Shilpa Ganatra salutes We Are Lady Parts for subverting stereotypes and allowing young Muslim women to be themselves.
Picture the last few female Muslim characters you saw on television and you’re bound to include one of the following stereotypes: a conservative mother, an oppressed adult or a woman in a burqa with no dialogue or personality.
There have been exceptions, such as the character of Iqra Ahmed in EastEnders, who came out as gay. But few characters have made it past the Riz test – based on actor Riz Ahmed’s speech to the Houses of Commons in 2017 – which highlights how almost all Muslim characters are presented as either irrationally angry, culturally backward, a threat to western culture, misogynist (for men) or oppressed (for women), or are linked to terrorists.
Thankfully, We Are Lady Parts, Channel 4’s recently launched sitcom about a Muslim female punk band, joyfully subverts these stereotypes.
“Early on, I was often asked to write a narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman or about forced marriages and honour killings, as though these were the norm,” says the show’s creator, writer and director Nida Manzoor. “That frustration ignited the idea for me to write the show. If I’m going to write a character that represents my identity, I’d want to do it fully my way.”
That she did. Prompted by the punk band she started with her sisters (who contributed to the songs played in the show), the series has been praised for its distinctly fresh and realistic cast of characters, led by a punk band called Lady Parts.
Fronted by the ballsy Saira (Sarah Impey) and including black British Muslim/earth mother Bisma (Faith Omole), the intimidating drummer Ayesha (Juliette Motamed) and their wild manager Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), the group bring in reluctant guitarist Amina (Anjana Vasan), who joins in the hope of attracting the object of her affection, Ahsan (Zaqi Ismail). The very premise sets the non-conformist nature of the show.
For Manzoor, there were plenty of tropes ready to topple, “one of them being the idea of the overbearing Asian parent, which wasn’t my experience, although that does exist. And I wanted to show different ways of expressing one’s faith, and the hybrid identities I was seeing. You’re told that parts of you are in conflict, but, actually, you can be a punk and you can be Muslim. You can be a creative and also have faith.”
The series joins other strong comedy dramas of recent times that offer different perspectives from marginalised communities, from Ramy, Insecure and Shrill in the US to Man Like Mobeen, Starstruck and I May Destroy You in the UK. In an example of meaningful solidarity, Michaela Coel was on hand to offer industry advice to Manzoor.
“Michaela Coel has been someone I’ve looked up to, and who has been very kind and supportive of We Are Lady Parts,” says Manzoor. “We met at a studio we were thinking of using as a location while she was making I May Destroy You with BBC and HBO. She was just like, ‘Hey, let me know if you ever have any questions about how this all goes’. I had loads of questions, often about process, being a showrunner, and how she found working with the American broadcasters. She was very available to answer questions.”
Critically, remove the Muslim-female-punk premise of We Are Lady Parts as one might remove the backdrop of 1990s Northern Ireland in Derry Girls, and it’s still a mile-a-minute show with likeable characters and a high concentration of jokes. They’re just funnier when they play on mainstream perceptions.
That’s found in the lyrics for Lady Parts’ song Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me, in which the justifying gripes are: “She stole my eyeliner / What a bitch / And she’s been stretching my shoes out with her fucking big feet.”
“Above all, it’s about love, friendship and finding your people,” says Laura Riseam, commissioning executive for comedy at Channel 4.
The show – whose “healthy budget” benefited from a co-production deal with US streamer Peacock – initially began in 2018 as a Channel 4 Comedy Blap, the broadcaster’s showcase for new comedy made in bite-sized chunks.
The Blap was produced by Surian Fletcher-Jones (an executive producer on the eventual series) of Working Title who was already familiar with Manzoor. “I previously worked as a commissioner in Channel 4, and we ran a Channel 4 screenwriting scheme,” she recalls. “Out of all the participants from that year, Nida was the one who was giving me pitch ideas. When I joined Working Title, she was one of the first people that came to see me. Lady Parts was a five-page pitch, and it was there on every level, fully formed. I was sold, sold, sold.”
Manzoor’s film and TV career began with writing credits on CBBC shows Jamillah and Aladdin and Dixi. Later she was employed as a director’s assistant for Stephen Poliakoff [Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince]. She then directed the full series of BBC Three’s Enterprice, which helped her land the job of directing two episodes of Doctor Who.
But We Are Lady Parts was always her passion project, and “once I found the right people, it was quite a nice journey”.
Indeed, such a show was ripe for Channel 4. Adds Riseam: “When We Are Lady Parts came to us, I looked over to Fi [Fiona McDermott, head of comedy] and I was just like, ‘I love it and I’ve got no notes and this never happens’. I thought I was having a bit of a breakdown. It was really exciting.
“It was a perfect fit for Channel 4 and it’s right that we should be the ones launching Nida’s career. She’s balanced the comedy and the drama beautifully. I’ve laughed and I’ve also cried and I’ve fallen a bit in love with them all. There have been massive movements in the past year, and I think the world is a bit more ready for these stories to be told on mainstream TV.”
Finding the on-screen talent was a tricky process, made easier by casting director Aisha Bywaters. Though It’s a Sin championed the casting of marginalised actors, most of the actors in We Are Lady Parts aren’t Muslim, but “the show is Nida’s voice. She is Muslim, and she is running through every element of this project,” explains Fletcher-Jones.
“Wouldn’t it just be delightful if we get to a point where the talent pool is big enough to be able to address that issue. But also, the characters are not just defined by their religion, they’re defined by all their other personality idiosyncrasies.”
The show’s success so far, based on strong reviews and promising audience figures (for 16- to 34-year-olds, it outperformed the slot average by 53%) is another recent example of how fresh voices can excite viewers and progress societal understanding.
But Fletcher-Jones is mindful that an impatient rush for diverse voices may have a negative effect: “Diversity is the buzzword of the moment and everyone wants it now, don’t they? The point with Lady Parts is that it took time to get it right, and to give Nida the chance to come into her own.
“I just worry, with some of these flash-in-the-pan diversity initiatives, that things will be rushed to the screen before they’re quite ready, or before the creative talent have found their voice and are sure of what they want to do and say. I would love to do more work in this vein, but I think we have to play the long game.”
As it stands, a second series may well be in the works; Fletcher-Jones is working on a film with Manzoor. In any case, expect Nida Manzoor’s career to make more noise than Lady Parts. And that’s saying something.
We Are Lady Parts is available on All 4 and will be broadcast on Channel 4 until 24 June.