In today’s highly digitised era, most social-media savvy young adults find the idea of internet virality appealing. While most would fawn at becoming the next TikTok sensation, the reality is stark for muslim women whose experiences are obscured by cyberharassment. Channel 4’s latest sitcom We Are Lady Parts, premiering this year in May proved to be more than a piece-meal offering towards on-screen diversity. Writer, director and producer Nida Manzoor successfully reconciles the competing tensions muslim women face towards not seeking a digital footprint but actively imagining ways to leave our mark on the world.
The joys and pitfalls of being a member of an all-woman, muslim Punk band are explored through the eyes of the show’s 26 year old protagonist, Amina Hussein who’s finishing a PhD in Microbiology. When she isn’t starring as a guest on the Bacteria Digest podcast, she’s desperately seeking a traditional muslim husband to impress her friends. At one point in the show, she realises the risk of her depleting social status and asks a platonic friend to pretend to be her date at an engagement party. Just as the show runs the risk of revolving Amina’s character arc around her love, she’is invited to a band try-out and thrust into an exhilarating whirlwind of Rockstar life. When a famous blogger approaches the group about writing an article about them that could potentially result in more gigs, the conflict of interest is introduced. A social media presence would contradict everything the band stands for. In the lead singer Saira’s words, doing so would be promoting corporate sanctioned music.
With generic representation on the rise, what the show does best is its emphasis on nuanced characterisation. Here, representation of the “more” marginalised muslim women isn’t levied as a mere plot device or a means to a fully-fledged character arc. There is no “coming-out” scene to allude to the band’s drummer Ayesha’s queerness, she simply is. While the significance of coming-out scenes should not be understated, Ayesha doesn’t justify her sexuality to her bandmates nor to the audience either. Similarly, Momtaz, the band’s manager doesn’t ever need to justify wearing a niqab because the show was created by and for muslim feminists, instead of dishing out a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of muslim women. The message put forward by the public is that “muslim women are either oppressed, or complicit in their own oppression, but always in need of liberation”.
Manzoor begins challenging liberal feminist tropes when Ayesha starts dating Zarina, the blogger who plans to interview Lady Parts. Though Zarina isn’t white, she projects the liberal feminism that demands martyrdom from queer muslim women. When Ayesha rejects being publicly represented as a queer muslim woman, Zarina response is to gaslighting her. “You’re punk. Aren’t you not supposed to care what people think?” she asks. Though representation sounds blissful in theory, it is often the root to muslim women’s susceptability to online abuse. White women don’t face the burden of representing entire communties so why do muslim have to?
When Lady Parts goes public, and the article goes live, it’s unsurprising that they’re subjected to torrents of abuse. Seeing hashtags like #fakemuslims and #banladyparts begin to trend was difficult to watch because it nearly smothered the band into a breakup. Though fictitious, their experiences of cyber harassment must be related to the the price muslim women in the public sphere pay for social capital. Chitra Ramaswamy's review of the series is particularly insightful. The show first began as a Channel 4 comedy “blap”, an initiative which previously supported the likes of Chewing Gum and Game Face. According to Chitra, the show is apparently “ the only blap with comments disabled on YouTube”. A study by Nabamallika Dehingia, writing for eTAG, revealed that “women who experience online abuse often adapt their online behaviour, self-censor the content they post and limit interactions on the platform out of fear of violence and abuse”. This conversation is not just about freedom of expression or lack thereof but the monetary outcomes of gendered censorship.
For most muslim women, this surveillance and scrutiny isn’t limited to social media, but extended offline to private spaces, through family and friends. Up until this point, Ayesha hadn’t told her best friend about the band out of fear of being isolated. When news of the article breaks, her friendship group storms her lab before dispatching the verdict that she must be ostracized. As Noor delivers the deathly blows, the fragility of “well-intentioned” muslim womanhood is exposed. Noor is strikingly reminiscent of Whatsapp-conspiring muslim aunties who are more interested in the shock-value of publicly shaming muslim women rather than fostering feminist values within our communities.
In light of the domination of genres like rap, r&b and pop within the mainstream music market, audiences may question Manzoor’s decision to situate the show within an alternative genre like rock. However, no other genre would be as relevant in accompany this radically-charged show. If anything, punk music’s roots of counterculturalism and defying the status quo are everything the band stands for. With punchy lyrics such as “I am Babylon, I’m Iraq, I am Hackney after dark” and “I’m a woman, I’m a preacher, I’m Madonna and the whore”, we’re convinced that girls that pray together truly play together. Though the internet has proved to be far from an equal space, nothing says punk more than muslim women who rage in the face of the shame.