Originally published for The Atlantic on April 23rd, 2019.
This article contains spoilers throughout Season 1 of Ramy. Hulu’s new series Ramy depicts a fictionalized version of the life of its star and co-creator, Ramy Youssef (named Ramy Hassan on the show), a Millennial Egyptian American from a robust North Jersey Muslim community. Along with the co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious man from an immigrant family with wry humor and a dash of surrealism.
The series swings from topic to topic with ease: the ennui of living at home as a young adult; the misguided ways first-generation kids romanticize their family’s homelands; the difficulty of coming of age post-9/11. Also dispersed throughout the season are depictions of Ramy’s various relationships with women, both platonic and romantic, as he seeks a partner. In these scenes, the show reveals a more myopic perspective through its disparate treatment of Muslim women, characters often boxed into stereotypes with no recourse to develop as fully realized individuals.
In the pilot episode, written by the trio of creators, Ramy goes on a first date with a Muslim woman named Nour (Dina Shihabi), courtesy of his mother’s machinations. Despite his low expectations, the date goes well, with the pair making plans to see each other again. Those arrangements, however, are upended by an intimate encounter gone comically wrong, when Ramy is taken aback by the lustful forthrightness of the woman he was initially charmed by. Incensed by his hesitation, Nour pointedly calls out what she considers the limited capacity Ramy expects her to occupy: “I’m in this little Muslim box—I’m supposed to be the wife or the mother of your kids,” she says. “But I’m not supposed to come.”
Her frustration is valid. Implicit in Ramy and Nour’s interaction is the idea that Ramy’s reservations are not tied to a commitment to celibacy, but rather to his idea that sexual liberation (and impropriety) is reserved only for white women. Ramy’s experiences with Muslim women in the United States and Egypt prevent him from seeing them as autonomous individuals who have romantic and sexual agency. In rebuffing his mother’s initial suggestion that he find a partner at the mosque, he dismissively replies, “You can’t just walk up to a Muslim girl and like, start spitting game or something. What am I supposed to say? Like, ‘Hey, can I get your father’s number?’”
It’s an especially stark juxtaposition to an earlier conversation he has with a Jewish American woman named Chloe (played by PEN15’s Anna Konkle). Ramy admits trying to obfuscate his adherence to Islam in his romantic endeavors, telling her, “I’ve met girls who seem open-minded and then they’re not. Maybe you’d be into the idea of me being culturally different, but hate that I actually believe in God.” The empathy that he seeks from his non-Muslim love interests is the exact understanding that he denies his female Muslim counterparts.
As the series unfolds, Ramy freely processes his relationships with women while navigating the anxieties generated by his religious sins. In a scenario where he meets another potential partner, for example, Ramy spends the night with the woman during the twilight hours before the adhan call to prayer that kicks off the holy month of Ramadan. The rest of the episode is spent unpacking his guilt for such incidents as the month progresses, and examining the motivations behind his behavior. Yet the frame of reference for Ramy’s female Muslim characters is rather limiting, one that denies the significant power they hold within their own faith systems. And though scenes like the one with Nour are valuable because Youssef smartly recognizes the stereotypes applied to Muslim women and confronts them on the show, absent any narrative progress, these moments merely become a distancing device.
While Ramy’s family grants him the space to reconcile the aimless indulgence of young adulthood with his piety, his sister Dena (May Calamawy) struggles to establish her independence. In a capsule episode written by Bridget Bedard (Transparent, Mad Men), Dena fights to have the same free rein of life that’s afforded to her brother. Much of this double standard is realized on-screen by comparing Ramy’s and Dena’s contrasting performances of sexuality, with Dena navigating the shame, policing, and fetishization that come with attempting to make the same choices as Ramy. As a result, she’s far more stunted in the area.
For instance, in a real-life fantasy turned nightmare, Dena is asked by her romantic interest to come up with sex positions. She hesitates, then blurts out, “Whatever, I’m cool with like, any of them,” conjuring the false confidence of a pubescent boy bragging on a school bus. The episode’s rendering of her limited exposure to the basics of sex seems a bit unfeasible: Chastity and modesty aren’t synonymous terms. And there’s little reason she’d be oblivious to any sex positions—despite her virginity—given the ubiquity of popular culture and social experiences. Moreover, the bulk of the dialogue within the episode is framed around Dena’s frustrations with her restricted life. The role is brilliantly performed by Calamawy, who imbues the character with a delicate balance of brashness and vulnerability. But the portrayal still leaves viewers with very little understanding of who Dena is beyond an outspoken personality exasperated by the barriers she keeps running into. Compared, for instance, with the show’s depiction of Ramy’s male cousin Shadi (Shadi Alfons)—a character introduced as a boorish party animal, but later fleshed out as a complex and problematic individual grappling with the trauma of the 2011 Egyptian revolution—Dena’s character development is limited to the perceived albatross of her sexuality.This is a pattern that continues as the series proceeds. Youssef dedicates an episode to Ramy’s mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), in which she’s portrayed as a once-vibrant, worldly woman now reduced to an ignored and undesired housewife. Salma (Poorna Jagannathan), a mother at the mosque with whom Ramy has an extended affair, is trapped in a loveless marriage with an absent husband, yet is still expected to be a dutiful Muslim wife. Even Ramy’s ultimate romantic connection at the end of the season—with the first Muslim woman he takes seriously (Rosaline Elbay)—hinges on him “liberating” her from the restrictive dichotomy he feels she is bound to as a divorcée: consistently dealing with men who either, in her words, “want to marry a virgin or have sex on the first date.”
The irony is that while Ramy puts Muslim women in a box, he similarly constrains himself as he vies for the attention of white women. He transforms into the most milquetoast, accessible, and understandable versions of his religious self for their comfort, to little avail. In a discussion with Elbay’s character in the final episode, Ramy recalls a conversation where he tells a non-Muslim woman he’s pursuing, “Child’s pose and prayer are the same position … we’re almost doing the same thing.” His tone in retelling the story is self-mocking, and it seems to be tinged with an awareness of the cost of his frequent overcompensation.
The illustrations of the majority of the Muslim women in Ramy’s life are focused on all the things they seemingly can’t do. These representations are divorced from reality; Muslim women are indeed varied and complicated, but portraying them as largely absent of agency, or somehow wholly separate from the temptations or crises that Ramy himself navigates, excludes them from the modern Millennial existence in a way that rings false. The lives of Muslim women aren’t exclusively dominated by forlorn conversations about potential suitors and their proclivities; women are mobilizing and advocating for their people in the face of rising oppression, breaking barriers in sports and modeling, and engaging in their day-to-day lives on their own terms. They are defining their identities in a world often committed to making them feel that they should be in despair. Ramy executes its male narratives with wit and precision. It’s unfortunate that, so far, the show fails to demonstrate that Muslim women’s stories can be more than a sympathetic canvas of unfulfilled dreams.