I WORKED on a magazine focussing on Black Minority Ethnic arts and culture in Manchester for a time and one section was devoted to high profile BME figures talking about the decisions and choices they made on the path to success. Stand up comic Shazia Mirza was the first person I interviewed.
THERE’S something about holding the attention of a bunch of unruly kids in school which prepares you for a career entertaining drunken adults in nightclubs: French and Saunders, Dave Spikey from Phoenix Nights, even Tom O’Connor served their time at the chalk face before moving into stand-up.
But it’s unlikely any of them put up with anything like Shazia Mirza dealt with when she taught at a tough inner city boys school in the East End of London.
“The kids didn’t want to learn,” remembers Mirza as she wanders around the lobby of an arts centre in Oldham where she has just done a gig in an ultimately futile attempt to track down some cranberry juice (“Cranberry? Juice?” asks the manager, incredulously). “I used to have to lock the doors to keep them in. They used to escape from my lesson though a window. I mean, they weren’t interested in physics and chemistry; they wanted to be football players. It was a really poor area.”
“When I’m onstage, you get some bad heckles, but nobody would ever say things like, ‘have you got a boyfriend?’ Nobody’s ever said, ‘You’re shit, you don’t deserve to be paid’. I suppose once you’ve been a teacher, you’ve heard all that. The only time the kids listened to me was when I said something funny – actually, looking back on it, I used to go into school every morning and perform for them – so when I started stand-up, it wasn’t that different.”
It might seem an obvious career path in retrospect, but the woman once billed as the world’s only female Muslim stand-up comic never really wanted to be a comedian in the first place. It would have seemed a bizarre and ludicrous idea.
Her mother and father emigrated to Birmingham in the Sixties and she was brought up in a loving but strict Muslim Pakistani household in Edgbaston, alongside three brothers and a younger sister. Mirza remembers family gatherings where she would be in a room full of adults, making jokes, “and my parents would come in and go, ‘that’s inappropriate, stop it’. Y’know, ‘you’re a girl, you shouldn’t be standing in a room full of men, talking’.”
Mirza seems to have developed something of a dual personality: at her multicultural single-sex school her friends laughed at her jokes but thought that she was “very oppressed”; meanwhile, at home she was the unhappy but dutiful daughter, a little resentful of her father’s traditional attitude towards women’s expectations but going along with it all the same.
Still, a girl can dream.
“I just wanted to be onstage,” remembers Mirza. “The funny thing was, I was always making people laugh and when I look back on it, I was always watching comedy. When I was growing up, I loved Les Dawson, I thought he was fantastic. We used to watch him all the time. I’d never seen people like Les Dawson in my real life – we never mixed with white, male, working class people. But in a lot of ways, I could relate to him. I used to make people laugh but, at the time, I didn’t really know what a comedian was or what they did – it wasn’t a possibility for me. It wasn’t encouraged.
“I just thought, I’d like to be an actor, I’d like to be onstage.”
Her parents thought otherwise.
“My parents wanted me to be a doctor – because there aren’t enough Asian doctors in Britain. And then they said, if you can’t be a doctor we want you to do something respectable, we don’t want you going onstage. And so I had to do something respectable to get away from home. But the only way to do that was to go away to university.”
Mirza wound up at Manchester University studying biochemistry (“I hated it and actually spent all my time watching comedy and going to drama”) and after getting her degree, did a Masters at University of London and teacher training at Goldsmiths. Earning a reasonable living teaching physics and chemistry, Mirza enrolled at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama and took acting classes after work.
“My parents didn’t know, I did it all in secret because I thought, there’s no point telling anybody, they’ll just try to put me off. Our culture encourages people to go into the sciences, medicine or whatever, because they think that’s more purposeful than the arts, you can help sick people, you can make poor people become rich in sciences, you can save people’s lives, but you can’t do that with the arts. Entertainment is not important. People can’t learn from entertainment.”
Mirza is very matter-of-fact but there is more than a hint of steely determination in the calm gaze.
“There were so many people telling me that I couldn’t do it that I thought, I’ve got to do it. And also because that’s what I knew I wanted to do, everything else I did just made me unhappy. I thought, well, I’ve got to do what I want to do.”
Despite having a combined working and studying 17-hour day, Mirza persevered with the part-time course for two years before going full-time for her final year.
“It was very difficult. I was knackered all the time. I used to learn my lines when I was supposed to be teaching – I’d sit at the front, read Shakespeare and learn my lines.”
She was, she says, only able to maintain a positive attitude under such difficult circumstances because she was, “a little bit naïve, I didn’t know what was going to happen or where I was going. I knew what I wanted, and that was to be on the stage and I was going to do anything to try and get there, but I had no money, I’d put all my money into going to drama school, and I just hoped that one day I would get so good at what I wanted to do that I’d be able to leave my job.”
Mirza, never one to do things the easy way, made her live stand-up debut in a packed pub in Brixton, in the early hours of one Sunday morning in late 2000. There was no stage and no microphone, but her coolly deadpan delivery of material which frankly assessed the position of a devout Muslim woman living in a secular world was an instant hit, and Mirza has enjoyed what appears to be a meteoric rise over the last couple of years.
But it’s not been easy. She has been attacked onstage and early in her career, members of one audience thought Mirza was actually a Hindu comedian making fun of Islam, so she began wearing a hijab in her act, until she got to the stage where she felt she was in danger of becoming “a scarf on legs”.
Her comedy has a refreshing honesty and openness that some can find difficult to take – she cheerfully confesses to a curiosity about alcohol and casual sex, even eating pork, though it’s clear that she wouldn’t dream of actually trying any of them – but Mirza is careful to differentiate between making jokes about elements of Pakistani culture she disagrees with, such as arranged marriages, and making jokes about Islam.
“Islam actually gives women a lot of power, but it’s our culture that takes it away. I would never challenge the ideas of Islam.”
Still, unafraid of saying the unsayable, less than a fortnight after 9/11, she began a gig in London with the words, “My name is Shazia Mirza, at least that what it says on my pilot’s license”. She still tells a gag about performing her Umra in Mecca, only to have her backside pinched by some unknown hand in the multitude. Thing is, it’s a true story.
Mirza is breaking new ground every single day. She’s ambitious and organised, and has plans for a book, a sitcom, theatre, a trip to Hollywood – and she wants to be the first Muslim woman to win an Oscar. Maybe she’ll do it. She is certainly a striking-looking woman with large, watchful eyes and movie-star cheekbones.
Either way, the next generation of Muslim women needs a better role model than Mirza’s own childhood inspiration, the Material Girl herself, Madonna. They could do worse than Shazia Mirza.
The biggest lesson she’s learned along the way is “that you get nothing instantly and nobody gives you anything. I think a lot of young people think, Oh, I’ll be a singer, I’ll have a few singing lessons. I want a record deal. Or, I’ll do a couple of gigs but then I want to tour with my own show as a comedian. But nothing happens overnight.”
“Your aim should be to be great at what you do, and that only happens over a long period of time. People get knock-backs all the time, it doesn’t mean that you’re not any good, it just means that you’re not right for that job at that time.
“Ultimately, if you really want something you’ll do anything to get it, so work hard, and believe in yourself.”
[This interview first ran in Dxn Magazine in October 2004. Get more info about Shazia Mirza at her official site.]