‘We’re the Muslim Spice Girls!’ Shazia Mirza on finding box office gold with her halal comedy supergroup

<span>‘No sermons or Ted Talks’ … clockwise from front, Yasmin Elhady, Zain, Ola Labib, Shazia Mirza, Fathiya Saleh, Fatiha el-Ghorri</span><span>Photograph: (no credit)</span>
‘No sermons or Ted Talks’ … clockwise from front, Yasmin Elhady, Zain, Ola Labib, Shazia Mirza, Fathiya Saleh, Fatiha el-GhorriPhotograph: (no credit)

For years, Muslim women have been the butt of the joke. We have been described as looking like “bank robbers” and “letterboxes” by the likes of Bernard Manning and Boris Johnson. And from Jack “take off your veils” Straw to Donald Trump, who said at least we “don’t have to put on makeup”, white men in power have continuously attacked us for cheap laughs.

We couldn’t retaliate. We were the voiceless, faceless, humourless, powerless underdogs of society. While white women operated in a variety of roles – pop stars, models, newsreaders, politicians – we were only ever seen baking cakes in a burqa or becoming Jihadi brides.

The leather trousers I wore on stage were so tight they were would disappear up my backside. I’m sure that’s not halal

When I was growing up, no one on TV looked like me. My dad always used to shout: “Hurry up, get downstairs! Trevor is on the TV.” Because Trevor McDonald was the closest thing to an Asian woman at the time.

Race, religion and hijab always came before talent, wit and accomplishment. Our hijabs were akin to Kylie’s hotpants: they took on lives of their own. People’s perception was that we were forced into marriages, controlled by men, oppressed, and secretly getting changed into G-strings and miniskirts in public toilets for an undercover night out at the Ritzy nightclub. The rich ones were apparently spending all their days at Harrods buying red lacy underwear to don under our burqas for our husband’s eyes only. A day out for the rest of us was a visit to the laser hair removal clinic, and even then we had to get permission from our fathers.

In fact, I can tell you that for most of us, our greatest fear is not a forced marriage or burqa. It is the fear of marrying a man with a bigger moustache. I’m really competitive – he can’t have a bigger one than me.

It has taken years to change even slightly the narrative about Muslim women. There is a history of Jewish, black and Catholic comedians but no history of Muslim comedians. It is being created right now in real time.

I was the only Muslim woman on the comedy circuit for many years – until the next one came along. We weren’t like buses; we were the rail replacement bus service. As well as the barriers that all women in the business face – sexism, lack of opportunity, stereotyping, unequal pay – I had a whole set of additional hurdles.

There was the racism disguised as criticism. White males who had never seen a Muslim female comedian before wrote: “This is not funny. This is no good. Why does she always talk about being Muslim?” Or alternatively: “She doesn’t talk about Muslim enough! Of all the things she could have been talking about and she talks about Primark? What a waste of a good Muslim.”

Off stage, people couldn’t place me. I would get stopped in the street and asked: ‘Are you Malala? Mindy Kaling?’

To be fair, at the time I wasn’t that good. The leather trousers I wore on stage were so tight they were constantly disappearing up my backside. I had to send a search party out for them every Friday. I haven’t checked with my local imam, but I’m pretty sure that’s not halal.

Nevertheless, I was expected to be a walking, talking explanation of all things Muslim. While my white male comedian friends had the privilege of talking about aeroplane food, why women have so many shoes, and snorting while laughing, I was expected to explain 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Shamima Begum. The tabloids deliberately misconstrued my material and accused me of supporting Isis.

When I appeared on a popular daytime TV show, one of the female presenters said to me: “Your mum, I believe, when she’s out and about, wears the full burqa. But as a modern Muslim woman, have you ever had a serious conversation with your mum, just to say, ‘Why are you wearing that?’” My only armour was humour, and all I could do was laugh it off.

Thankfully we live in a different time now, in which people could never get away with this type of ignorance and bullying. But at the time, as a Muslim, I felt tormented, castigated and unwelcome.

I was doing autobiographical jokes when no one really knew much about the lives of Muslims, in particular women. Anything more complicated than “All the women in my family wear the burqa – which is great because we all use the same bus pass” made people feel uncomfortable. Or confused about whether they could laugh or not.

Off stage, people couldn’t place me. I would get stopped at airports and asked: “Are you Malala? Mindy Kaling?” Or worse still, on a beach in the Caribbean: “Are you my GP?”

What made it even more difficult is that there was no “sisterhood” around to support or encourage me. There were no other female Muslim comics, and I didn’t feel that white feminism included me. What some women in the west may consider empowering, such as Shania Twain saying she found posing topless for a recent photoshoot to be “liberating”, would be the antithesis of female Islamic values. There is no OnlyFans in Islam – our version is OnlyFriends.

Fast forward to a month ago, when myself and five other Muslim female comedians performed a five-city tour around the UK, which sold out within hours, to a total of more than 5,000 people. The show was halal, with no alcohol, and the audience was strictly women-only: mostly women in hijabs and niqabs although all women were welcome. Queues were trailing round the blocks of each venue, people were clamouring at the doors offering to pay for spare tickets, and white men were messaging me on social media to say: “Why can’t I get a ticket?”

A few months previously, us six women – Yasmin Elhady, whose heritage is Egyptian-Libyan, Fatiha el-Ghorri (Moroccan), Ola Labib (Sudanese), Fathiya Saleh (Somali), Zain (Iraqi) and myself (Pakistani) – had been contacted by three Muslim “brothers” who run an events company called Twenty6. They had noticed the rise of Muslim comics in the mainstream, and felt the need to create a new space in which comedy can be enjoyed while keeping to Islamic principles. They wanted to arrange a tour for us.

None of us replied. We had all been there before: ripped off, treated unfairly, not respected. Why would they want to do this for us? Would it really work? They contacted us again and again and eventually, one by one, we got back to them.

Comedy Queens, the show that resulted, platformed a real variety of Muslim women. There was a range of political and observational material, one-liners and social commentary. Our culture, accents, languages, backgrounds, looks and experiences all varied. We are the Muslim Spice Girls, with something for everyone.

But first and foremost every act offers laughter. This is not a Ted Talk or a sermon. We are not on stage to convert Sharon Smith into Khadijah Shamila Abdul Rashid. This is not Belmarsh. Everyone has a different life story, so everyone’s jokes are different. Some of us are married, some are divorced, some are divorced twice, and I have a husband who is funnier than me.

Being Muslim is only a small aspect of these women’s lives. They like to watch Married at First Sight while eating a vegan roll from Greggs, just like everyone else. You will find these girls in the tour bus listening to Oasis while simultaneously watching videos of Mufti Menk on Instagram – a funny, likable modern-day relatable imam with more than 8 million followers, who has made religion cool and accessible to young people. He is Father Ralph from The Thorn Birds, the Hot Priest in Fleabag, the imam that Islam has been waiting for.

The women in our audience asked each other: “Which one are you?” For a lot of them, it was the first time they had seen themselves reflected back. It’s been a big leap from Trevor McDonald to Shazia Mirza. The laughter each night was piercing. It wasn’t giggles, or polite tittering; it was howling, gut-wrenching, visceral, wet knickers. It was a laughter that for years had had no outlet; one that no one had cared about or catered for.

Related: Shazia Mirza: ‘Look at me – Isis would stone me to death’

The audiences liked it when we pushed the boundaries. They haven’t waited all these years for pedestrian material about shopping, weight loss and reverse parking. If comedy is the truth, this is the naked truth. As the tour expands, and audiences grow, no topic will be off limits, because every topic is relatable to these women, as with every other woman.

Now, by public demand, we are about to go global. We’re playing countries including South Africa, Canada and the US. In the UK, this year we’ll play the London O2. These six bank robbers, letterboxes, ninjas, scary ghosts, blackout tents or just underdogs, are fighting back. Roofs are being blown off – not with bombs or guns but with punchlines.

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