The 3rd June 2021 saw the release of a new British TV sitcom “We Are Lady Parts”. Directed by British Pakistani creator and writer, Nida Manzoor, the show follows a fictional group of five women – each from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and social classes – forming a punk band. Whilst British women of Middle Eastern, African and South Asian heritage are often relegated to the margins of TV screens, Manzoor’s new show seeks to offer something new to mainstream television about Muslim women’s identity that has not been seen before1. The show, according to the New Arab, is attempting to “dismantle the Muslim women monolith”2 and explore the complexity of Muslim women in a rowdy, devout, yet thoughtful way.
Challenging Dominant Stereotypes
The six part series is an expansion upon the short feature which appeared on Channel 4’s Comedy Blips back in 2018. Inspired by her own life, director Nida Manzoor wrote the series in response to the frustrations she felt towards stereotypical narratives about Muslims in the media. Often portrayed as “oppressed victims” who lack agency and self-hood3, Manzoor sought to write a series that reflected her own life, her friends, and the world she knew. In doing so, she hoped it would provide “a glimpse into the myriad ways of being a Muslim woman”.
The show is a musical comedy that follows the band “Lady parts”. Currently consisting of three members (played by Sarah Kameela Impey, Juliette Motamed and Faith Omole), the band are looking for a new member, yet are reluctant to bring in an outsider. They find Amina Hussein (Anjana Vasan) a micro-biology PhD student (who is also searching for a husband) and has a passion for folk guitar. In a reflective piece written for iNews, Manzoor writes “despite the constant silliness, the show rails against the ‘us versus them’ narrative that polarises us”4. She moves on to add: “as a diaspora kid, I know what it’s like to live within multiple identities. I’ve been told that they’re in conflict. You’ve got to choose, are you British (us) or are you Pakistani/Muslim (them)”5.
Instead, for Manzoor, writing Lady Parts enabled her to offer a new and more complex understanding of the different ways of being for Muslim women, where the characters each embrace and own their mixed cultures. The diversity of character representations – some wearing hijabs, having tattoos, fans of punk rock, and all aware of the stereotypes and assumptions through which they are seen, both within and outside their community – captures the “intersectionality and interiority long denied Muslim women in Hollywood productions”6. Previous TV show depictions of Muslim women are noted to be characterised in line with stereotypes and preconceived assumptions, or their worth is calculated in spite of their faith, not because of it7. For example, they are seen to be helping catch terrorists to prove their loyalties to the US (Homeland), or taking off their headscarves for male approval (Netflix’s Elite). In each of these shows, their religion is presented as a cause constant friction due to their faith existing in tension with, rather than a component of, their identity. In other words it continues a broad othering of Muslim women on TV. This is why positive reviews of “we are lady parts” have found it to be a more refreshing, and even a ground breaking show, for its refusal to compromise on storylines or to force Muslim women into stereotypical tropes8.
In addition to the fictional characters on screen, the show is also pushing further boundaries (behind the scenes) through its diversity of casting and directors. For the women involved in the production, it has given them something that is rare on movie and TV sets: being surrounded by women of colour. As Impey (one of the actresses) stated; “I felt so safe and held, because you could resonate with everyone”9. Despite the recent advocacy for increased opportunities for, and representations of women Black and People of Colour (POC) characters across the media, Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) women have been left out of this conversation10. According to the Hollywood Diversity Report 2020 by UCLA, the figures of representation for MENA women in TV, are lower than that of Black, Asian and Latinx women11. The figure is even lower for film roles, with MENA women’s representation only amounting to 1.3% of the total and therefore significantly underrepresented.
Despite the positive response and reception of “We are Lady Parts”, Manzoor has also received a torrent of abuse for her show, where some have even criticised it for being a “mockery of Islam”12. Whilst this led Manzoor to delete her own Twitter account in order to prevent further targeted abuse, and the comments on the Channel 4 YouTube video to be disabled, the show has still amassed over a quarter of a million views. Yet, parts of the backlash did cause Manzoor to reflect. In an interview she recalls “I had to think ‘do I want to do this?’ and quite quickly that became ‘I definitely want to do this‘”13. In understanding some of the negative reactions she further adds “there are so few representations out there [of Muslim women on TV], people were upset when it didn’t speak exactly to them. Which is why it can’t just be my voice, it has to be loads of Muslim female voices“14. By bringing depth, and intersectionality of Muslim women’s identities to the forefront of British TV Manzoor’s “We are Lady parts” has indeed sought to diversify the representation of Muslim women in the media.