Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Shazia Mirza @ International Sufi Festival, 2006


Taking a break from the Edinburgh Festival, Shazia Mirza journeyed across to Glasgow for the International Sufi Festival. In a mid-afternoon slot, she found a very different audience to the one she is used to; in place of her usual crowd, which she calls "white, middle class Guardian readers who just love it": she was surrounded by Asian families.

Deciding not to censor herself, she made jokes on subjects ranging from meeting the Queen through to shopping at Primark. Although the majority of the audience roared with laughter, there was an offended minority.

"The promoters had a really big go at me. The organisers said they had 25 complaints - mainly about the mention of death threats, and a couple of jokes about anal sex, and my language. They didn't like my material."

In this new context, however, Mirza revealed a quick wit. Using the stream of late arrivals as a cue to improvise on the differences between Asian and British events, she adapted her show without dropping the contentious issues. In particular, this included her routine about receiving death threats.

"A man wrote a review about me on the internet that said I was a white liberal's dream because I was the only Asian woman in comedy and I could have used my voice in a more positive [pro-Islamist] way. On that same day I received the death threats.

"They wanted the Sufi festival to be a festival of peace. I did miss bits out. I wanted to be positive. But the death threats are in my Edinburgh show: so are the Queen and Primark. They said to me: please don't do it. 

When I was going on, I thought, you never know how the audience will be. I decided when I was there, I wanted to do it. I thought: these people really need to hear this."

Mirza read out the death threats - which are sprinkled with promises of sexual violence - and added caustic replies. A member of the audience took to the stage and accused her of preaching hatred against Asians. Speaking to her after the show, it is obvious that the response has shaken her. "I have made them funny, but at the same time they are death threats. I am ashamed of them. I wish they were from angry Catholics. I don't get threats from white people." 

But Mirza believes that she has the right to discuss them. "That's part of my life. Comedians talk about their lives. If I'd left that out, that's five months I can't talk about. I contemplated for six months whether to include them. I wanted the show to be about fun, not about my culture or religion. The rest of the show isn't really."

Ironically, Shazia Mirza no longer calls herself a Muslim. Although she became famous with an act that mocked Islamic stereotypes, and is still referred to as 'the woman who wore the burqa', she claims that this image is out of date.

"I'm not religious but my parents are. I used to be, but I'm not anymore. I don't pray. I haven't been to the mosque for three years. And since I had death threats - I don't want to be part of that. If I said I was religious, people would call me a hypocrite - how can you believe in a religion that allows men to do that to women. I can't say that I'm Muslim."

The show at the International Sufi Festival demonstrated Shazia Mirza's unenviable position, caught between the comedy circuit and what she refers to as "my community" of British Islam. Her comedic talent is ignored, as is material that is not specific to her religious background: the furore surrounding her attracts attention. She feels this herself, complaining that she is being pigeonholed by the press. Her last words sum this up perfectly.

"They either say 'you're so brave', or 'this is a stereotype reinforcing show'. Can't they just say it's funny? Why does it have to mean something? Why can't it just be: I'm like everybody else?"

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