The only Muslim women characters I ever saw growing up always fit into two categories: the helpless victim or violent terrorist. Even the new characters we’ve been over the last few years only seemed to fit on the silver screen if they were portrayed as a “hyper-patriot,” like the hijabi FBI agent Raina Amin in Quantico: only acceptable if they’re taking down terrorism in some way. For many—not just viewers, but also screenwriters, directors, and other Hollywood creatives—it was almost impossible to get past the headscarf or expand beyond the Muslim faith being a defining attribute of the character’s identity.
It led to my own passion for transforming the culture around diverse representation in film and television, where Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland has become a welcome oasis. So, I was shocked when the legend herself shared on a United State of Women panel last year that she’s not a fan of the word “diversity”—it’s more about simply portraying the world around us.
At the time, the only headscarf-clad characters on Grey’s Anatomy were extras on the set, and even that was a rare and welcome inclusion in the television landscape. But, soon after, we met Dr. Dahlia Qadri, a veiled medical intern of Pakistani descent and Muslim faith. When I was first brought on to consult on Dahlia’s storyline, I was excited to do so not only because of my hope that she would become the well-rounded Muslim woman character that we’ve been yearning for, but also because of the performance of the actress portraying her: Sophia Ali.
If you haven’t heard of Ali yet, remember her name. She’s part of the next generation of Middle Eastern and Muslim actresses changing the face of Hollywood. I fell in love with Ali’s performance of Dahlia in her breakout scene of the season, when the intern took off her hijab to use as a tourniquet on an emergency patient. When her character was asked why, she said that her hijab is “a symbol of [her] faith, but [her] faith is about service and compassion.” Finally, a television show that puts the hijab in its place: as secondary to the role and story of the character wearing it.
Sophia knows better than anyone what we need in a well-rounded Muslim character, because it was her own search for one that inspired her burgeoning career in television. I got a chance to sit down with her to talk about the challenging journey that got her here and what it’s like to be on the brink of a television revolution.
I am super excited to talk to you, because I met Shonda about two years back, and we started a conversation around the lack of representation for Muslim women characters. One thing we worked on together was how to form Muslim characters.
That’s amazing! I didn’t know that. I wondered if they had some sort of outside influence, because it is a very specific thing to write about, and a lot of white Americans don’t know how to write for someone who is an American hijabi, so I honestly wondered. Do you also wear a hijab?
Yeah. She told me that it was as a result of those conversations that she decided to introduce Dahlia to Grey’s Anatomy. Seeing a hijabi in a scene is already crazy for any average American-Muslim woman, but then to see the character become more prominent is groundbreaking, especially a complex character. I would love to hear about how you got into the industry.
I started acting just because I loved acting. I like to be in front of people, I like to perform. It wasn’t until I was maybe 17 that I realized, I don’t really know who I am, because nothing like me exists on TV. I was playing Latina, or I was trying to look more white, or even mixed African or Pacific Islander—but it was always an ethnicity that I wasn’t.
Then I auditioned for this show called Tyrant. My character was a parent, but it was the first time I’d even seen a Middle Eastern character in the breakdown whatsoever. But looking towards the show, I personally was like, This sucks, that the only person that I was able to audition for is portrayed as a terrorist. I set this goal that I wanted to be what I am, which is Pakistani, and be able to represent those people as an American on TV—to try to make roles specifically Pakistani if they’re not, or wait for the opportunity to play something that would represent my people.
My first job after college was at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. I remember we live-tweeted the Tyrant premiere—within the first five minutes, there were several Arab women that were raped, and multiple representations of them being victims.
What does it feel like to be in your shoes right now in the industry? Because I’m sure it’s a balance of pushing your career ahead, but also not pigeonholing yourself.
For a while, I kind of pigeonholed myself into the “pretty girl” characters, which could just be open [in terms of] ethnicity, very ambiguous. I remember when I auditioned for Famous in Love, for one of the characters who’s a love interest for one of the main guys. They were like, “Oh, we loved your read, it was so great, but we have this character who we haven’t auditioned for who’s Indian.” So I was definitely pigeonholed. It was kind of an interesting experience, because I ended up booking that part.
And that wasn’t the part that you wanted?
I mean, I booked that part; I was still doing Grey’s, so it made it easier to go back and forth, but it was interesting how ethnicity comes into play for things like that.
How do you feel now with this more complex character on Grey’s?
It feels fantastic. I love the fact that my character’s Muslim and she wears a hijab, and it’s not a prominent factor of who she is. She’s got so much more to her. Also, I love the fact that it shows the realism of that character in real life. Someone who wears a hijab, who’s Muslim, is gonna have crushes and qualms between her beliefs and desires. I feel like not making that an issue is so cool. It’s opening [viewers’] eyes to that type of person.
How did it feel, after not seeing a representation of yourself in media, to be behind this moment on the big screen?
I was having this conversation with my roommate one day, and I was like, “So long ago I wanted to be that person that can represent Pakistani women or Middle Eastern women on TV, and be myself, be who I actually am.”
Then a couple weeks later I got this audition. It was one of those auditions where it’s a lot medical terms and a lot of paragraphs—I think they do that just to see if you can do it. So I really worked on it, I did my research on whatever I was talking about, and I went in there with this notion of, This is the part that I want for my career. This is the pavement that I wanna set.
When I found out I got it I was just like, this is huge. This is a hijabi surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy. It’s literally all of my cousins—this is someone that I want to portray so badly.
Why is that so important, especially in today’s political climate?
It’s important [for everyone] to have a better understanding. But also, from my own experience of not feeling like I fit in, and feeling like I have to change myself to be more accepted by my peers—it’s an opportunity for women like us, who are of Middle Eastern descent, to be proud of who they are. Just recently, I started to be proud of who I am. My whole life I’ve tried to be something that I’m not. So playing this character that celebrates the differences of the culture in such a beautifully harmonious way is important to me. It provides an opportunity for women like me to think, Oh, I can be who I am, because she is.
And having someone that looks like you wearing a hijab and going into this environment, and it’s not about terrorism or war—she’s a surgeon. She’s in the work world.
We’re in this cool moment where people are confident in voicing what they want. As a result of that, we’re finally seeing the industry open up to movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, but there are still characters played by someone not from that character-specific identity, or shows not always having writers that can accurately inform or speak to whatever community they’re representing.
Do you think that what we’re seeing is superficial? Or are we actually seeing the dawn of a new chapter?
It might be optimistic of me, but I want to believe fully and honestly that we are evolving as a society; we are accepting other cultures and other ethnicities and stories that are interesting.
What can the average viewer do to keep pushing that needle forward and ensure we don’t go back to the way things were?
With social media, if they see something that touches their heart, like my character on Grey’s Anatomy—to share their thoughts out there in the world. You can put your perspective and thoughts out there.
What has your biggest challenge been so far, and your biggest milestone?
The biggest challenge was accepting who I was as a person. Growing up, I always tried to give people what I thought that they wanted. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I have decided to just be me. I’ve come to accept who I am. Not just culturally, but my personality—and let the world kind of catch up to me. I rose, and then the industry rose, and now we’ve intersected.
And now I get to play Dahlia, and that’s my biggest milestone so far. This is what I’ve always wanted. I feel like I still have a really long ways to go, for sure. But, the beginnings of it—the first steps and making my mark, making my footprints—that aspect of it is just coming together. It’s been really exciting and special for me.
Grey’s Anatomy returns to ABC on Thursday, January 17 at 8 P.M.