Television

There’s Nothing on TV Doing What We Are Lady Parts Is Doing

A bold, funny series about Muslim punks goes where no sitcom has gone before.

Five women lined up against a wall covered with posters of punk bands. Three of the women wear headscarves, one a niqab. They are all mugging for the camera like rock stars.
They are Lady Parts. Laura Radford/Peacock

Picture this: A fictional group of five women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and social classes, of different ages and sexual identities, and with different family dynamics and fashion preferences, form a tight bond of long-lasting friendship that survives all kinds of hardship and conflict. They know one another’s love interests, favorite songs, and most shameful childhood memories. They cook together, shop together, and get high together. They fight, they make up, they razz one another, and they love one another. Maybe you’re picturing the women of Sex and the City, The L Word, Living Single, and The Bold Type, or the teens of Never Have I Ever and Pen15. But chances are you’re not thinking of the rowdy, irreverent, devout, and thoughtful Muslims of Nida Manzoor’s new series We Are Lady Parts.

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Muslim women haven’t looked like this on American TV before. South Asian, Arab, Middle Eastern, and Black, some covered in tattoos and wearing hijabs, most fans of punk rock, and all very aware of the stereotypes and assumptions through which people see them, both inside and outside of their community. What We Are Lady Parts captures so astutely is the intersectionality and interiority long denied Muslim women in Hollywood productions. The members of the punk band Lady Parts talk politics (Boris Johnson: “worse than wank”), evoke Wayne’s World while exuberantly singing along to the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” in a cramped car, cheer one another on at open mic poetry nights, and hang out on double dates. The delight these women experience while in one another’s company is infectious—and doesn’t stop when they pause band practice to lay down their prayer rugs, or trade stories about embarrassing moments at the mosque, or argue about whether Muslim men look better with beards. While following the members of Lady Parts as they struggle to succeed as a band, the series underscores that the self-actualization of these women is strengthened, rather than hampered, by their personalized interpretations of Muslim faith. That traditionalism-meets-progressivism mashup is intentional from the show’s first minutes, and is best encapsulated in the introduction of Lady Parts’ band manager Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse). While bedecked in a perfectly coordinated niqāb and burqa, she slamdances her way around the group’s basement rehearsal space, gestures emphatically with a joint, and smooths over a band disagreement with a quippy “Feminism, innit?”

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Perhaps a component of the transgressive success of We Are Lady Parts is that it was actually created outside of the U.S., filmed entirely in the U.K. by British Pakistani creator, director, and writer Manzoor. (All six episodes are now streaming on Peacock, but the series is airing weekly on the British Channel 4 through June 24.) The half-hour comedy with the This Is Spinal Tap– and Pussy Riot–inspired name follows the punk trio Lady Parts—lead singer Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), bassist and backup singer Bisma (Faith Omole), and drummer Ayesha (Juliette Motamed)—as they search for a new lead guitarist to round out their sound. Meanwhile, the band and their manager Momtaz also spend a solid portion of each day rolling their eyes and snarking back at the sexist and bigoted microaggressions they weather as a result of their gender and their faith.

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Microbiology Ph.D. student Amina (Anjana Vasan) is not exactly the new member Lady Parts had in mind. Her stage fright is terrible, and despite her parents’ urging that she slow down and wait to fall in love, she signs up for a Muslim dating app and is determined to get married. Being the fourth member of Lady Parts, who delight in confrontational lyrics like “Voldemort’s alive and he’s under my head scarf,” was not part of Amina’s life plan. But when the group plays together for the first time, the chemistry is explosive, and the experience transformational. Inspired by the other women’s self-confidence and adventurousness, Amina starts to reassess her idea of how a “good Muslim woman” behaves. She channels feelings of romantic rejection into writing her first song, the sweet-and-sour banger “Bashir With the Good Beard,” and dashes back-and-forth between Lady Parts rehearsals and her university laboratory in a Bend It Like Beckham–style double life. A raucous day trip to the British countryside with Lady Parts is a particular turning point. “Our forefathers fought and died in the white man’s wars for the express purpose that we would be able to sit here on this here land and smoke this here doob,” says a Riz Ahmed–channeling Bisma in response to Amina’s trespassing concerns, and the amused Amina decides to finally “let go” of her own self-imposed primness. With the band bonded, all they have to do now, Momtaz says, is start booking gigs and find their fan base. As long as the white British men who boo them offstage, the fellow Muslim woman influencer who takes advantage of them, and the haters on Twitter calling them “#fakeMuslims” don’t totally destroy the band’s unity.

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American TV and film have never been as bold, or as thorough, in its depiction of Muslim women as Manzoor’s half-hour comedy. Despite the vocal push in recent years for increased opportunities for and representation of female, Black, and POC characters across media, Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, women have long been left out of the conversation. The data backs this up: According to the latest figures, MENA representation on TV trails behind white, Black, Latinx, Asian, and multiracial representation, and is either on par with or slightly above Indigenous representation. (For the 2017–18 broadcast scripted TV season, MENA and Indigenous leads were tied in their percentage of the 121 leads counted: zero.) Movies aren’t much better. In 2020, film roles for MENA characters were 1.3 percent of the total, and MENA women were “significantly underrepresented.” MENA film directors counted for 1.6 percent of 185 film directors, with female MENA directors making up a whopping total of one.

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There are fewer MENA actresses than actors within that already-tiny TV percentage, and when these women play Muslim characters, their worth is usually calculated in spite of their faith, not because of it. They’re helping catch terrorists to prove their loyalties to the U.S. (Nazanin Boniadi’s Fara Sherazi on Homeland), or taking off their headscarf in order to finally draw the eye of their non-Muslim crush (Mina El Hammani’s Nadia on Netflix’s Elite), or serving as the butt of a joke about Afghanistan’s patriarchal culture for the benefit of American viewers (Sitara Attai’s Hassina on United States of Al). Their religion exists in tension with their personalities rather than as a complementary component, and that friction continues a broad othering of MENA people that films like Wonder Woman 1984 prove is still Hollywood’s default.

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That’s exactly why the self-awareness We Are Lady Parts exhibits regarding this landscape of compromise, and its refusal to fit in by sanding down character edges or forcing predictable arcs, is so refreshing. Amina’s fantastical daydreams, in which she performs alongside sentient sock puppets or waltzes in black and white with crush Ahsan (Zaqi Ismail), bring to mind the sincerity of Glee and the absurdity of 30 Rock. Her parents’ confusion over her rush to get married and her mother’s flirting with Ahsan reject any viewer assumptions of elders’ conservative values. (Shobu Kapoor’s bemused delivery of “Shit, wow, OK” when she sees Ahsan for the first time is perfectly unexpected.) And Lady Parts is so thrillingly good that Peacock has already released a soundtrack of the band performing a few covers and the series’s originals, written by Manzoor, her brother Shez, and sister Sanya, and composer Benni Fregin—just as the streaming service recently did for Girls5eva. (The tongue-in-cheek tone of “Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister but Me,” during which Impey sneers, “Do you wanna kill her, mister?” to a call-and-response of “She’s mine, mine, mine,” is guaranteed to push everyone’s buttons.)

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All of this subversive flair is strengthened by We Are Lady Parts’ awareness of the criticisms it will inevitably face: From the conservative arm of the cast and crew’s own Muslim community, who might decry the series’s female characters as not faithful enough because of their body art, premarital sex, and struggle to reconcile their practice of Islam with more traditional interpretations (concerns also aimed at the protagonist of Minhal Baig’s semi-autobiographical 2019 film Hala, available on Apple TV+). From Islamophobes who might denounce the female characters as too faithful, and who might bend over backward to decry the band members’ daily prayers toward Mecca, Saira’s job as a halal butcher, or Ahsan’s side gig selling bath products fragranced with celeriac and rhubarb as acts of fundamentalist indoctrination. And even from viewers whose sympathy toward the show’s intent might be clouded over by their acquiescence to respectability politics—the type of people who would tsk-tsk at the band’s impassioned screaming along to System of a Down’s “Toxicity,” at Saira’s estrangement from her family, and at Bisma’s graphic novel about superpowers bestowed by menstrual blood, and wonder why the members of Lady Parts couldn’t be a little bit more proper.

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The attacks upon Lady Parts in the season’s back half are so precise, and the band members’ responses of wariness and self-doubt feel so genuine, because Manzoor lived them. After the pilot episode of the series, then called Lady Parts, aired on Channel 4 in 2018 and received an initial wave of fervent criticism, Manzoor shut down her social media accounts and Channel 4 disabled YouTube comments on the episode. It isn’t too much of a stretch to assume that her period of self-reflection shaped her continued work on what would become We Are Lady Parts, in particular the final two episodes “Represent” and “Sparta.” In those installments, after a magazine article that twists the band members’ words about their religion goes viral, Saira, Bisma, Ayesha, Amina, and Momtaz realize that their myriad identities—Muslim, queer, straight, wife, mother, girlfriend, scientist, poet, artist, musician—connect them with an audience that is as nuanced and multifaceted as they are.

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What We Are Lady Parts ultimately emphasizes about the depths of Muslim female identity and about the intersectional solidarity required to push back against bad-faith attacks can be captured in the artists Manzoor chooses to honor through a recitation of their work: Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose poem “Speak” is recited by Saira at an open mic night, and Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” which Lady Parts triumphantly performs. Faiz, a secular Muslim whose Marxist ideology shaped his revolutionary poetry, crafted in “Speak” a message about individual determination: “Speak, for your two lips are free / Speak, for your tongue is still your own.” The lyrics Freddie Mercury (born to Parsi parents and partially raised in India, an embodiment of the complicated effects of Britain’s colonial history) belts during “We Are the Champions” provide similar resonance: “I’ve had my share of sand / Kicked in my face / But I’ve come through … And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.” The triumph of “We Are the Champions” isn’t solely derived from victory, but also from tenacity—in remaining committed to one’s selfhood even when others would deny it. That steadfast singularity is what We Are Lady Parts uses to portray, with vibrancy, empathy, and wit, that despite what most American media would suggest, it’s possible for Muslim women to be faithful and joyful at the same time.

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