Ramy’ Meditates on the Pitfalls of Self-Righteousness

This piece was originally published for The Atlantic on June 11, 2020


In Season 1 of Ramy, audiences are introduced to Ramy Hassan—the character loosely based on the show’s creator, Ramy Youssef—and his Egyptian American family in northern Jersey. With a formidable mix of surrealism and humor, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious Millennial man, namely through navigating the difficulties that young Muslims face coming of age post-9/11. Season 2 is anchored in Ramy’s wish to find purpose and direction in his spirituality, but his obsessive need to present a righteous version of himself only sabotages his effort at redemption.

The show is preoccupied with the idea that ritual for ritual’s sake—without deeper consideration of context or circumstances and without disposition of the ego—can often reveal one’s truest, ugliest self. Ramy has returned from a sojourn in Cairo more aimless and prurient than ever before. Back in the States, he engages in gluttony and lewdness (through the haze of a porn-filled laptop screen), and isolates himself in shame. He admits, “I feel like I have this hole inside of me, this emptiness, and I’m always trying to fill it with something.” But once he finally musters up the resolve to return to his mosque after a hiatus, his imam (played by Alok Tewari) meets him with reproach: “Read the last three surahs of the Quran every night,” he says. “It will help keep the shaitan away.” (Shaitan, in Islam, are evil spirits that tempt humans into sinful behavior; their commander, Iblis, is known in Christian texts as Lucifer.)Despondent, Ramy finds his way to the local Sufi center, led by the charismatic Sheikh Ali (Mahershala Ali). Enamored by Ali’s presence and steadiness, Ramy convinces himself that his absolution will come under the approval of the sheikh’s watchful eye.

What ensues is an empty religious performance by Ramy.Desperate to prove that he can ascend to the levels of perfection he associates with the sheikh, Ramy adheres to a rigidity that his loved ones find disconcerting, imposing stringent standards not just on himself, but also on the people around him. When Ramy attends the strip-club bachelor party his friends throw for him, he admonishes one of them, Ahmed, about the optics of the occasion. But Ahmed retorts, “Do you know how many times I’ve watched you do crazy things? Slowly waiting, praying that you’d do the right thing? I never judged you! I just prayed for you.”Ramy’s understanding of discipline is misguided, and his overcompensation and ego leave no room for the inevitability of human error, creating a built-in tension in the show.

Similar to Kanye West and his self-righteous Sunday Service performances, Ramy has understood only the trimmings of deliverance and religion, and has done so in the most self-serving ways possible. For instance, when he wants to encourage a new revert’s adoption into the Sufi center, Ramy fails to disclose that the man was a U.S. soldier in Iraq—responsible for the torture and deaths of Arab and Muslim innocents—and that he has crippling PTSD. As a result, the man is involved in a fatal incident at the Sufi center, for which Ramy is indirectly responsible. In another episode, Ramy translates his adoration of Sheikh Ali into a delusion of romantic love for his daughter. He pursues a relationship with her and then sabotages their imminent nuptials by engaging in infidelity under the guise of religiously sanctioned polygamy—a practice reserved for those who have both the resources and mutually agreed-upon consent.

Ramy’s family members also learn the cruel irony of empty performance. In contrast to Ramy’s capitulations to what he thinks is religious surveillance, his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), capitulates to a literal agent of surveillance—the United States federal government—in the journey to obtain her citizenship. She studiously reviews her notes for her final exam and absorbs American vernacular. But when she incurs an infraction at her job driving for Lyft that could potentially flag her final background check, she collapses into a panic.

In an effort to determine the complainant, Maysa engages in a frenzied review of her recent passengers, ultimately assuming that a nonbinary customer named Sophia (whom she had misgendered) was the culprit. Unraveled and distraught, Maysa confronts them at a bar, and tries to appeal to their common marginalization as members of two different targeted communities. Maysa’s self-serving plea comes amid her own prejudice—in a previous conversation with her daughter about Sophia, Maysa casually asks, “Allah created him as a man, no?” But in order to protect herself,Maysa exhibits a remarkable inversion of power and imposes the same surveillance tactics on Sophia that she herself fears.

Perhaps the most tragic story within Ramy’s family is that of his uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli)—a boorish, bombastic man who revels in uncompromising bigotry and cartoonish toxic masculinity. The show ultimately reveals that his behavior belies his hidden queer identity; Naseem allows himself to indulge in his sexuality in a few furtive moments, only to then again reclaim his external presentation. He struggles with what kind of Muslim he is supposed to be and what kind of man he is expected to be, which amounts to tremendous overcorrection at the expense of himself and everyone around him.

The last three chapters of the Quran, Surah Al-Ikhlas (“Sincerity”), Surah Al-Falaq (“Dawn”), and Surah Al-Naas (“Mankind”), are commonly invoked in Islam as protection against malevolent surveillance—jinns, shaitan, or the evil eye. The ritualistic performance of these invocations reasserts fealty to God’s will. At the beginning of the season, Ramy dismisses the advice from his imam to invoke these rites, noting that he’s “trying to find God, but it’s not there.” But Sheikh Ali informs him, “If someone only gotthe rules and rituals, they might think Islam is tough and bitter … but there’s an inside, a juicy flesh, a divine intimacy, a spiritual experience. The rind without the flesh is bitter and useless.”

Ramy’s Achilles’ heel is his inability to grasp the journey of restitution via non-egotistical means, and he exercises self-imposed discipline without empathy. Just like his uncle and mother, Ramy is crippled by the perception of the absolute binary of haram and halal—what’s forbidden and what’s permitted—applying its maxims without consideration of the impact they may have on others. It’s a contextual failure that absolves a person of the responsibility of care in pursuit of moral righteousness.

Most Abrahamic religions are peppered with tales of the fallibility of human character: the person you want to be versus the person you are. In Season 2, most of Ramy’s characters are going through this journey; not just in front of God, but in front of their own communities. In trying their hardest to present themselves as the people they want to be, they consistently harm those around them—exposing the worst of who they are in dangerous bursts. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Ramy offers a look into where the road obsessed with perceptions will lead.

Representation vs. Exploitation? Halima Aden’s ‘Sports Illustrated’ Hijab And Burkini Spread Sparks Debate Around Racial Capitalism

Originally published as a feature for BET Style.

On May 8, the 2019 issue of Sport Illustrated’s Annual Swimsuit Edition will hit newsstands everywhere, featuring a watershed moment— the first Muslim hijabi, a Black Somali-American woman, to be featured as a model, clad in illuminating burkinis in Watamu Beach, a day’s travel from the Kakuma refugee camp where she spent the earliest years of her life.

In the announcement of Halima Aden’s upcoming photos, editor MJ Day emphasized how SI Swimsuit reflected the progressiveness of the fashion industry and society at large:

“We both know that women are so often perceived to be one way or one thing based on how they look or what they wear. Whether you feel your most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY.”

It’s a curious statement, considering that it frames the discussion around litigating the attractiveness of being fully covered as opposed to the inherent Islamophobia that can come with being visibly present in hijab or burkini. It also comes less than a month after fellow Somali hijabi and Minnesota resident Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who herself lobbied to allow hijabs in Congress, came under direct fire from the president of the United States, who used his Twitter account to spread a doctored video implying that Rep. Omar was dismissive of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers to a following of over 60 million accounts, directly leading to an increase in death threats made against her.

Therein lies the walking balancing act that has played out in the public sphere: fashion brands as high end as Gucci and Versace to the Gap and H&M have made a recent and large pivot to embrace modest culture in U.S. markets, and to significant returns — the positive impact of the inclusion of a long-ignored demographic comes with access to a rapidly increasing portion of spending power in an industry where brick and mortar revenue is under threat, to the tune of $170 billion. But while that representation is happening, the climate for Muslims in America remains stagnant, with Muslims still subject to surveillance, proposed travel bans and various forms of tacit Islamophobia enmeshed in American social norms.

This dialogue is not new to the industry — Sports Illustrated faced similar discourse when Ashley Graham received the Swimsuit Edition cover in 2016, raising the debate as to the goals and objectives of plus-size inclusion in the fashion industry and how it fit into body-positivity movements and helped tackle fatphobia as a whole. A term that University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong coined, racial capitalism speaks to the overall trend of corporations commodifying identity to attain social and economic value, which can ultimately lead to feelings of exploitation absent feeling like there is any space to express their own agency.

From Aden’s perspective, she has been hands on with trying to ensure that all of her campaigns go hand in hand with highlighting the issues she champions, which is, as she told writer Najma Sharif for a profile in Paper Magazine, “encourag[ing] girls to dream big.” That objective has carried through to her Sports Illustrated shoot, with this statement she gave to BET exclusively:

“Being featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue will have such a great impact on women and young girls who have never seen someone who look like them represented in the public eye. SI Swimsuit has been at the forefront of changing the narrative and conversation on social issues and preconceived notions. I’m hoping this specific feature will open doors up for my Somali community, Muslim community, refugee community and any other community that can relate to being different.

“This feature is proving that a fully covered hijab-wearing model can confidently stand alongside a beautiful woman in a revealing bikini and together they can celebrate one another, cheer each other on, and champion each other’s successes. It’s also putting the burkini on the map, which is imperative for young Muslim girls.”


I’m happy to see Halima book the jobs that she wants and what that might mean for other Muslim women and people who have never seen a girl in a burkini before. It still makes me question the motives of these brands that are suddenly so interested in their representation stats in 2019.

Ultimately, can the impact of representation supersede the corporatization of identity? Perhaps not completely, but at the very least it should maximize its impact by allowing the hijabis selected to champion their respective brands as free of a platform as possible to speak on the areas specific to their identity, beyond fashion representation, without censorship, until rhetoric around these campaigns will have reached beyond the notches of having accomplished all of these firsts.

While a brand can send out a congratulatory statement about them recognizing their first hijabi for her undeniable skill and talent as a model, a Muslim woman may be trying to wear that same burkini someplace far away from the glaring lights of a photographers’ lens — and in today’s society, that is still a much more precarious choice than it should have any business being.

What Ramy Gets Wrong About Muslim Women

Originally published for The Atlantic.

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. Continue reading