Coming of age in a conservative Pakistani Muslim family in North London, Nadia Manzoor felt torn between two worlds. While her family warned her to wear modest clothes and prepare for a life of serving her husband, her British pals were discovering boys and partying.
It was the most confusing and tormenting time in Manzoor’s existence, but now she’s come to terms with it all in a place that was once forbidden to her: the stage.
“For me, the enjoyment comes from finding myself on-stage,” the vivacious actor tells the Straight from her home in New York City, before bringing her funny, sassily titled one-woman show Burq Off! to Vancouver’s Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts. “Where I came from, the stage was never a place that you could be—unless you were being married.
“It’s the most transformative experience to do the play now. It’s the history of who I’ve become. I get to play wacky characters and I get to dance. And by playing all these characters and different voices from my past, I realize it is all me.”
It was only when Manzoor left her family and community for Boston University, where she pursued a master’s in social work, that she started to consider creating a one-woman show. She had been experimenting with putting her trials and tribulations down in a memoir, and her reading group encouraged her to turn it into a performance. “I don’t think I even knew what a one-woman show was in 2011,” she says with a laugh.
Manzoor had also discovered her love of improv comedy and, with that in mind, started writing the show with 21 characters from her past—from an Islamic teacher with a penchant for porn to her judgmental twin brother, who turned more and more to strict tradition.
“The first time I did the play the goal was to tell the story, in many ways for myself and for my family,” Manzoor explains. Now, though, she realizes the huge importance of sharing her experience in a divided world—one where “burkinis” are being banned in some countries, and entire Muslim nations are being barred from entering the U.S.
“I see the significance of being a Muslim on-stage now, just showing a real-life perspective of how I had to reconcile my faith with my identity,” says Manzoor, who has performed Burq Off! around the world.
True to the title, the play centres a lot on Manzoor’s complicated relationship with the hijab. “The biggest way my father taught me to express being a good Muslim girl was modesty in dress,” Manzoor explains, saying she was even told to cover her arms right down to her wrists in front of her teen brother. “I had to hide the curves of my body—essentially being a mystery to a man. And the only person that would ever have access to that mystery was my husband.”
In Burq Off!, she tells a story about going to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage as she was about to enter her teens, donning a full head covering and abaya there. “You have to wear a hijab in Saudi Arabia, and also it was the first time I was becoming aware of men’s leers. So I felt safe in my mind: it felt like freedom, like liberation, and felt great to me.”
She contrasts that tale with another, when she wore a friend’s bikini to the beach. “At 18 was the first time I wore a bikini on a beach—which was a complete sin!” she emphasizes. “But then I also felt complete freedom. Everybody was free in their sexuality and in their bodies. So it was confusing to me that both experiences could be freeing.”
Today, she says, she has a more nuanced view of the hijab, which she refuses to wear. “Women needing to cover in order to be around the male gaze is a problem for me,” she states. “It assumes there’s a problem with a male gaze. And that perpetuates catcalling and rape culture. But it can be a very sacred garment. A year ago I was much less nuanced in my thinking. I was just against it: ‘It’s an oppressive garment.’ It’s definitely been an evolving idea.”
Removing the hijab—getting her “burq off”—is a symbol of how Manzoor ultimately had to separate from her culture to discover herself. In audience after audience she sees people—from her own culture and others—relating to the identity crisis she faced as the daughter of first-generation immigrants. She’s reaching them with honesty and laughter—much as she does with her hit web series Shugs & Fats, a comedy about two “hijabis” living in hipster Brooklyn, which she’s now developing into a TV show for Amazon.
“Finding myself really did mean I had to step away from my family and community for a significant amount of time—which can be really scary because they define you,” reflects Manzoor, who, by the way, is these days happily married to a guy from Montreal. “It’s difficult for a lot of young boys or girls to separate and make those decisions. I’m not just doing this into the mirror: I’m getting feedback, big response, with people crying or wanting to talk to me after the show. And every time the audience reminds me of the significance of the show. That has been one of the most powerful things to me.”
The Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts presents Burq Off! at the York Theatre next Friday and Saturday (August 11 and 12).