Shazia Mirza – The Insight

Shazia Mirza “or at least that what it says on her pilot’s license” is doing just about the best job a person could do these days, removing the fear and ignorance between Islam and the West. Since 9/11, we have seen the world dividing into two distinct poles – ‘you’re either with us or against us’. Extremists on both sides who believe their way is the only way: be this the forceful imposition of global capitalism or jihad against the infidels. Mirza is not just cracking few funnies but giving us hope. Showing that opposing ideology can live as one entity, with a helpful dollop of consequential comedy.

Shazia draws upon everyday life for her act, “anything l think and feel passionately about … it is not based on stereotypes, it’s based on the truth, and that’s the reason people get upset.” A great inspiration for Mirza was Richard Prior, “for having the courage to tell the truth, for saying what he wanted, regardless of what other comics were doing at the time.” Like Prior, she uses her own negative experiences of growing up in an ethnic minority, combining a sense of anger with an underlying belief in reconciliation.

Growing up in Birmingham as a Muslim born to first-generation Pakistani immigrant, I asked her if she saw herself as a community spokesperson. “No. I represent my own views and myself. Although people do regard me as something of a representative.” Shazia believes this is because of the lack of Muslim role models within the media, “When I was growing up we didn’t have any. Now I think young people are clinging to any because there are so few. I mean all we have is a man with one eye, a hook and myself….”

Her parents, who are both proud and disappointed, are relentlessly teased by their community. Her father, a car salesman, refuses to have any in-depth discussions with her until she promises not to use it as material in her stand up. While her mother, a teacher doesn’t get any of her jokes, but is pleased just to see her daughter on stage. Although Mirza says there were times when she resented being a Muslim, “I couldn’t go to drama classes do ballet or go to any parties,” she sees her faith as central to her act, giving her the strength to speak on behalf of other Muslim women.

She describes her experiences with characteristic sarcasm, “I talk about what it’s like to have excess facial hair, how I shave my beard.” By entering a male dominated sphere like stand up, she hopes to expose these stereotypes for what they are, “There is a perception that women are not funny, and if they are, then it can only be about stuff like sex, drugs, and periods. Men generally think they are funny, even if they are not. Women are much more realistic.”

Raised to be a doctor Mirza first opted to be a teacher. “I used to teach in an East End comprehensive, which is where I learnt to be funny.” By controlling her classes with comedy, Mirza saw that a mutual understanding could be achieved – a gift she would later translate onto the comedy circuit. “I’ve done comedy to racist and sexist audiences but you can win anyone round once you make them laugh.” By turning comedy into education she hopes to reduce Islamophobia.

By poking fun at the cultural assumptions that the west has about Islam, Mirza forces us to take a second look at our own cultural bias, and our own sense of morality. “My Western friends say about arranged marriages, ‘How could you sleep with someone when you don’t even know them?’ and I say, ‘Well, you do it all the time.'” Just as arranged marriages aren’t always a negative stereotype, so our own ethics aren’t always that admirable. “I talk to Western friends about getting – drunk and they say, ‘It’s great fun, you should try it.’ and when I see them rolling down the street, falling over and crying, I say ‘Yes, that looks like fun, I should really try that.”

Despite her good intentions, Mirza has received death threats and has been physically and verbally attacked. Three Muslim men punched her in the face at one of her shows, saying she was, “a disgrace to her religion and culture” but Mirza describes this as “cultural fascism”, arguing that lslam has been interchanged with male chauvinism. “It doesn’t say anywhere in lslam that women can’t speak their minds, that women can’t talk on stage. It is a cultural belief that men are confusing with religion.” It seems ironic that while she is trying to promote Islam, she is accepted more by a Western audience than her own community. And the more insight she gives about lslam, the less fearful westerns will be of what lies beneath the veil.

Muslims believe the headscarf or Hijaab protects a woman’s modesty against the male gaze. Decency is promoted, morality is observed, and men no longer see women as sex objects. As she has performed both with and without the Hijaab, fundamentalists accuse Mirza of exploiting the true meaning of Islam.

I asked her if she believed this to be the case. “People say you should wear the hijaab, because men are attracted to women’s hair. Listen, I’ve tried it, I’ve walked down the street with my hair out, and no one fancies me. I think it’s a matter of choice … You can live according to the time which lslam caters for, The Qu’ran was written for the beginning to the end of the world and well beyond that.” Regardless critics see her as something of a paradox. I asked her if she sees any contradiction between religion and comedy: “To me there isn’t one. I have my faith all the time – it is in me. I just carry on with my normal life and do comedy because I love it. I don’t feel I have to choose between being Muslim and being a comedienne. I can quite easily be both.”

By showing Westerners that Muslims can be funny, and Muslims that they can be Western and virtuous, Mirza is trying to make each culture accessible to the other. Her act shows that while there is difference between the two, both are essentially similar. “I cannot say whether one culture is better than the other, as everyone thinks theirs the best. Muslims think themselves to be more moral, while Westerners think Muslims too uptight. I think people should just live their lives according to what makes them happy.” It is this reductive philosophy that illustrates a common bond between the two. In spite of our differences we are both looking for the same thing – happiness.

Despite this, she is still uncertain whether we can achieve it, “I’m in New York at the moment and can feel the hostility, hatred, and depression of the city. It was a much nicer place when I came here five years ago. When I walk down the street in my Hijaab, I feel like I’m walking on fire. I know this is because the only Muslims they know are the people that blew up their country. They cannot perceive me as a stand-up comedienne yet.” Although she is pessimistic for the future, it is driving her to make a difference as ‘for all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.’

Mirza’s act is the first step down the long road towards acceptance and understanding. If we do not communicate with each other, we are ignorant and begin to fear each other. When we begin to fear one another, we soon learn to hate one another. Her act is the embodiment of what we can achieve, how much more we can learn from a smile than a frown.