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Masha and The Bear, loosely based on a fairy tale of the same name, is a hit with Muslim kids around the world.
In my home, we try to limit screen time for my daughter. But a few times a week, Zeina will sit on the edge of the couch, feet dangling, happily watching one of her favourite TV shows, Masha and The Bear.
My daughter identifies with Masha more than other characters, seeing something familiar from her own life reflected on screen.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Masha and The Bear is a Russian cartoon loosely based on a fairytale and translated to English. Masha, the main character, is a mischievous and lovable young Russian girl who happens to wear a traditional folk costume, complete with a headscarf—a handkerchief that she wears around her head. To my daughter it looks just like a hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering. For that reason, the show has become a hit in many Muslim countries.
While some see the hijab as a religious symbol, my daughter sees her grandmother. When Masha bounds on screen, it brings to mind images of our Palestinian and Tunisian family for Zeina.
There is power in seeing characters who look, speak and encounter situations like you. I want my daughter to see her experiences and traditions take centre stage—without that opportunity in most mainstream entertainment media, it’s no wonder she identifies with Masha.
I grew up on a steady diet of Middle Eastern pop culture. I saw others with my skin tone, heard my language, and grew up with heroes that sounded, looked and lived like me. And that’s part of the reason I had the confidence to leave home and pursue my education. I had role models. I felt comfortable with myself from a young age and that confidence helped me carve a path to the board room.
I want the same for my daughter.
In a Baltimore mosque in 2016, Barack Obama called the problem out clearly. We need Muslim characters who aren’t spies or terrorists, he said.
We need more than that.
We need women who don’t fit the narrow status quo of “beauty” in more diverse roles, beyond the funny best friend or neurotic roommate. We need Asian characters who have more depth to them than a mastery of martial arts, Indigenous stories that show the complexity and beauty of living Indigenous cultures.
Here’s why it matters: An Indiana University study found that self-esteem plummeted among pre-teen girls and visible minorities as they watched TV with no positive role models who looked like them.
The lesson is clear. Representation is key and you can’t be what you don’t see.
I want my daughter to see herself on TV. I want her to see characters who come home to a dinner of shawarma, falafel, brik and baba ghanouj; those who have the same books lining their shelves and holidays marking their calendars. The alternative is the message that her experiences don’t matter.
The list of programs that put diversity and representation first is frustratingly short and familiar to parents and young children everywhere: Sesame Street. Beyond that, there aren’t many alternatives on television, and so I look elsewhere.
I find children’s books with unique characters. I take her to festivals and cultural spaces that expose her to different outlooks. And when she’s old enough, we’ll have a difficult conversation about why she doesn’t see herself reflected on TV and in movies.
Or maybe I won’t have to. Maybe she’ll grow up to create those stories herself.