HerStory: The World According to Hijabi Punk Rockers

HerStory: The World According to Hijabi Punk Rockers

The series 'We Are Lady Parts' is about five women punk rockers, who have to face the challenges and contradictions of breaking rules, while staying within the bounds of conservatism

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, June 13, 2024, 08:14 PM IST
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A still from 'We Are Lady Parts' | Promotional Image

How do Muslim women have their voices heard in a “white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy?” You can’t make up such a line, but Nida Manzoor has done so, to find an answer to the question. Her series We Are Lady Parts is about five women punk rockers, who have to face the challenges and contradictions of breaking rules, while staying within the bounds of hijabi conservatism.

The show, that has its second season running now after a hugely successful, award-winning first run in 2021, is so brilliant because it puts all its contentious points across with humour, and just skirting the boundary of giving offence to the thin-skinned protestors and complainers. That is anarchic in itself!

The issue of inclusive representation is a fairly recent one, and non-white racial and religious groups are just about getting some visibility on screen — in Ms Marvel, a Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan (played by Iman Vellani) is a rarity. If the net is cast wider and deeper, the minority group that probably gets the least representation is the Muslim woman, even less, the Black Muslim woman, and microscopically minuscule the queer Muslim woman.

Living in multicultural London, it is difficult for a woman like Amina Hussain (Anjana Vasan) to get a grip on her identity. Her parents are liberal, her mother does not wear a hijab. However, since best friend is the ultra-conservative Noor (Aiysha Hart) and she hangs out with a gang of girls in headscarves, Amina wears one too, and has adopted a strictly Islamic persona — no make-up, baggy clothes and a tightly-wound hijab. She is 26 years old, doing her PhD in microbiology and spending her spare time teaching the guitar to underprivileged kids. She has a Don McLean poster inside her cupboard and is an excellent guitarist, but refuses to perform in public because Islam considers music ‘haram’; also because she has an extreme case of stage fright that leads to vomiting and diarrhoea.

She is on the lookout for a husband, a nice Muslim man, “with eyebrows you can hang on to”. After a scary encounter with a disapproving orthodox Muslim family that comes to see her, she goes all moony-eyed at the sight of Ahsan (Zaqi Ismail), who hands her a leaflet for a guitar audition for a group called ‘Lady Parts’. (Incidentally, Ahsan and Amina's father are the only two non-stereotypical Muslim men in the show!)

‘Lady Parts’ are a small, unambitious group, made up of “a confused mix of hash anthems and sour girl power, one part boredom and two parts identity crisis” (according to Amina’s voiceover), who meet in the grungy residence of Saira (Sara Kamila Impey), who is the perpetually angry lead vocalist, the only one who does not cover her head — she works in a butcher shop, and keeps adding to a feminist manifesto which she lives by. The others are Bisma ((Faith Omole), a black woman with a husband and daughter who tries, unsuccessfully, to sell comics about menstruating females; there’s taxi-driver Ayesha (Juliette Motamed), the drummer, who paints her eyes with kohl almost up to her hairline and keeps her queerness as hidden as her wild mass of curls; Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), who wears full covering that leave only her eyes visible — even at home or among her female buddies — is the band’s manager.

Amina follows Ahsan into the ‘Lady Parts’ den and is pulled into it — she has to play with them for an audition in return for a meeting with Ahsan, who happens to be Ayesha’s brother. Even though he is put off by her intensity and peculiar archaic vocabulary (not explained), and friendzones her, just the presence of a handsome Muslim man in her life raises her social status among her friends. She is no longer a sad, single “freak” but a woman who has reeled in a catch as desirable as Ahsan.

When in their safe space, the women can be themselves — funny, irreverent, hopeful. Even though Momtaz’s face is not seen, a fug of weed smoke keeps emerging from behind her naqab. Amina's crippling nervousnss makes her freeze and flunk the audition, but the sisterhood of aspiring Muslim rebels gets stronger. They all have problems that have no easy solutions — Ayesha has to put up with blatant racism and harassment by her white male passengers; Saira’s family has disowned her, and she does not want to commit to her loyal boyfriend, Abdullah (David Avery); Bisma’s husband (Demmy Ladipo) has forced traditional dress on his wife and daughter (Edesiri Okepnerho) because of the fear of what people will say.

Their songs express their angst — “I’m gonna kill my sister! She stole my eyeliner,” “ Voldemort under my headscarf,” “Bashir with the good beard.” It is just these five blowing off steam, because their cultural confusion is too much to bear, and women bear the brunt of a lot of the overt racial hate. They live in a regressive cave in the midst of Western freedom and liberalism, and don’t quite know where they stand; as one of their songs says, “Broken by the Empire, raised by MTV, misfit of the motherland, still fish and chips for tea.”

Strangely, it is the betrayal by Ayesha’s journalist lover Zarina, who writes a piece portraying ‘Lady Parts’ as “Bad girls of Islam” that ironically builds the first step of their career. The hate they get online is horrendous, but they also get fans of their music, which has captured the rage and turmoil of these women who want success and inclusion into the mainstream, without changing who they are or want to be. It is their music and their limited, underground fame that shows them that it just might be possible to be a cultural chameleon in a black-and-white society.

In the first season, the ‘Lady Parts’ women find genuine camaraderie — after that is out of the way, they are literally thrown out of their cocoon, into a world that is harsh, competitive, materialistic and judgmental. ‘Lady Parts’ has a young copycat band, ‘Second Wife’, that steals their music and makes money while the original five have to scrounge to raise money to cut an album. Saira is evicted from her space, and if they have to get to the next level, compromises would be demanded of them — the resources to go big come with the attached strings of the music label run by white men. If ‘Lady Parts’ are not the authentic voice of Muslim Sisterhood, then do they have a reason to go on?

We Are Lady Parts beautifully balanced the various issues faced by the women in the first season, without losing its frothiness; in the second ongoing season, their challenges are tougher, darker and existential.

In one of their fantasy sequences, in which they create a song that goes, “Nobel Prize at 17/The baddest bitch you’ve ever seen/Cross your heart and hope to die/It’s Malala Yousafzai,” — the famous social reformer makes a guest appearance, riding a horse, if that does not give a stamp of approval to ‘Lady Parts’ fandom, what would?

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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