My first U.S. TV appearance was on Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” in 2002. Yeah, I know! After the usual back-and-forth yelling, some viewers sent me emails, asking, “Are you sure you’re a Muslim? Where’s the headgear?”
Others wanted to know why I spoke English so well. Clearly, I did not deliver on the Covered-In-Black-Muslim-Woman that central casting usually offers to viewers.
There was a time, a decade earlier, when I did indeed wear the “headgear.” From the age of 16 to 25, I wore a hijab. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Muslim acquaintances at university saw me dancing along to music or saying I planned to watch “Wild at Heart,” they would chastise me for not living up to what they expected of someone in the “headgear.”
Once, on the Cairo metro, a woman in niqab tried to persuade me to “upgrade” from hijab to niqab. Her argument: “If you want to eat a piece of candy, would you choose one that is in a wrapper or an unwrapped one?”
“I’m a woman, not a piece of candy,” I replied.
When I finally plucked up the courage to go out in public without a hijab, my (so-called) friends were split between the “You look so much better!” camp and the “What have you done, you’ve made us look so bad!” camp. To a friend from the latter camp, I replied, “I am not the Qur’an in motion.”
When you’re a Muslim woman, you can’t fucking win. Every Muslim woman has an arsenal of you-can’t-fucking-win stories. And how lucky we are—what a time to be alive!—that Nida Manzoor channeled her arsenal into the revolutionary rocket of a show “We Are Lady Parts,” which is available now on the free Peacock streaming service.
The reviews will tell you that it is a show about a Muslim women’s punk band. But take it from me: it is really about Godzilla.
In one of the most electric metaphors I’ve heard, Amina, the narrator of the six-part series, explains to a spoken word event her dilemma: even though she is a masterful guitarist she feels debilitated by performance nerves and yet when she plays with the band Lady Parts she loves it so much it is akin to what Godzilla feels after she destroys the city: “really calm, mindful.”
She feels free. We are all Godzilla.
And that is the emancipatory power of “We Are Lady Parts”: liberating Muslim women from the you-can’t-fucking-win stories, and letting them just be: complicated (because humans are complicated) and messy (because humans are messy).
It was one of several moments that had me tearing up while watching a show that felt like it had been deep-sea diving into my mind, coming up with a big mirror pointed at my guts, and asking “Is this you?” as I yelled back “Where the fuck were you 30 years ago?!”
To have had a show like “We Are Lady Parts” while I was in my 20s and fighting off Niqabis on the Metro, the Brigade of Hijabis-Aren’t-Supposed-To-Watch-Wild-At-Heart, and the You’re-Making-Us-Look-Bad so-called friends, would have freed up so much of my cosmic energy, I might have truly taken over the world.
A young Muslim woman once wrote to me to tell me she had reviewed my book, “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution,” which I published in 2015. In the book, I take a look at women’s rights in the Middle East (increasingly referred to as South West Asia) and North Africa in the wake of the revolutions that began 10 years ago in the region. In it, I call for social and sexual revolutions alongside the political revolutions of the “Arab Spring” in order to liberate women from all forms of oppression. And I say, over and over, we are more than what’s on our heads and what’s in between our legs.
I clicked on the link the young woman sent and read that for a long time she had been scared to read my writing because she had heard that “Mona Eltahawy is too loud, swears too much and goes too far.”
“Too loud, swears too much and goes too far?” you can fucking bet it.
Women are supposed to be “less than,” not “too much.” Women are meant to be quiet, modest, humble, and polite. They are not meant to be “too loud,” or “swear too much,” and definitely not “go too far.”
Muslim women are caught between a rock – an Islamophobic, racist and misogynistic right wing – and a hard place – misogynists in our Muslim communities. Neither the rock nor the hard place give a flying fuck about Muslim women. They are more concerned with each other. They speak over our heads – literally and figuratively. Our bodies – what parts of them are covered or uncovered, for example – are proxy battlefields in their endless arguments. It matters little what we women think because ultimately, both the rock and the hard place agree on and are enabled by patriarchy.
To be a Muslim woman in the so-called West, is to stand in the middle point of a see-saw, engaged in a perilous balancing act of telling the rock of racist Islamophobes and the hard place of the misogynist community to fuck off, all the while trying not to fall off.
“We Are Lady Parts” has jumped off the see-saw altogether.
It refuses to play with either side of that see-saw. It has jumped into a space of its own creation and it is from that place that it beckons to us, promising liberation.
We are the revolution, it says. Be too loud. Swear too much. Go too far.
Who decides who is “too loud, swears too much and goes too far?” It is usually the “community.” Too often, community is synonymous with men. And alarmingly, quite a few white people insist they are the arbiters of our “authenticity.”
Men—and white people—are thankfully incidental to “We Are Lady Parts.” They are the supporting cast—eye candy, lovers or husbands, irritants or racists. And what a relief because as Saira, who formed the band Lady Parts and serves as its lead vocalist, says, “our music is about representation. It’s about being heard.” Too often, we are not heard above the noise our men and white people make—noise they make often about us. And too often, we exhaust our voices defending our men from what white people say about them.
Where are we? When do we talk about ourselves? In all our complications and messes? And especially our joy? Mariam Khan calls it “the best depiction of modern Muslim womanhood we’ve seen on our screens yet.” For Bina Shah it is “Funny, irreverent and sincere, ‘We Are Lady Parts’ is a show to treasure.”
We are here, “We Are Lady Parts” says: one minute singing—no yelling!—in the car, all four of the women, to The Proclaimers, and the next reciting Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry “Speak, for your two lips are free /…Speak, whatever must be said.”
Again and again, the path to liberation is clear: “It is vitally important that you do exactly what you want to do…It is not easy but it is vital,” Amina’s mother says to her.
I must admit that when I wasn’t trying to decide if I was Saira—a glorious and combustible concoction of tattoos, rage, and fuck you’s—or Ayesha—a glorious cocktail of eyeliner, rage, and fuck you’s—I decided I did not have to choose because each of my life stages found herself reflected in “We Are Lady Parts:” be it my days in hijab, my foul mouth, or my tattoos and eyeliner.
But perhaps my biggest delight was Amina’s mother, who had me nodding furiously when she was telling her daughter “There’s more to life than husbands.” Maybe it’s because she is closest to my age as I am now or maybe it is her delicious lust when she sees Amina’s “date.”
“Oh, shit,” Amina’s mother says as she opens the door to see the young man.
“Assalam aleikum, Auntie,” Amina’s date says.
“Right back at you, sweetness,” Amina’s mother purrs, her eyes joyously thirsty.
At which point Auntie Mona is on the floor, dead from laughter.