In the fourth season of the globally/virally popular Norwegian TV drama, Skam (meaning ‘Shame’), the gaze shifts to a girl called Sana as its protagonist for the season.
Sana is seventeen years old and lives in Oslo. She is bright, beautiful, witty, wise, discerning and loyal to her friends. She is great at Biology, keen to be a doctor and loves basketball. She is Norwegian and (or but – that’s a tension explored but more lightly than you’d expect) of Moroccan descent, from a Muslim family, where at least her mother attends Friday prayers at the mosque (her elder brother Elias is less interested and more conflicted) and she has faith in her own right, praying daily and dressing modestly (mainly in her trademark black and with gold hoop earrings and a hoody) including wearing a hijab or occasionally turban. This last sentence puts her in the minority at her high school in an upmarket suburb of Oslo.
It is perhaps appropriate that Sana comes to the spotlight last, after being a supporting character for several seasons, as this seems to be how she is seen by many – objectified or stereotyped as a single, one- or two-dimensional figure in the background of others’ stories, and nobody seems to fully get how she can be many things to many people, to heavily paraphrase St Paul. Sure, she is a surly, sassy, non-nonsense Norwegian teen who means what she says even if she doesn’t always say much, and she loves her friends and having fun and thinks about boys and school and her appearance as much as any of her peers. Yet at home she is also a good girl; she helps out with dinner, she chats with her mum, she looks out for her brother, she’s devout in her faith and studies and doesn’t lead a double life hiding drinking or anything else out of bounds for Muslims.
Somehow, and with difficulty at many turns, she manages to toe the delicate line between being ‘in the world and yet not of it’, as Christians say, attending the parties but not drinking or hooking up; getting takeaway pizza with her friends but not eating pork; getting dressed up for a night out but still covering her hair. When she talks about her faith it is sincere and deep, but she holds no truck with the homophobia that some associate with it. She is serious about who she is and not apologising for it, but it’s just her being her: it’s normal. In fact I fear I am making more of this here than the series itself makes of her cultural, ethnic or religious distinctiveness – it is more that the microaggressions against her are faithfully but neutrally recorded in and around the other troubles she faces: schoolwork, friend drama, boys, fitting in, organising the traditional ‘Red Bus’ party for graduation and her dopey lab partner trying to crib off her homework (not seen but clearly he’s tried it). You can no more separate Sana the Muslim from Sana the schoolgirl; they come as a complete package.
In making these daily negotiations between (sub)cultures and societal norms, she reconciles the different sides of herself without (for the most part; though she does express her frustration eventually) conflict, contradiction or cognitive dissonance. What could be seen as Jekyll-and-Hyde situation just becomes nuanced as we walk with her, read her texts and Facebook messages and see the looks and smiles she gives and is given. I love that Skam shows some #westernmuslimproblems she faces, like people coming in to make out in the bedroom where you’ve snuck off to pray at a party, or the neighbours playing Daft Punk & The Weeknd so you get distracted when praying, or ignorant flippant comments from her friends at school such as ‘you’re lucky, you don’t have to worry about any of this stuff [i.e. dating]’, as if she is somehow sexless.
Sana isn’t perfect; she can’t cook, she can be judgemental and come across cold or stubborn, and she worries, like any female, too much about how she’s perceived. She shouts at her mum and rolls her eyes too much like any teenage girl. Her style and makeup policy (broadly goth-Muslim) are sometimes a little too clumsy or inconsistent for me. When a mean girl hurts her friends, she knows exactly how to wreak revenge, and does so with painful consequences. But that’s all good. Great, in fact! And at last, a real character with struggles I can really relate to.
And relate to her I really do. I am and grew up Christian; I am white and English and was in a majority-white part of England so I don’t face the race or culture issues she does, but in terms of her faith and the family/subculture expectations, I completely feel her.
One memorable speech she gives, when the normally strong exterior crumbles and she reads a sobbing message for her friends, verbalises a lot of her narrative. They are right she says, she is angry at the world, at life. She never feels enough for anyone; “not Muslim enough, not Norwegian enough, not Morrocan enough.” She could try but she is wise enough to know that trying to be less or different than you are will never work; it still would not suffice even for the people who want you to do it. Her rejection of this pressure does not mean it disappears though, and that is why she is angry. I love that speech. It is so honest and unfiltered, so insightful, so Sana.
But the really interesting part for me came after it becomes clear that she is being drawn into a relationship (entirely chastely but no less intensely for it) with a friend of her brother’s called Yousef. The show displays skilfully the denial she defends herself with, how torn she is between wanting to avoid him and get close, and how external factors shape all of their interaction but do not dictate it entirely.
Yousef is a tall, handsome, older Turkish-Norwegian boy who, like Sana loves basketball, and observes her with smiles which clearly make her stomach flutter self-consciously – not that she doesn’t try very hard to hide it. He sometimes comes round her house with her brother as part of his gang, where he gets talking to her, and she sees him socially at parties, where on one horrible occasion she sees her pretty blonde best friend Noora making out with him and is heartbroken, but says nothing.
It is fascinating to see this dynamic portrayed on TV in a way that doesn’t show the character with more restrictive principles 100% sacrificing either their beliefs or their desires. Sana walks the middle ground – she hears her her mum (gently) and her fanatic friend (less so) warning her that nothing good can possibly come of consorting closely with non-believers and she goes ahead and gets to know him, cautiously, in fits and starts, because her head and her heart tell her he is worth knowing. And because Yousef respects her, and her faith, deeply, and cares about her as a person and a friend not a potential conquest or to be turned, it’s beautiful. They just like each other. It’s not a big deal. It’s occasionally tense, where she clearly wants him to bridge the gap further than he is willing or able to, and she hopefully wonders if he is sure he doesn’t believe in Allah, but that underlying care for each other holds them by a strong enough thread to continue. For him, she is enough, just as she is.
This is, probably, one of the shames alluded to in the title (as well as perhaps that which people would wish to assign her for her faith or her ethnicity, as we see when a woman opposite her on the bus home is shown involuntarily staring at her with distaste). She knows she is attracted to Yousef, but does her best to hide it out of shyness, principally, and knowing that she cannot, will not or should not date a non-Muslim. Sana is not naive, oppressed or repressed; she is shy and cautious, but he teases her out so casually that she overcomes any residual fear and trusts herself to know where she wants to set her boundaries and enforce this herself. Before Yousef leaves for Turkey for the summer, Sana plucks up the courage to reconnect and they finally go on a date, messing about on the shores of the Oslo fjord at twilight. He thoughtfully brings her snacks and a bottle of water to break her Ramadan fast; they do not kiss or anything further but their hug speaks volumes.
I really admire and/yet also identify with Sana. I love that she is depicted as tough, stable, strong and serious, but does enjoy herself in her quiet way. I love that she joins in, but only with what she feels comfortable with, and has the courage of her convictions. I love that her style reflects her personality; she takes that religious modesty and makes it her own, with don’t-fuck-with-me vibes from the all-black clothing and dark makeup, plus a perpetually raised eyebrow that says ‘really?’ at anyone daring to make assumptions about her.
I love that she makes decisions that I should have made on reaching conclusions that I should have reached earlier in my life, to not pass up good opportunities out of fear of perception or not trusting her/myself.
I want to be as sorted as Sana.