I was told Primark jokes were a “waste of a good Muslim” says Colchester Arts Centre bound comedian Shazia Mirza
14:35 11 February 2016
© Linda Nylind 2015
Once told that telling jokes about Primark was “a waste of a good Muslim”, award-winning comedian Shazia Mirza is tackling the thorny subject of jihadi brides and more in her latest show. She talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage.
Mirza sounds like she’s really got it in for lemon drizzle cake, Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain’s lemon drizzle cake more precisely.
“I had an old lady stop me in the street (and) say ‘congratulations, one of your lot won Bake Off’. A white man wins a baking competition and he’s a great baker. A Muslim woman in a head scarf wins and she’s Nelson Mandela. It turned into a race relations issue for Great Britain. It was the best cake but...”
The comedian, bringing her critically acclaimed 2015 Edinburgh Fringe show The Kardashians Made Me Do It to Colchester Arts Centre on February 12, is bemused by how a simple competition turned into a battle between the left and the right. Hussain herself would probably agree, telling one interviewer she was thinking about her bakes, not representing Muslims.
One columnist wrote they might have been able to relate to Hussain more if she’d made something “more ethnic”. Another claimed fellow finalist Ian Cuming, who is white, would have won if he’d “baked a chocolate mosque”. Another went as far as proclaiming the mother-of-three had done more for race relations than any government in the last 25 years.
“She baked a lemon drizzle cake, that is the end of it. It’s like me, in comedy I’m expected to represent my entire race, my entire community. We all have to speak up for everyone; I have to keep denouncing ISIS, people expect that. It’s so ridiculous. People are so desperate for role models now, for voices.”
Which brings us to The Kardashians Made Me Do It; inspired by three girls who left Bethnal Green to join ISIS and an unrelated radio piece Mirza contributed to the BBC. It looks into the nature of offence, the dangers of politically correct liberalism versus the intrusion of ISIS into the lives of young British Asian women and the phenomenon of jihadi brides.
Talking about her upbringing and what it means to be a teenager in Britain now, she admits it’s not a show she could have done 10 years ago. “I wasn’t funny enough, I wasn’t developed enough as a comedienne. I was being forced into talking about things that I knew nothing about.”
Having done routines about Primark - “I love talking about Primark; going in there and just dropping clothes on the floor, kicking shoes under the counter, you know, clearing up” - she recalls an encounter with a journalist. He wondered why she wasn’t talking about more important things. When she asked what he meant...
“He said ‘there’s so much going on in the news and the world and it’s only you in comedy that can say these things... It’s just a waste of a good Muslim really’. I remember thinking there was pressure on me that as an Asian woman in comedy that I had to talk about certain things and represent my people. All I wanted to do was be funny.”
Mirza confesses to rebelling by continuing to talk about the mundane. She hadn’t even intended to go to Edinburgh last year because she “didn’t have anything to talk about”. That changed while she was staying with friends in New York while gigging. Turning on the news, she saw the story about the three girls swapping Bethnal Green for Syria.
This was before Bake Off, before the unprecendented Paris attacks and everything that followed.
“I immediately had a reaction, which I don’t normally have. We were horrified and my friend said ‘what idiots”. Every one of my Muslim friends were like ‘they’re mental, why have they gone; we would never have done that’.
“We had a repressed, strict upbringing, probably stricter than theirs and we never joined the IRA, we never saw Gadaffi on TV and thought ‘oh yeah, let’s help him out’. We rebelled in the normal way - we went out to nightclubs with gay men and took ecstasy, that’s what normal teenagers did at that time. We were laughing about it because we thought we’d be scared our parents would find us, we were more scared of them than ISIS.
“I talked about it with my friends and we all thought the same thing; it’s sexual. They’ve seen these men on TV, a lot of them are really hot, macho, they’ve got guns. They’re horny teenagers, they fancy them and they’ve gone; yet everything I read in the press was about them being radicalised and it being about religion, about politics and it’s not.
“They think it’s a romantic adventure but you won’t hear that in the press because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of young Muslims in Britain hating Britain, they’re ‘not British’, they’re ‘not British enough’, they’re radicalised, becoming more Islamic, it’s nothing to do with that... These kids they don’t know anything about religion, about Islam, about politics,” says Mirza. “Some of the girls going to Syria weren’t even born when the war in Afghanistan was on.”
Mirza recalls meeting a girl recently who told her some “really gorgeous guy in Syria” had been chatting her up on social media, suggesting she should come to Syria and get married. It turns out he’d begun talking to another girl online too.
“She realised after a while what he was trying to do and blocked him, but if you’re a teenager, not that confident and have some really gorgeous guys saying things to you and he’s Muslim too so it makes it all okay...
When I was growing up, and (for) these girls growing up; you can’t go off with the ‘white man’ down the road, (that’s) the most awful thing you can do. Then you’ve bought dishonour on the family. If you say you’re marrying a Muslim that’s what you’re meant to do - but going to Syria to do it is extreme.”
The show - which takes its title from a comment one of the girls’ sisters made to a select committee about how she couldn’t understand why she’s gone, she just used to watch the Kardashians - has been a talking point. The right-wing press have given it really great reviews for all the wrong reasons, says Mirza, because she’s saying all the things it wants to but can’t. The left thinks she should be keeping these things to herself and talking about diversion, inclusion and equal opportunities.
Isn’t she concerned about speaking out?
“What would worry me is if nobody spoke out. If nobody said anything that would be even more dangerous. Imagine if no Muslim opposed ISIS, if no Muslim said ‘this is wrong’. There would be more attacks on Muslims, on minorities, more hatred.”
While she admits she’s nervous about her show in Paris later this month, she know’s the best way to tackle what’s happening in the world is to laugh.
“The leader of ISIS, who rarely speaks out in public, made a statement at the beginning of the year saying ‘all Muslims all over the world it’s your duty to come and join us all in Syria in the Islamic state’. All these young Muslims started tweeting ‘sorry mate, football’s on’, ‘sorry mate, my mum says I have to be home by 8 o’clock’, ‘can’t make it, I’ve got to go to the pictures; maybe another night yeah’.
“You can’t change their mindset by bombing them, you can’t change their ideology; but if you laugh at them and you joke that will reduce them to nothing.”