The arrival of We Are Lady Parts to television feels nothing short of revolutionary. Premiering on the streaming platform Peacock on 3 June in the US and airing weekly through 24 June on Channel 4 in the UK, We Are Lady Parts centers on the diverse experiences of five young British Muslim women who are in a punk band and are trying to get their first gig.
Created, directed, and written by Nida Manzoor, We Are Lady Parts is a hilarious and charming coming-of-age comedy about young women struggling to find their voice and fighting to carve out space for themselves. The series features Amina (Anjana Vasan), a Ph.D. student in microbiology, hopeless romantic, and Don McLean superfan, whose awkward quest to settle down and find a husband leads her to meet the unique band members of Lady Parts: frontwoman Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), a heavily tattooed butcher; bassist Bisma (Faith Omole), a mother, wife, and comic book artist; drummer Ayesha (Juliette Motamed), a disaffected Uber driver with impeccable eye makeup; and manager Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), who vapes underneath her niqab while working at a lingerie store. The plot feels familiar at times, but it is refreshing for its empathetic and joyful representation of Muslim women, who rarely get to be the protagonists of their own stories.
The representation of Middle Eastern and North African (or MENA) characters in American television and film has been traditionally stereotypical, if not nearly invisible. As Slate reports, MENA representation falls behind Black, Latinx, Asian, and multiracial minorities, accounting for zero leads in the 2017-18 scripted TV season and 1.3% of film roles and 1.6% of film directors in 2020.
When MENA characters do appear onscreen, the Islamic faith tends to be conflated with terrorism, savagery, primitivism, and oppression. It is depicted as antithetical to Western modernity and democracy. Media Studies scholar Radha Hegde points out that the veil, in particular, has been saturated with symbolic meaning, marking the veiled Muslim woman as passive and disempowered, “and collapsing the diversity of the Muslim experience to a singular and reductive explanation centered on the veil” (164). As prominent series like Showtime’s Homeland and Netflix’s Bodyguard would have it, a Muslim woman can only prove her worth and loyalty to the nation when she leaves her faith behind.
We Are Lady Parts is cognizant of the importance of representation and tackles this directly in the remarkable fifth episode, “Represent”. The episode begins with the social media influencer Zarina (Sofia Barclay) interviewing the band members for an article to be featured on the fictional online publication Yellow Tongue. Excited to be sharing their music and philosophy with a larger public, the band members are candid in their conversations with Zarina, until they realize she is working an angle. Questioning Momtaz on why she wears a niqab, Amina if she feels ashamed, and Saira if she feels oppressed by the “misogynistic forces within the Muslim community”, it is clear that Zarina is not interested in learning who the band members really are and what they have to say, but rather on crafting an image of pseudo-Muslim rebellious women palatable to the Western consumer.
When the article publishes with the click-bait headline, “The Girls of Islam: Haramed and Dangerous”, the band members are appalled and confront Zarina for framing Lady Parts as a joke. Momtaz sums up their grievances best, telling Zarina, “It’s not often we get any kind of platform, so you’ll understand we’re not thrilled about being misrepresented.” Zarina dismisses them by noting that Lady Parts is trending. And sure enough, the band is trending with the “Fake Muslim” hashtag in every corner of the Internet.
Throughout its excellent six episodes, We Are Lady Parts shows that faith is an integral aspect of the band members’ identity. It is never at odds with their punk music or their feminist and progressive politics. Their songs may be cheeky, with titles like “Voldemort Under My Headscarf” and “Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me”, but they are not meant to be dismissive of their religion. In fact, the girls pray together after band practice and all but Saira wear a headscarf.
In its nuanced representation of five different Muslim women, We Are Lady Parts beautifully captures that the performance and expression of Muslim identity are complex and multifaceted. The “fake Muslim” accusation is ultimately unfounded because there are multiple ways of being Muslim.
The barrage of online hate and harassment that the band receives on the penultimate episode is not unlike what creator Manzoor experienced in real life after Channel 4 aired its first episode, leading to accusations that she was mocking Islam. In an interview, she reflects on her experience, saying, “The mixed reaction, in a way, it was quite freeing, because it really made me realise – which we should all realise – that I’m just one voice, and I can only speak for my particular truth. There are so many different ways of being. It just enabled me to really zero in on what I wanted to say.”
Manzoor’s experience encapsulates how much pressure there is on creators of color to get representation right. There is such a lack of diversity behind the cameras, in writers’ rooms, and in executive positions that people of color are often left with the impossible task of representing their entire communities. We Are Lady Parts succeeds and feels vital precisely because it does not presume to be a universal representation of Muslim women. It is a specific portrait of five young women who enjoy playing brash punk music together. And along the way, We Are Lady Parts shows that stereotypical representations of minorities can only be shattered when people of color take control of the means of production.
Hadadi, Roxana. “There’s Nothing on TV Doing What We Are Lady Parts Is Doing“. Slate. 3 June 2021.
Hegde, Radha. “Eyeing New Publics: Veiling and the Performance of Civic Visibility”. In Public Modalities: Rhetoric, Culture, Media, and the Shape of Public Life. edited by Daniel C. Brouwer and Robert Asen. The University of Alabama Press. 2010.
Opie, David. “Nida Manzoor on We Are Lady Parts and exploring the complexity of Muslim women on screen”. Digitalspy.com. 20 May 2021.