Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'I Don't Have to Justify My Gender or My Religion. I Want to Be the Asian Mrs Merton'

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'I Don't Have to Justify My Gender or My Religion. I Want to Be the Asian Mrs Merton'

Article excerpt

Byline: NICK CURTIS

FOR Shazia Mirza, comedy is not just a laughing matter, but something of a mission.

Born in Birmingham and of Pakistani origin, the 25-year-old physics teacher sees stand-up as a way of challenging white audience's preconceptions of Islam, and of questioning patriarchal prejudices in her own culture. So far, in a 10-month career, she has won the London Comedy Festival, played the Palladium, and been physically attacked by a trio of enraged (male) Muslims at a Brick Lane benefit night.

What's worse, one newspaper crassly described this assault as a "fatwa".

Which, in a funny kind of a way, is what she's talking about up there at the microphone.

"My comedy is all about me, it's based on my life as an Asian Muslim woman in a Western culture," says Mirza. She makes gags about going to Mecca, about wearing the black coverall of purdah, about "having excess facial hair" (when I apologise for not shaving before our interview, she reciprocates).

Challenging the idea that Muslims are intolerant, she will joke about going to the pub with white friends, not drinking, and marvelling at the so-called "fun" they are having getting drunk and falling over.

Half the time, she says, she is airing questions that the ( predominantly white) audiences at comedy clubs are afraid to ask for fear of appearing racist. A Lenny Bruce fan, she even uses the word "Paki" in her act, in an echo of Bruce's famous attempt to strip the word "nigger" of its pejorative power.

Yet no one, she insists, should take offence. "I am celebrating being a woman, and celebrating Islam," she says. "Islam gives power to women, but the culture can take it away." In other words, those men who abused and punched her in Brick Lane for having the audacity to make jokes in public were guilty of pure sexism rather than religious intolerance. "Nowhere in the Koran does it say that women should be silent," she points out. Is she devout herself ?

"Yes.

At home I wear black. I don't drink or smoke and I would only ever marry a Muslim man." She suggest, though, that the Koran's insistence that a man should support his wife after they are married has been misinterpreted to oppress women. "It doesn't say that women shouldn't work, just that a husband should support his wife. …

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