What 'Hala' gets right and wrong about growing up Muslim in America

Rasha Ali, USA TODAY

Disclaimer: I don't speak for all Muslim-Americans, but I can say that at least a good amount of us are tired of seeing the stereotypical Muslim girl portrayed over and over again.

And that's exactly what "Hala" does. 

Minhal Baig's new film (in theaters Friday in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky; streaming Dec. 6 on Apple TV Plus) focuses on a first-generation, 17-year-old Pakistani-American girl of the same name (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) whose conservative parents expect her to marry a nice Muslim boy. Her parents had an arranged marriage, don't want her hanging out with boys because reputation, her mom practically forces her to pray, but Hala is a "rebel." She falls for the white boy in her class, goes out at all hours of the night with him and eats non-halal meat (halal meat is prepared according to Islamic law, kind of like kosher). 

Surprise.

Geraldine Viswanathan stars as "Hala," a coming-of-age story drawn from the experiences of director Minhal Baig.

While "Hala" does get certain aspects of the Muslim-American experience correct, it isn't representative of all Muslim women and it also plays into a harmful stereotype of Muslim women. 

When it comes to hijabs and foregoing cute sleeveless tops because your mom doesn't approve, "Hala" got it wrong.

While some Muslim women do dress modestly and wear hijabs, that's not the case for all of us, and quite frankly it's a little exhausting to see Muslim women constantly portrayed that way.

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Muslim women aren't monolithic, and it's important to note that we don't all share the same culture, which can influence how we each choose to practice our faith. 

While, yes, like Hala's mother, my own mom also strongly suggested dressing modestly and would threaten to throw out my distressed jeans that were ripped all the way to the thighs, that didn't stop me from wearing them in public. Spoiler alert: I also didn't get disowned.

Modesty and the decision to wear a hijab varies so much between each Muslim woman that there'd even be differences in the way my first cousin and I dressed. 

Geraldine Viswanathan plays a 17-year-old first-generation Pakistani-American.

It's clear that both Hala's parents don't want her hanging out with boys because people will talk and her reputation will be ruined. In short, they want her to find a nice Muslim boy to marry, but she pines for the white boy in her class and even attempts to have sex with him.

And, yes, I can attest that a few of us have fallen victim to being caught in a questionable but innocent situation with a boy and having the news travel back to your parents via your family friend's aunt's stepsister's dentist. It's not fun and I have also sat through many a lecture about the importance of perception and the community's approval. 

However, what's supposed to be Hala's coming-of-age story is instead depicted as a "rebellion" against her religion and culture once she finds out about her dad's affair. 

But what's portrayed as rebellion – having intimate or sexual relationships before marriage and lying to her parents – isn't really atypical for any teenager, Muslim or not.

Muslim women have sex before marriage (shocker). Muslim women might also indulge in bacon (yes, of the pork variety) on occasion. Muslim women will get married to non-Muslim men or men who pretend to be Muslim just for the sake of getting married. Muslim women will also drink alcohol, smoke weed and go about living their lives without anyone knowing they're Muslim unless they asked. 

A high school senior (Geraldine Viswanathan, right) develops feelings for a classmate (Jack Kilmer) that run counter to her traditional Muslim upbringing in the coming-of-age drama "Hala."

Although "Hala" can most definitely be an accurate depiction of Muslim women living in America, it's another oversimplified image of what a first-generation Muslim teen looks and behaves like.

Unlike Hala's parents, who had an arranged marriage (which plays into the stereotype of Muslim relationships), my parents met at work, fell in love and got married (unless there's something they're not telling me).

Hala's mom all but forces her to wake up at dawn to pray Fajr. I don't even know how to pray properly (if any family members are reading this, please avoid blowing up my phone and shaming me, thanks in advance). 

But again, neither Baig nor I am able to speak to all Muslim women's experiences in the United States, and whether or not I agree with her portrayal of Hala, Baig's connection to the story is as valid as my disconnect from the story. 

It's not so much what "Hala" gets wrong about the Muslim experience that's the problem, it's more that there are limited movies and shows that center around a Muslim woman or family. So while young white men and women are able to see themselves represented in all aspects of media as doctors, presidents and lovers, and are allowed to have multiple storylines and experiences, the same doesn't hold true for marginalized communities, including Muslims. 

So when we get another film like "Hala" that portrays the stereotypical young Muslim teen wanting to rebel, that image becomes the only image of Muslims in America.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Hala' gets a lot wrong about growing up Muslim in America