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Why Shazia Mirza wants to shake off her 'Muslim comic' label

  • @arifa_akbar

The comedian Shazia Mirza remembers having a "moment of revelation" about her show in which she had been known to turn up in a headscarf and joke about owning a pilot's licence.

At the time, Mirza had made her name as one of Britain's few female Asian comedians and in the politically charged climate after 11 September 2001, her show drew instant media attention. As a result, the persona of the "Asian comic in a headscarf" stuck.

But Mirza, who was born in Birmingham to Punjabi parents, said she felt increasingly uncomfortable with the identity politics of the act, because it did not reflect who she really was.

"It was a bit like reading of Richard Pryor's moment of revelation," she said. "At the start of his career, he would try to act like Bill Cosby and joke about being black a lot. But one day he got on stage and thought, 'what am I doing? This is a load of rubbish'. He eventually decided to go on stage and tell the truth about being Richard Pryor. After reading that, I thought, 'That's what I have to do.' I have to tell the truth about being Shazia Mirza, not some Asian woman from Birmingham."

Now Mirza, 30, who lives in north London, has been invited to take her act to India by the British Council to perform in Mumbai and Pune from 8 to 13 November. But if jokes about veils and the hijab are what the critics are expecting, they will be sorely disappointed. The material for her current show, Fun, focuses on shoplifting from budget fashion stores and waxing body hair rather than the trials and tribulations of being a British Muslim.

"The greatest comedy transcends all religions and colours," she said. "Woody Allen transcends his Jewishness, Richard Pryor transcends his blackness."

She is, nevertheless, looking forward to her first trip to India - she has visited Pakistan but never gone to her mother's birthplace. "It'll be interesting and I'm hoping to make the most of the cheap waxing," she said. I'm growing my body hair for it."

Mirza began stand-up comedy after an abortive career as a science teacher, at the age of 25. She said her parents' favourite comedians were Kenny Everett, Frankie Howerd and Dave Allen. Even now, whenever she performs in Birmingham, her mother will watch all her shows.

Mirza wore a headscarf in her act for around six months when she started out five years ago, because "I was giving people what they expected of me", not because she was a practising Muslim. "I have never had a pork chop but I wouldn't say I'm a practising Muslim, well, only on Mondays."

"No one wants to be known for being an Asian doctor, or scientist, or comedian. You want to be known as a comedian."

She said her earlier material, which included religion and ethnicity, was part of a process she had to go through to find her own "voice". "I have had to work 10 times as hard to find the freedom to express myself in my own voice," she said. "I'm very British and my humour is very British. So let's see how that works in India."

Her new material

* 2001: "My name is Shazia Mirza - or at least that's what it says on my pilot's licence."

* 2006: "When I was at university, boys would ask me to go with them to concerts but I was too embarrassed to tell them my parents didn't allow me to go, so I would say I'd rather be at home bouncing pennies off my hymen."

* "On the morning I was invited to Buckingham Palace, I got in a rickshaw, and the man said, 'This is the first time I've picked up someone sober' because a rickshaw is the transport equivalent of a kebab."

* "Primark is a bit like being bisexual. No one admits to going there but everyone has a dabble."

* "I can't understand women who wear necklaces with 'Mum' written on them. I don't wear a necklace saying 'frigid'."