“My name is Shazia Mirza…..at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence….” is the kind of killer one liner the pioneering second-city comedienne has trademarked during her stand-up career. Being an award winning journalist, not forgetting a former secondary school science teacher, means her mind is as sharp as her tongue, sustaining a decade-long career in stand up, as well as numerous guest TV appearances.
Mirza’s current show The Kardashians Made Me Do It first debuted at last year’s Edinburgh fringe, a satirical blend featuring the story about three Bethnal Green schoolgirls who ran away to Syria last year, combined with Mirza’s stints teaching girls of similar backgrounds at schools in the same part of London. Not surprisingly, when you also factor in Mirza’s personal experiences growing up as a first generation Muslim in Birmingham, her take paints a somewhat different picture from the usual stories or radicalization delivered by the mainstream media.
When I caught up with the comedienne ahead of two impending live shows in our region (Leeds Carriageworks on 23rd September and Ilkley Literature Festival on 9th October) she elaborated at length about the inspiration behind Kardashians. “It wasn’t something that I made up. I taught in a school just down the road from where those three girls were and never met a 15-year-old who was more interested in religion than sex. They never spoke about religion or politics ever. They spoke about boys because that’s what they’re all doing at 15 years old. These politicians who’ve probably never known kids like this are barking up the wrong tree.” Before countering “I’m not saying that I’m right, I never said to my audience ‘This is what I think, you must too’. I’m just presenting a different way of thinking about it. Of those who have come to see my show, I’ve not had any negative emails or comments. Mainly I’ve had thanks for making people think another way.”
For a comedy performer, her subject matter pulls no punches, and Shazia readily agrees. “There is so much for comedians talk about now. I used to go on stage and talk about my moustache, shopping in Primark and getting in there and tidying up. It was a right old laugh but then people said ‘What about what’s really going on, the elephant in the room….the burqa, Trump, Brexit?’” as we next discuss recent controversies surrounding Muslim female attire. “I’m going to do a long routine about the burqa in my new show. There’s no difference really between the French government and the Taliban, one forcing women to strip, one forcing women to cover up. France prides itself on freedom and liberty but it’s actually not the case when it comes to Muslim women, forcing them to strip on the beach at gunpoint. I was in St Tropez in July and there was a nudist beach which went on for miles. I was sitting on the normal beach and out of the corner of my eye I saw naked people everywhere… I was just trying to read Harry Potter! I didn’t say ‘Go and put some clothes on this is offending me.’ I just moved along the beach. If you have nudist beaches where people wear nothing, why can’t you have a beach where women can wear what they like? Isolating a minority group of people is not the way to go. You’re basically saying all Muslims are terrorists.”
A burqa joke also incurred the wrath of some BBC listeners following her appearance on a radio show, “It was a joke about all the women in my family wearing a burqa: It’s great that we can all use the same bus pass!” She adds, “What the piece is really about is people being offended and not knowing why, or on someone else’s behalf or feel that they should be offended. We had people writing in to complain that I was advocating theft and criminal damage, which is clearly crazy. I thought they were using that joke to be prejudiced towards me really.”
Not surprisingly, the Brexit question gets a similarly withering response. “That’s also what my new show will be about, lies. Trump tells lies, Boris Johnson told lies, Nigel Farage told lies and people voted on lies, and those people are going to suffer the most when we leave the EU. Disillusioned people with no job or money, thinking all on the immigrants would be gone in the morning. In 6 months’ time the immigrants will still be here. I don’t think people want to hear the truth anymore. I think people are just happy and content hearing lies.”
Despite the post millennial cultural advances, Shazir still finds herself a lone female Muslim voice on the comedy circuit. “When I started stand-up there were no Asians at all. Now there are about 10 English Asian guys but still no women. If you never have role models on TV you think you can’t do it, or there’s just no place for you. When we were growing up there was never any Asian people on TV. My dad used to call us all in when Trevor McDonald came on! That was the closest thing to an Asian person we had on TV.”
Finally we touch upon Shazir’s first brush with comedy growing up in Birmingham as a child, the bawdy humour of 1970s TV making a lasting impression. “All I knew about British humour was innuendo, a bit of smut but it was all innocent and no-one was offended. That was the comedy I was brought up on. Places like Scarborough or Blackpool where I do get an older audience, they still love all of that.”
Shazia is currently touring. She will be playing the Leeds Carriageworks on 23rd September, Ilkley Literature Festival on 9th October, and the Sheffield Leadmill on November 3rd. Find out more at www.shazia-mirza.com.