your teacher. Why pair Hala with a white love interest rather than a Muslim or desi boy?
Of all the authors and writers that Hala quotes and identifies with throughout the novel, why are they all white, and usually dead? Why is Hala shocked to realise that her parents had an arranged marriage? Why does Hala wear her shoes in the home?
The answer is evident from the moment that you watch the trailer: “Wonderfully insightful,” praises Norman Gidney of Film Threat in the trailer, and it is “Keenly observed,” according to Jason Bailey of The Playlist.
This isn’t a film for Muslims, it’s about Muslims. In fact, it’s not even that; it’s about what non-Muslims think the average Muslim struggle is. That a Muslim writer and director was involved is of little import, when your choice as a Muslim creative is to either fulfil the narrative that movie studios wish to tell, or be excluded from them completely.
That Apple TV decided to select this film as one of the first ever releases is disappointing. Their line-up is packed with enterprising and inquisitive big-budget titles, including a series that tackles the MeToo movement, a post-apocalyptic blockbuster, and a reimagining of the space race.
Hala was the just-exotic-enough title among them that serves to reinforce the white gaze, and fulfil its stereotypes and fantasies.
Hala receives three bloodied swords for its depiction of a violent and controlling Muslim man, for its one dimensionality, and for falsely perceiving itself as complex and nuanced in its portrayal of Muslims.