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7 Reasons Why Downton Abbey Feels Totally Muslim

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Downton Abbey, the incredibly popular BBC period drama, has fans marveling at how different life used to be a hundred years ago. But for my Muslim friends and me? We love the show because of how much we relate to the stories the show tells about the women it centers on… not how it transports us to another time and place. The honest truth is that the stories of the Crawley sisters could easily be our stories. But, since stories about young Muslim women are nearly nonexistent in TV and film, we find ourselves flocking to a relatively tame show that reminds us of our own lives and cultures. 

So many Muslim women love Downton Abbey because of how much we relate to the show. The stories of the Crawley sisters could easily be ours. But, since stories about young Muslim women are nearly nonexistent in TV/film, we find ourselves flocking to Downton.Click To Tweet

Now that Ramadan is over, Downton Abbey fans like me are desperately trying to spare some time to rematch the show or the first film. But why? To prepare for the upcoming film release of Downton Abbey: A New Era, of course! So, in celebration of the upcoming film release, I present you with: 7 reasons Downton Abbey felt like it was a dramatization of the lives of my Muslim girlfriends.

(Note: Some of the observations are based on lived social realities that young Muslim women like me face and are not indicative of the values and teachings of Islam practiced and implemented in its purest form.)

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1. The Idea of the Perfect Suitor

In a society highly stratified by class and wealth, the ideal suitor or rishta is comically familiar in Muslim circles. Wealth, class, education, family background, upbringing, heritage, looks, and charm–these factors are all considered in Downton Abbey and in real-life for Muslims. However, Islam begs us also to consider faith and good character. Although this isn’t much of a concern in the show, Muslims have created their own gold standards: a hafiz of the Quran, someone who gives khutbahs, the president of the MSA, etc. Finding a man who possesses all of these in their most exemplary manifestations makes for an elite class of ideal rishtas. These are the rishtas you would be a fool to walk away from, or so they say. Just look at the differences in how the family treats Matthew Crawley and Tom Branson as prospective spouses for the Crawley sisters. We can all think of a few Matthews and Toms in our own communities. 

 

2. A Woman Who Cannot Get Married is a Failure

Being a failure if you’re an unmarried woman is a judgment against women in Downton Abbey and a sentiment that my friends and I are also up against. Edith is the main character experiencing this problem throughout most of the show. She’s turning into the “spinster aunt” as she stays single from season to season. How many women do we know who are getting “too old” to get married?  Besides, who would they marry, with all the “good guys” already taken? And we all know of the escalating panic for this poor, unmarried woman as the months and years slowly drudge on.

Edith is criticized for not being as good of a catch as her sisters for vague reasons. That’s also a label that handfuls of single Muslim women are up against. Nearly anything can be an objection: not skinny enough or too skinny, not educated enough or too educated, not ambitious enough or too ambitious, not religious enough or too religious, etc. The list goes on as people try to assess what’s “wrong” with a specific woman who hasn’t managed to get married yet.  

 

3. The Star-Crossed Couple Without Family Support

As a true “angel” compared to her sisters, Sibyl gives us an oh-so-stereotypical storyline in Muslim circles. Girl falls in love with Boy. Unfortunately, boy is deemed unworthy by the family for marriage, and now Girl has a tough decision to make. How often have we heard or experienced families are not on board with who someone has fallen for and chosen to marry? In our Muslim circles, the fates of these star-crossed couples are a mixed bag, similar to the different mutations of Sibyl and Tom’s romance seen in Downton Abbey

Luckily for Sibyl and Tom, the family eventually accepts the couple and even grows to value and love Tom more than they would have believed possible. We can only hope that all these star-crossed Muslim couples are actually as good as Tom and Sibyl and that they both grow old happily together.

 

4. Being “Damaged Goods” on the Marriage Market

islam muslimMary and Edith are examples of “damaged goods” in Downton Abbey. The major faults which mark them as pariahs or morally questionable and therefore undesirable for marriage are their mistakes in not staying chaste within the confines of marriage. Of course, as Muslims, we all understand the high stakes that Islam places on chastity and modesty, for women and men, and so this feels so relatable. Likewise, the social blowouts following such behaviors, which is mostly what the show focuses on, are also genuinely relatable for Muslims. 

A bad decision or a sin of the past is something Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) forgives Muslim women for if they repent, make amends, and change themselves. However, a previous relationship or a moment of carnal weakness are damning mistakes many Muslim communities won’t overlook or ignore. Thus, many Muslim women with less than a spotless record are marked as “damaged goods” on the marriage market. If you or even someone in your family has had a slip-up that goes public, you’re likely to be red-flagged in the community.  Expect labels like “not a good girl,” “with a history,” or “from a bad family” to be attached alongside your name permanently. Yes, just like Lydia eloping with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or Sybil running off with the chauffeur, for some reason, the socially questionable choices and sins of a Muslim woman’s family members can ruin her chances of being happily settled. Remember Rose and her divorced parents being a huge issue for her fiancé’s family? That’s a death sentence for many potential spouses and proposals out there, even though divorce is entirely permissible in Islam. Again, this lack of grace from people is nothing new to my Muslim girlfriends and me.

The issue of a woman’s sexual and marital history as a barrier to marriage cannot be discussed without tackling the most dumbfounding bias in many Muslim communities: the prejudice against previously married women. It is as if they are sullied or worth less after broken engagements or previous marriages. Maybe the concern comes from problems the previous relationship had and any “faults” in the woman for its failure. But if we’re blunt here, we know that a woman’s virginity is much more critical socially than a man’s. Let’s also throw in the expectation that women should stay and make a marriage work, no matter the problems. How many single women have hidden their divorces from their suitors out of fear of being rejected outright? Fortunately for Mary, she is saved from this predicament once she’s back on the marriage market after Matthew dies. Even though she’s a widow with a child, the suitors keep piling in for her, probably due to her wealth, title, and supposed beauty.

The show does point out the intersectionality of classism and wealth and its impact on a woman’s reputation. The storyline of Ethel, a housemaid, and her unplanned pregnancy exposes an ugly double standard. Mary and Edith get away with behavior of the same magnitude due to their wealth, class, and family protection, whereas Ethel, poor and working-class, suffers to the fullest extent from society’s dismay at her troubled past. Lucky for the Crawley girls, isn’t it? Single Muslim women also know how wealth and notions of class buffer individuals with questionable reputations.

A woman may be considered “damaged goods” due to entering a marriage without a “virgin” status, having a secret pregnancy outside of marriage, or being divorced. Whatever the reason, the show taps into the shame, judgment, and hysteria that some “damaged goods” friends and acquaintances of mine face when looking to get married.  

 

5. The Value of a Woman Based on Her Ability to Have Children

The opinions about a woman’s value and judgments about her simply roll from one thing to another as we move through different stages in our lives. Another issue that many of my Muslim friends and I relate to once we finally get married is that a woman’s value is based on whether or not she is able to have kids. Mary’s struggle with infertility and the heartbreaking story of Anna struggling with repeated miscarriages are  important aspects of the show. In the last handful of years, so many friends and I have been on our own roller coasters with fertility struggles and felt the impacts it has had in our lives on multiple levels.

The show exposes the emphasis on childbearing as an essential requirement for a wife and the shame women experience when they have fertility issues–and we find the same is still true today. Both Mary and Anna keep their pregnancies, miscarriages, and fertility treatments private–not even informing their spouses until after successful treatments. After having a pregnancy loss a few years ago, I experienced some of the emotions we see Anna experiencing–self-doubt, frustration, disappointment, shame, guilt, and worthlessness. 

After talking to many friends about my pregnancy loss, I realized how secretive women tend to be about this ubiquitous experience. But why are women so furtive and private about something so commonplace? The taboo around the subject is still stifling today, although some progress has been made. For example, Anna becomes so disheartened at disappointing her husband with her infertility–a feeling that so many women experience. Anna feels less worthy of love and being married to a good, kind husband because, as a society, people are so obsessed with a woman’s ability to have children as a keystone of her value. 

Lastly, there is so much pressure on Mary to have a son. Yes, this will help her secure the inheritance of Downton Abbey for future generations–but how many of us relate to the absurd, unIslamic pressure of having a son as your first-born child, or at least just one son out of all of your children? The value of a woman is distilled into being a vessel that produces children and specifically male children. 

 

6. Healthcare Access and Fertility

islam muslimWithin the realm of infertility, the show also alludes to access to healthcare–which is a difficulty many of us face today. Mary struggles with her infertility but overcomes it easily due to her access to resources. Coming from so much privilege and wealth, she has access to the best healthcare and can afford costly innovative procedures and even travel for them. Unfortunately, so many women who struggle with fertility have the additional burden of a lack of resources for the treatments they need. Most, if not all, aren’t able to afford expensive treatments due to a lack of healthcare coverage. 

If a person doesn’t have the money outright like Mary, they may be lucky to have great healthcare through work–just like Anna. Lady Mary, her boss, swoops in and covers all costs to have the expensive fertility treatment she could have never afforded without her job’s benefits. How many women do we know who would be interested in trying various fertility treatments if only their jobs had better healthcare benefits? How many people do we know are plagued with exorbitant medical bills? 

Mary’s life also presents her with the luxury of focusing on herself and her own health needs. For example, she can easily leave her home for a few days without worrying about who will manage the affairs of the home or taking time off from work. However, so many women face burnout from daily life due to lack of support and the rising cost of living. Just having the time, energy, and opportunity to step away to prioritize their health and self-care is becoming harder and harder.

 

7. The Woman’s Place is in the Home…or is it?

A woman’s place, both inside and outside of the home, is one the show explores in many ways. At the turn of the 20th century, women began venturing into professional lives that expanded beyond their domestic duties and family obligations. At the turn of the 21st century? Same. Women are still torn between working or being homemakers/stay-at-home mothers. Women have made great strides within the workplace, but women are still battling for pay equity.

Edith is in a predicament that many single women find themselves in as they start creeping into their mid-to-late 20s and beyond. Should I just sit around here, brewing in my depression, as I wait to get married? Or should I move on with my life and cultivate independence as a single person? Growing independence generally involves establishing a career for oneself to promote economic self-sufficiency.

There’s a mix of opinions about this in the show, just like in real-life. Lord Grantham, Edith’s father, is highly opposed to Edith having a (professional) life of her own. He’d rather she just be “wife” or “mother.” But, like Edith’s brothers-in-law, others support her in establishing a career and independent life for herself (once it seems as if marriage may not pan out in the short term, that is). She runs into a conundrum that many “older” single Muslim women face: being more independent or established in a career is threatening to some Muslim men and their families. This prejudice makes it even harder for some highly accomplished Muslim women to marry. 

It’s not just the single women waiting around while there’s no one to marry who wonder if there’s more to life than being a wife and mother. (No shade on either of those parts of a woman’s life!) Lady Grantham, Mary, and Cousin Isobel are married women finding their footing in roles outside of wife and mother.

There’s an example here for women of all ages. Lady Grantham’s situation mimics many of my friends’ mothers: living comfortable lives where they don’t need to work to make ends meet but are looking for more purpose and meaning in their lives. When Lord Grantham prefers she doesn’t work, this ambition causes friction in Cora in her marriage, as it does for many women. Many younger women are battling Mary’s situation: breaking through the glass ceiling of patriarchy and transitioning into a career traditionally reserved for men. Cousin Isobel, a widow whose only other occupation is keeping tabs on her adult son, exposes the pernicious dislike of industrious women as busybodies or bossy. Their examples show us the struggles of work-life-family balance and the judgments of others.

 

Downton Abbey: A Modern Muslim Story

So there you have it! Don’t you agree that it wouldn’t be too hard to reimagine Downton Abbey as a Muslim romantic drama? Tell me which one of these 7 points, or another, you relate to the most! Let’s hope the final (?!) movie doesn’t disappoint! 

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Related Reading:

An Open Letter to Moms with Daughters Looking to Get Married

My Miscarriage And Healing Afterwards

One Critical Mistake A Single Muslimah Makes
 When Finding Her Mr. Right For Marriage

Loving Muslim Marriage Episode #7: Islamic Modesty vs. Muslim Shame

The Muslim Marriage Crisis

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Meena is a writer, podcaster, high school English teacher, wife, and new mom. She loves working with Muslim youth and is interested in literature, arts, and culture. She studied Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine and has a Master’s in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She briefly dabbled in Classical Arabic studies in the US and is also studying the Asharah Qira'aat/10 Recitations. Check out her podcast and website Brown Teacher Reads: the brown literature circle you always wanted to be in. (brownteacherreads.com)

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. UmmSafa

    May 19, 2022 at 1:54 AM

    “Downtown Abbey feels Muslim-y because Muslims are misogynists” isn’t quite the amazing take you think it is.

  2. Truth

    May 19, 2022 at 6:21 AM

    Young men today are suffering from high blood pressure and heart attacks due to the pressure that society and family places on a man to get a high paying job. On the other hand women achieve the same social and financial status of a man overnight after marriage. A woman can choose arts and humanities at college because she doesn’t need to get a high paying job, a woman can choose to work a “comfortable” job because she doesn’t have to worry about her salary, then she can quit whenever she wants because her husband is there to provide for. After all these privileges we have women telling the world how oppressed they are because they have to cook.

  3. Brahim

    May 19, 2022 at 10:40 PM

    @UMMSAFA what an incredibly ignorant comment.

  4. NOS

    May 20, 2022 at 1:13 PM

    “Thus, many Muslim women with less than a spotless record are marked as “damaged goods” on the marriage market.”

    Well that does make sense. After all, the biggest predictor of marital infidelity is pre-marital transgressions and men are by nature greater in sexual jealousy than women are. Men have criteria and so do women…this is rational. As for repentance, that’s between the slave and her Lord.

    If it is said “what about other sins” the response is that nobody here is naïve. A man is going to be concerned about his wife’s sexual past in a way he isn’t concerned about her cussing or stealing past because her sexual past is most relevant to his marriage.

    “She runs into a conundrum that many “older” single Muslim women face: being more independent or established in a career is threatening to some Muslim men and their families. This prejudice makes it even harder for some highly accomplished Muslim women to marry.”

    Yes, so they find it threatening because it….is…in the same way women and their families find unmarried unaccomplished, dependent and unestablished young men as a threat. Why would a man not prefer a woman focused on motherhood? And is he going to see a careerist or a housewife more focused on motherhood? Which is his obvious preference?

  5. Aishah

    May 26, 2022 at 3:03 PM

    Nice read but I feel like a lot of these apply to muslims from certain cultures rather than muslims in general.

  6. Meena Malik

    May 26, 2022 at 9:11 PM

    I am from a Desi background and born and raised in the US…but that said, all of these things are something that white British women (even upper class) experienced.

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