I managed to catch up with the very talented and award winning stand-up comedian, actress and writer Shazia Mirza in the hustle and bustle of the East End, to find out more about her latest stand-up tour, her role in the much talked about movie by Sadia Saeed, ‘ARIFA’ and what it’s really like being a British Muslim woman in the spotlight.
Shazia gained international publicity in the months when the world was coming to terms with the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Shazia has been listed on the inaugural Muslim Women’s power list as one of the 20 most successful Muslim women in the UK and has won awards, including columnist of the year at the PPA Awards and was the winner of The Arts and Culture award.
I grew up in Birmingham in the 1970’s and 80’s with a strict Muslim family. I went to a Roman Catholic school, as my parents wanted to see me do well and be well educated.
Becoming a science teacher wasn’t my dream, but my parents said that if I went to university I had to do something respectable, so I chose biochemistry. It meant that I could go out to nightclubs and have a good time. When I finished uni I felt there was little else to do, so I became a teacher, even though I was eager to pursue drama and be on stage.
My students were my audience and I would practice my material on them.
When I started doing stand up, about 12 years ago, I was the only Asian woman doing so, so I would teach in the morning and gig in the evening. They were hard times. There were no Muslim comedy nights back then. Audiences were not receptive to me at first, comedians were not supposed to be Muslim, or women, or look like me: They were supposed to be mainly white, middle class and male. There were never any Asian faces in my audiences.
At the time I used to do a lot of black gigs, so anything that I ever did or anything i ever said, some Asian person would read about it and be affected by my work in some way. I took a lot of stick, a bit like Salman Rushdie – people criticised him but had never read his book. People who criticised me had never seen me live; they had just heard that I was doing stand up.
I did a Muslim comedy night for aid recently, there were three Muslim men and me; I’ve been on tour with Noreen Khan which was an all Asian women’s platform, and everywhere I went I sold out. Altaf the producer runs all these shows, which includes ‘The Muslims are coming’. All of these shows sell out now as our community understand the material much more.
Over the years I have made my material adaptable and more universal and I think that people enjoy it.
This year I’ve performed in over fourteen venues, which has taken me to London, Zurich, Paris, Shanghai; to Bangkok, Singapore and NYC! It’s been a great tour with some amazing support from fans I didn’t know I had abroad/overseas.
Working on Arifa was a great journey. There are two comedians in the movie, Jeff Mirza and myself, I played the role of a psychotherapist named Shabana, which I loved playing as I didn’t have to be funny, but sometimes I was, it was a bit serious, it was something that I had never played before. in the film, Arifa comes to me to talk about relationships and she divulges to me that she likes a serial killer, which I found very interesting as I had written some stand up material about why girls go to join Isis, and said that it’s because they are attracted to the barbaric; a lot of women have always been attracted to that. Look at Jack the Ripper, Rose West – who got married in prison last year – some people are sexually attracted to them, romantically they want to save them and they think that they can help them. I had also already done some stand up on the three Isis girls; all of this helped me in my role in Arifa.
I really enjoyed working with Sadia, who I had worked with on a short film before. She writes and produces all her own films. Once I saw Sadia’s script, I liked it, but when I saw the screenplay,, I liked the characters and had already enjoyed working with her, so I accepted the role.
”When you’re being pressed, your people need a voice” – Shazia Mirza
Arifa is a comedy drama which follows the journey of a lady called ARIFA, played by newcomer Shermin Hassan, as she navigates through everything life throws at her, including a mysterious Latin lover, her errant, bootlegger father and constant visits to her psychotherapist; played by me.
The thing about Arifa is that you have to watch it. The film is cleverly simple and Sadia Saeed has put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to create it. I am portrayed as a humorous therapist and I enjoyed acting out my role.
It’s important to support other women in my field, as well as talented directors, producers and artists. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had a good support system.
In comedy you can die on stage, you can never prepare yourself for that. Death on stage is like death in life. Since the emergence of twitter, everyone seems to be a critic, everyone feels like there is something to say and that their opinion is valid, in a way it’s great, as everyone wants to have a voice, but most of it is just rubbish.
By Natasha Syed