Her frustration is valid. Implicit in Ramy and Nour’s interaction is the idea that Ramy’s reservations are not tied to a commitment to celibacy, but rather to his idea that sexual liberation (and impropriety) is reserved only for white women. Ramy’s experiences with Muslim women in the United States and Egypt prevent him from seeing them as autonomous individuals who have romantic and sexual agency. In rebuffing his mother’s initial suggestion that he find a partner at the mosque, he dismissively replies, “You can’t just walk up to a Muslim girl and like, start spitting game or something. What am I supposed to say? Like, ‘Hey, can I get your father’s number?’”
It’s an especially stark juxtaposition to an earlier conversation he has with a Jewish American woman named Chloe (played by PEN15’s Anna Konkle). Ramy admits trying to obfuscate his adherence to Islam in his romantic endeavors, telling her, “I’ve met girls who seem open-minded and then they’re not. Maybe you’d be into the idea of me being culturally different, but hate that I actually believe in God.” The empathy that he seeks from his non-Muslim love interests is the exact understanding that he denies his female Muslim counterparts.
As the series unfolds, Ramy freely processes his relationships with women while navigating the anxieties generated by his religious sins. In a scenario where he meets another potential partner, for example, Ramy spends the night with the woman during the twilight hours before the adhan call to prayer that kicks off the holy month of Ramadan. The rest of the episode is spent unpacking his guilt for such incidents as the month progresses, and examining the motivations behind his behavior. Yet the frame of reference for Ramy’s female Muslim characters is rather limiting, one that denies the significant power they hold within their own faith systems. And though scenes like the one with Nour are valuable because Youssef smartly recognizes the stereotypes applied to Muslim women and confronts them on the show, absent any narrative progress, these moments merely become a distancing device.
While Ramy’s family grants him the space to reconcile the aimless indulgence of young adulthood with his piety, his sister Dena (May Calamawy) struggles to establish her independence. In a capsule episode written by Bridget Bedard (Transparent, Mad Men), Dena fights to have the same free rein of life that’s afforded to her brother. Much of this double standard is realized on-screen by comparing Ramy’s and Dena’s contrasting performances of sexuality, with Dena navigating the shame, policing, and fetishization that come with attempting to make the same choices as Ramy. As a result, she’s far more stunted in the area.
For instance, in a real-life fantasy turned nightmare, Dena is asked by her romantic interest to come up with sex positions. She hesitates, then blurts out, “Whatever, I’m cool with like, any of them,” conjuring the false confidence of a pubescent boy bragging on a school bus. The episode’s rendering of her limited exposure to the basics of sex seems a bit unfeasible: Chastity and modesty aren’t synonymous terms. And there’s little reason she’d be oblivious to any sex positions—despite her virginity—given the ubiquity of popular culture and social experiences.