On Monday, ABC Family ordered the pilot for a new show, Alice in Arabia:
"Alice in Arabia" is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather's royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil."
The show's pilot was written by Brooke Eikmeier. According to the L.A. Times, Eikmeier formerly worked for the U.S. Army, supporting NSA missions in the Middle East.
The synopsis, the latest in a long line of similar portrayals of Muslim women on American television, prompted an immediate backlash. Pakistani-American writer Aisha Saeed got the conversation trending under the hashtag #AliceInArabia.
Some believe the show threatens to perpetuate stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as predators and terrorists.
Others were offended by ABC Family's comment about Alice having to "survive life behind the veil."
And many Muslim Americans have little trust in a white woman to represent their experiences accurately.
The author's military background was also a target of criticism.
Eikmeier responded on Facebook that her views and the story are more complex than critics assume.
This in turn prompted a wave of demands that the network hire a Muslim writer.
Author Eikmeier responded to this criticism in a Facebook comment:
Where is it headed? Al Jazeera's "The Stream's" Muslim-American host Wajahat Ali told BuzzFeed in an email that he hopes ABC Family will reinterpret this as an opportunity to combat Islamophobia:
"It feels like I sat in a Delorean and went back in time to the 80's and 90's where most things Muslim, Middle Eastern and Arab were inelegantly lumped into a simplistic bouillabaisse of sinister stereotypes featuring irrational, bellicose, angry, intolerant, "brown" folk.
However, this represents an opportunity for ABC Family to reach out to American Muslim and Arab American community leaders, consultants and writers to ensure the show's depiction of an oft-marginalized region and peoples is nuanced, balanced and engaging. No one is asking for an apologetic propaganda piece or the celebration of politically correct talking points – that leads to bad art and bad stories. But, there should be a sensitivity and cultural awareness as to how this story affects national and international communities.
Currently, the two major root causes of Islamophobia in America are ignorance and media depictions. Television is a powerful and influential cultural force that can either reinforce dangerous stereotypes that perpetuate fear and bias or break the mold and humanize religious and ethnic communities that are often portrayed as antagonists, sidekicks or are utterly excised from the American narrative."
And ABC Family spokesperson Jennifer Verti said:
"We hope people will wait to judge this show on its actual merits once it is filmed. The writer is an incredible storyteller and we expect Alice to be a nuanced and character driven show."