This post was updated Oct. 1 at 6:19 p.m.
Hollywood has never been so accessible for Muslim creators.
LA is the go-to spot for fostering creativity and making it big – and it’s also home to dozens of promising Muslim artists who’re breaking into the industry and redefining what it means to be Muslim. Follow columnist Umber Bhatti as she covers local creators and discovers how they plan to make their mark in the city.
Sarah Anwer Khan once taught Zayn Malik how to Dougie.
Born and raised in Dallas, the 25-year-old said she rarely takes no for an answer – an attitude that led her to sneak into a One Direction VIP section back in 2011.
Khan said her persistence and stubbornness have served her well in pursuing a career in entertainment. From a young age, she constantly watched Bollywood movies and Disney Channel, remembering classics like “Boy Meets World.” Wanting to act since childhood, Khan often dragged her parents to casting calls, but her interests are varied. She’s now a published writer featured in Teen Vogue and Brown Girl Magazine, a video producer formerly employed at BuzzFeed, and currently working on a screenplay. Though Hollywood hasn’t always been the most inclusive, Khan said the entertainment industry is now paying attention to what brown women like her have to say.
“There’s something in the air where it’s like Muslim women are finally making it,” Khan said. “People aren’t looking at us in a weird way anymore.”
Khan always knew she wanted to have a career in Hollywood but said she initially struggled. Her first introduction to Los Angeles was a few years ago as an unpaid “creative intern,” which she said turned out to be administrative work in a “fake woke” environment. Begrudgingly, she went back to Dallas and lived on her friend’s couch while applying to dozens of jobs each day – all based in LA.
Meanwhile, Khan said her Pakistani parents were concerned for her future. Not only did their daughter drop out of college, but she was also unlike most of the Muslim girls in their small Dallas community who pursued careers close to home. But when Khan ended up landing five interviews for jobs based in Southern California, she said she didn’t think twice before booking a one-way plane ticket to LA. While her parents were upset at the development, Khan said the city was calling her.
“I was like, ‘I have to go (to LA), there’s nothing (in Dallas) for me,’” Khan said. “(My parents) saw it coming. Just from me growing up, they always had it in the back of their heads.”
Khan landed a job at BuzzFeed as a junior producer, only to be let go during one of the company’s first rounds of massive layoffs. She said she’s developed a thick skin as she’s battled a selective industry and Hollywood’s history of discrimination. After various jobs in LA, in which her creative vision was distorted by managers and bosses, she decided to freelance full time on top of pursuing acting seriously. She said she credits the group, “Muslim Women in Hollywood” for providing a nurturing and supportive environment in what is often a cutthroat industry.
Every month, the group – consisting of about 100 women working in Hollywood and other media-related jobs – comes together to discuss goals and provide networking opportunities. Khan said joining the group has enhanced her LA experience, allowing her to form meaningful friendships.
At the first meeting she attended, Khan said a simple icebreaker led to several tangential conversations, as everyone in the group related to the struggles of making it as a creative in LA. The women are all very accepting of one another, Khan said, as members who are queer or part of other marginalized groups are openly supported.
She’s also landed creative gigs through the group, even being considered for the role as writer’s assistant on the show “Ramy.” Though the job opportunity ultimately didn’t pan out, Khan said she is grateful to have met people who have her best interest at heart.
“It didn’t matter if you wore the hijab, it didn’t matter if you believe in this or that, (everyone in the group) has shared experiences to an extent that is the foundation of us,” Khan said.
In a time when Muslim men have been dominating much of Hollywood – from Kumail Nanjiani to Ramy Youssef – Khan said there’s a need for the female members of the faith to carve out a space of their own and tell their stories. And Wahlid Mohammad, Khan’s friend, said he’s seen his friend’s potential to make an impact. Mohammad, a content creator who started his career on Vine, credits Khan for elevating his own work, and said she always pushes herself and others to produce quality content.
“There’s so many boundaries holding (Muslim women) back,” Mohammad said. “But I really do think, in the next few years, (Khan) will be a leader for that space and connect the community to become stronger and closer.”
But Khan said she is careful not to place her religion at the forefront of her work. The script she’s writing is a coming-of-age story that includes protagonists who happen to be Muslim, but they also have other attributes that separate them from their religion. Citing television shows like “Master of None” that treat Muslim culture like an obstacle to overcome, Khan said her work will speak to all of the other important parts of who she is.
“(My faith) is not my Achilles’ heel,” Khan said. “It just happens to be that I am Muslim. And that in itself is very special – but why would that be my entire personality?”
Another facet of Khan is that she’s funny, something Jeff Loveness said he was drawn to when he saw Khan’s Twitter timeline – specifically her TikTok videos featuring her friends and her cat, Jaani. Impressed with her perspective, Loveness, a writer for shows including “Rick and Morty,” connected Khan with Sorbet Magazine to write about Generation Z Muslim girls who use TikTok. Along with praising Khan on her article, the writer said he admires how she prioritizes her community.
“(Khan’s) got a sharp eye for the world and community she comes from and she’s very proud of it too,” Loveness said. “It’s cool to see someone stand up for their friends and also dive into some of the complexities that come with that. She’s a great writer and she’s going to be even bigger.”