Ambreen Razia can remember exactly where she was when she saw her first "Hounslow girl." The 23-year-old writer and actress was standing at a bus stop outside McDonalds in Kingston-upon-Thames, when a girl came toward her in a hijab and massive hoop earrings, chatting on the phone to her friend.
"She was bold and brash," Razia says. "People think if she's a British Muslim girl, she's not necessarily getting up to anything that other girls would be, but actually—we do. We just can't be as open about it. In a way, it's like leading a double life. It's holding up one character at home and then going out and assimilating into this very fast London life outside."
That encounter at the bus stop lead to The Diary of a Hounslow Girl—Ambreen's one-woman show about a streetwise teenage Muslim girl. It's already been converted into a YA novel and is currently touring theaters.
At its heart, the play is about double lives. It's narrated by 16-year-old Shahida, who has returned home to west London after her sister's wedding in Pakistan and is about to get into a relationship that will end with her getting pregnant. I caught up with Razia to chat about the themes of her play: sex, religion, and identity, and the tensions between them.
VICE: So what exactly is a "Hounslow girl"?
Ambreen Razia: It's a type of young, British Muslim woman. Girls who you might see in shisha bars in a big group. They're urban, and they're fashionable. The majority wear hijabs. You were brought up in a Muslim household, and your play explores the challenges of having a dual identity growing up. How much of the play is autobiographical?
The majority of the characters within the play are based on stuff that I went through or observed. For example, a lot of the characters are based on friends I had at school. I think no matter what culture you're from, at the age of sixteen, we're all going through the same thing biologically. I was brought up in a Muslim household but was never forced to wear the hijab, and I never chose to wear it.
The play tackles teen pregnancy. Was that based on observation too?
A young British Muslim girl becoming pregnant before marriage at sixteen is a big, big deal. But it's happened—and it's happened to people I've known. It's something that I really wanted to explore. The choices she had once she got into that situation and how limited they are.
Are you hoping this play is going to bust a few stereotypes about young British Muslim women?
That's definitely what I wanted to do. Straight away, when you see a Muslim girl on a poster, you think, Does this have a political agenda attached to it? Could this be about the girls who went off to Syria? And actually, it's just a coming-of-age story. She's just a teenage girl like any other…
Yeah, and I think that whether you come from a strict Jewish or Catholic background, it doesn't matter. It's just showing that young girls who come from traditional backgrounds have parameters around them that can make coming of age more difficult.
You started off as an actress. Why did you decide to become a writer too?
Like any young drama student, I just wanted to get back on the stage, but that's not necessarily what's going to happen, particularly being a young Asian actress. The roles aren't as generous as you think they're going to be.
Did you feel frustrated about the lack of acting roles for Asian women?
I think just being an actress in general—you're just sitting there waiting for your phone to ring. If you can do something else with your time, I would say just go for it. Get your story out there, and give yourself a platform. It's frustrating, but rather than talk about it, you have to do something about it.
Is there a particular issue in the play you feel is the most important?
The fact that she's entering motherhood as a young, single, British Muslim. It's completely out of the norm. I suppose the question is: How is the community going to treat her after that? Because the risk is much higher. This thing of community I think needs to be abolished. This sense of "what are they going to think?"
Do you think that kind of community pressure can make some girls rebel more?
I think they feel like they're rebelling more because of the stuff that's been implemented in their head. I remember going to my classes at the mosque and the imam saying—I put it in the play—that women who wear the hijab are protected. You're battling with all these things, so if you go out and have sex or do drugs, you feel the guilt three times more than anyone else.
What have your friends made of the play? Were you nervous about them seeing it?
No, not at all! My two friends who I based it on were just really happy that I got the story out there. They said it was quite liberating to see it. I just wanted to tell it right.
The Diary of a Hounslow Girl is on at Stratford Circus Arts Centre in London from May 19–20.