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Shazia Mirza Is Taking on the Islamic State One Joke at a Time

We caught up with the outspoken comic, whose new show tackles the British teenage girls who fled to Syria to join ISIS.

by Kat Lister
Feb 16 2016, 8:39pm
The schoolgirls who fled the UK to join the Islamic State last year. Photo via Metropolitan Police

When a handwritten list was discovered in the bedroom of one of three Bethnal Green schoolgirls who fled to join Islamic State in Syria last February, items included a $70 epilator, a $17 bra, and a pair of new underwear. The scribbles told us something. "It's stuff a teenage girl would pack when she's going away with a girlfriend to Ibiza for the weekend," says comedian Shazia Mirza. "Yet you're going to join a sixth century, barbaric terrorist organization. It's an absolute fantasy."

When the fantasy became global news, Shazia was on a sofa in New York with a friend watching pictures of these young girls flash up on CNN. What she saw "horrified" her: "I really felt like I had something to say about this." Within months, she'd written all the material for her show, The Kardashians Made Me Do It—a comedy gig about ISIS and jihadi brides, about censorship and fear. It is now touring the UK.

Shazia was born in Birmingham, England, but now she "doesn't live there any more because she's doing well" (according to her own website). She made her name on the comedy circuit in 2001, when, after 9/11, she'd open her shows with the line: "My name's Shazia Mirza—at least that's what it says on my pilot's license." Six years later, she presented a BBC Three documentary that was similarly brazen. Its title? F*** Off, I'm a Hairy Woman. We caught up with her to ask about the merits of confronting ISIS with satire.

Shazia Mirza. Photo via Wikimedia

VICE: Why did you decide to make a comedy show about young women joining the Islamic State?
Shazia Mirza: I find it very difficult these days to have an opinion that I care about... But I was horrified by the story of these girls. I really felt like I had something to say about it. I felt like I could relate to them in some way. I think this is the first time in the 12 years I've been doing stand-up that I've actually written a show that I really want to do.

I don't believe that people go and join ISIS because they're angry about a war in Afghanistan when they weren't even born to witness it. I used to teach in Tower Hamlets, around the corner from where the girls used to go to school, and they never talked about religion, but they always talked about boys.

When David Cameron says they're radicalized, my friends and I don't even understand what that word means. They're not radicalized—they've been sexualized by these men.

You've been very outspoken about these things in the past. Do you get a lot of grief?
I feel that I was forced to say things in the past. When I first started, I was the only Asian woman in comedy, and I felt so much pressure immediately to represent all Asians, speak for the community, explain why wars are happening—to explain things that a) I know nothing about and b) I wasn't a developed enough comedian to deliver.

A lot of the early reviews for The Kardashians Made Me Do It used words like "brave." You've referred to ISIS as the "One Direction of Islam." Are you nervous about putting yourself out there with this material?
All the early reviews of my show were written by white men, all of them, and a lot of them don't understand what I'm talking about. And you can't blame them for that, because why would they know? As I say in the show, they say that they want to hear the things I'm talking about, but in actual fact, I feel like they don't want to hear it from me. They want to hear it from Stewart Lee and Mark Thomas—straight, white men they can relate to.

Speaking of straight white men, David Cameron's "language fund" to teach Muslim women English seems to have made your show even more relevant.
The Muslim women I know speak better English than the English people I know who have been born and brought up in this country. I kind of understand David Cameron: He's a white, upper class male. It's a very particular life that he's lived. Where during his life has he met a lot of Asian or Muslim women and known them? Probably never.

But to call me "brave," I find quite patronizing. I'm not brave—I'm just like every other comedian. I'm not doing stand-up in Syria. I mean, that would be brave. I'm doing stand-up in a democracy where you can say what you like.

You are, but you still have to deal with complaints because of what you say.
So does Frankie Boyle...

Last year, you spoke about "liberation" on Radio 4 and said: "I know Muslim women who are head-to-toe covered in black, who are very liberated in their thoughts and actions, but one might look at them and think they're imprisoned." You got quite a few complaints after that—were you surprised?
Yes. I have a whole section in my show about that. I said exactly what I thought: I think the burka is very liberating because you don't get judged for your sexuality. A lot of women equate liberation with covering themselves up but still having a free mind.

I don't know any women who have been forced to wear it. I know a lot of women who wear it, and their husbands don't like it. My father never liked my mother wearing it—and my dad is a pretty culturally strict, Pakistani man. I know very few women who wear the burka. I have a friend who wears a niqab, and that's her choice.

You called your show The Kardashians Made Me Do It. What do they have to do with jihadi brides?
I didn't want to call it that. I wanted to call it The Road to al-Baghdadi, but the Tricycle Theater putting the show on wouldn't let me because it was really worried that ISIS was going to turn up.

Are you scared of that too?
Everybody's scared. You'll never know the truth as long as there's fear, which is exactly what ISIS wants. I think the theater worried somebody would turn up and kill people for putting the show on. Which is not out of the realms of possibility... They thought it would end up on Twitter, and, of course, ISIS is always on Twitter.

So why did you go for the Kardashians name instead?
When the three girls from Bethnal Green went to join ISIS, their sister said, according to the Home Affairs Select Committee, "I can't understand why she's gone—she used to watch the Kardashians, you know?" That's what she told the government! I couldn't believe it! But I could understand. She was trying to say—look, she was normal. She watches the Kardashians like everyone else.

Shazia Mirza is touring the UK in The Kardashians Made Me Do It, including a stint at the Soho Theatre, London, March 1-5.