Shazia: fame, infamy and infidels
Comedian Shazia Mirza is back in the news with a hit new show. But, to her mother's eternal disappointment, there's still no husband in sight
Shazia Mirza is a headline-grabbing, controversial comedienne - which is not exactly a job for the faint of heart.
But compared to her previous one, trying to teach biology and chemistry in some of London's toughest schools, she reckons the comedy circuit is a walk in the park.
"Once you've been in that kind of situation, stand-up comedy is really easy," she says, tucking into a fancy juice in the ultra-hip private members club Shoreditch House. We are only a few miles away from the inner London comprehensives where she stiffened her spine, but they might as well be a world apart from here.
"Nobody has tried ever to escape one of my gigs through a window," she says with a smile. "Or chased me down the pavement saying "I'm not coming to your lesson . . . or I'm not coming to your gig. No-one at a gig has ever gone, 'Oh Miss, when are you going to shut up, this is so boring. When are you going to stop talking? When is this going to be over?' They are just there, and they want to hear everything that I'm saying. Those few months when I started doing stand-up comedy I thought, 'Oh my god they're all facing in the right direction - what am I going to say now?'"
Raised in Birmingham to traditional Pakistani parents, according to the conventions of her upbringing, Mirza's future was destined to be defined by marriage to a spouse her parents approved of. Instead, she's currently single, and enjoying a high- water mark in her career as a comedic provocateur.
Becoming a famous comedian seemed a pretty unlikely path when she was growing up. For one thing, it's a world famously dominated by middle-aged white men. For another, she'd never seen the inside of a comedy club before she started doing stand-up. The only early indication of what was in store was that she had always been a very "attention-seeking child."
In the end, it was her moustache that would unlock her fate. "I did a writing course," she says. "And they asked us to write something that had to be truthful and personal to you - we had to write two minutes on it. In the end (the teacher) made us stand up in front of the class and read it out. But she didn't tell us that we'd have to stand up in front of the class and read it out. So I wrote something very personal about my moustache.
"And it was truthful, it was honest. I had a moustache, I had to get rid of it. It was a big problem in my life. The class . . . was mainly men and they all started laughing. I realised that I could tell the truth about my life and, as long as it was the truth, people would be able to relate to it."
The vignette about facial hair was such a hit that the teacher of the course encouraged her to go and perform "on the circuit." Even then, thoughts of a new career hadn't occurred to Shazia. "I did it because my teacher told me to. But I never planned to be a comedian . . . I always held on to my NUT card, because I always thought that I would go back to teaching."
She didn't let her membership to the teachers union lapse until eight years into doing stand-up. "And now they wouldn't have me back, because of all the stories I've told about them." Compared to what she'd experienced before, the risk of being heckled was little more than light entertainment to her.
"I used to teach in very rough schools, in Tower Hamlets and Dagenham, for about eight years," she says. "And the kids had nothing. They would come to school in the morning and I'd say 'why are you late?' And they'd say things like, 'well, I had to wait 'til my mum's Giro came so that she could go and buy me breakfast so that I could have breakfast before I came to school . . . I remember one kid came to school in his slippers. 'Where are your shoes?' 'My mum can't afford them. We have to wait until Thursday until she gets her money.' These kids had nothing. And as a consequence of that they had terrible behavioural problems, emotional problems, couldn't concentrate for more than ten minutes. Me teaching them photosynthesis - why was that relevant to their life? They had no food to eat, they had no shoes to wear."
Some of her past pupils have come and watched her do stand-up. "A couple have written to me from prison," she says. "Which was no surprise to me. I was 21 when I started teaching. I remember going for the interview and I had to present a lesson as part of my interview, and I remember the head teacher ringing me up five minutes later and offering me the job and I remember thinking - that was quick, why is he offering me the job. It was because it was such a difficult school to teach in. I think I was the only person going for the job."
All of which goes to show that Mirza is no delicate flower. Indeed, at one point today, when I ask her about being the subject of a tabloid-reported twitter storm (She appeared on the TV chat show Loose Women and joked that 'Isis fighters look hot'), I catch just a glimpse of her freeze-you-at-ten-paces glacial glare, which I reckon must have been developed to keep wayward adolescent boys in check.
Without her experience in teaching, she arguably wouldn't have hit upon the idea for her new show - her most successful outing to date, The Kardashians Made Me Do It has been enjoying a sell-out run across the UK and is now coming to Ireland. The idea was born when she watched a news story about the three British schoolgirls from Tower Hamlets who shocked the world when they ran away to Syria to become Isil brides. The analysis focussed on the girls' fundamentalism and faith - but Mirza knew better. She felt sure that it had much more to do with hormones and romance.
"I know these girls, I used to teach these girls. Not these three girls exactly but girls like that. And I know the conversations they used to have with me and I know what they used to talk about and what they felt about their lives. They always talked about romance. It was always a very romantic idea of life and love. They never, ever spoke about religion. These were girls that wore the head scarf, and it wasn't for religious reasons, it was for traditional, cultural reasons. Because that was the way they were brought up - their mother wore it." She felt sure they'd been lured across to a war zone because the Isil fighters were "hot".
"They talked about boys and it was always a romantic picture, because they always knew that one day they'd have to get married. They always used to ask me, 'are you married and have you ever been in love? What's it like being in love?' Some of them did have secret boyfriends in the school . . . But they knew that they wouldn't be able to marry that boy because that boy wasn't their parents' choice . . . But they were very romantic . . . I just knew that there was no 15-year-old in the world that was more interested in religion than sex. I've never met any teenager like that. It doesn't matter what race or religion you are."
From this initial flash on inspiration, she's built a whole show that draws on a great deal of research, (she re-read the Koran and Hadiths, interviewed Islamic scholars and childhood friends and watched the Home Office select committee on the case) as well as her own experience growing up in a Muslim family in the UK. As she taps into her own experience, she's been satisfied to see that she's reaching a whole new audience. More and more Muslim women - women like her, have been coming to see her show. Previously, her audience was mostly made up of "Guardian readers and gay men. Ever since I started comedy I've always had gay men as an audience. They've always been very supportive of me even when I wasn't funny. They've continued to support me.
"But I've never had so many Asian women come and see my show. I've never had so many Muslim women come and see my show."
She writes a lot about her family - particularly her relationship with her parents. And she pulls no punches. In a recent piece for the FT, she says "My father was a typical 1970s Pakistani father, authoritarian, dictatorial, totalitarian, not to mention lacking in humour and not much fun, and my mother was a good wife. They were more cultural than religious, and my strict upbringing was akin to going on a trip with Idi Amin as a tour guide."
Amazingly, her parents "read everything" she writes about them. But she claims it causes no friction between them. On the contrary, she says, her dad "photocopied the FT article and gave it out at his local mosque. I thought 'my god that's really great.' In the end, honesty is her best defence. What she writes is acceptable, she explains, because it's true. "Every Pakistani man of that age, at that time, was like that. It's like My Beautiful Laundrette. Every Pakistani man who came over in the 70's was very strict and dictatorial and he was the head of the house."
They read her hit column in The Guardian "Diary of a Disappointing Daughter, " a warts-and-all account of her relationships with her parents, every week. Were they annoyed with the exposure? "Well, they know it's true," she says simply "They loved to read about things from my point of view. From how I saw my upbringing, rather than how they saw my upbringing."
She's also spoken frankly about her parents arranged, but unhappy marriage. "My mother didn't know any other way. She thinks you just have to endure the bad things. She and my dad would admit that they're not compatible, and that it isn't really a happy marriage at all. In their generation though, women won't get divorced," she once said in an interview.
Today though, she's rather more philosophical about it. "I mean, what does that mean, happy? They've been married for 47 years. People my age don't get married for that long. They've been married for so long and they have five children - they still live together. They still go on holidays together. My generation, these girls, they talk about romance and love, and they're always searching for that, romance and love. Whereas people of my parents generation had an arranged marriage. And it was arranged and that was it and that was it for the rest of your life." For her part, she says it's never worked out between her and Muslim men.
Presumably the assumption was that her parents would choose a husband for her? "Yeah, they tried," she says. "They tried very hard. They're still trying. My mum used to stop Asian men at the bus stop. If she saw an Asian man at the bus stop in Birmingham, who was the right height, she'd go up to him and say, 'do you have a degree. Are you married. I have a spare daughter going.' A lot of Asian women would do that in Birmingham. Or," she says, "you'd go to a woman in the community who had a book of names, and you'd tell her what you wanted.'
Still currently unmarried, she insists that this state of affairs is not due to unwillingness on her part. "A lot of the people they introduced me to, I did meet. And I was always very open minded. But a lot of the people I met - when I started doing comedy 11 years ago, there was only me doing comedy so a lot of people didn't understand that. They thought it was a really terrible thing. It was like being a prostitute. So I was never successful with any of the people I met," she deadpans. "They didn't want a wife who was a comedian. They'd find out who I am and what I do and they'd go, 'No, we don't have anyone suitable."
These days, she thinks it's best if she finds a husband herself. "Now if my mother says 'I'm going to introduce you to somebody' I say no. Because you really have to know your children if you are going to do that. And I think my parents are really out of touch now."
No doubt to her mother's continued disappointment, only one of her four siblings is married. "The rest of us are not married. We all just want peace and quiet. We are all very happy and successful. We'll get married when we want to. We don't feel in a hurry to do that."
Shazia Mirza, The Kardashians Made Me Do It, is on June 17, as part of the Dalkey Book Festival. She'll also appear, in conversation with David McWilliams on June 18. www.dalkeybookfestival.org
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