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Meet the Muslim Actress Fighting Islamophobia by Airing Dirty Paki Lingerie

Meet the Muslim Actress Fighting Islamophobia by Airing Dirty Paki Lingerie

From Sept. 7 through Sept. 25, the Lady Liberty Theater Festival is being showcased in New York City. The brainchild of ordained minister-turned-playwright, Monica Bauer, and actor/writer, Aizzah Fatima, the festival combines their own work to combat Islamophobia through the arts amid the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.
The Festival features two short plays each night, written by Monica Bauer. The first, “Lady Liberty’s Worst Night Ever,” is about the Statue of Liberty being purchased by Donald Trump. He wants to re-brand it as a Trump statue, but Lady Liberty has something to say about the whole ordeal.

Each character was developed based on a series of personal interviews, and research of experiences post-9/11. According to Aizzah, the play “takes a peak in a single moment of the real lives of Muslim women — not our fantasies, not what we think it would look like.”

The second is called, “No Irish Need Apply,” and it’s about a Syrian refugee trying to land a job at a New York City gift shop. An older Irish woman runs the store. The play highlights strong yet comedic commentary on the current Syrian refugee crisis in a world where no one wants them.
These plays are followed by a 60-minute, one-woman play written and acted by Aizzah Fatima. Now in its fifth year of production, “Dirty Paki Lingerie” has traveled the globe highlighting the nuances of the Muslim Girl experience through the formation of six characters.
Each character was developed based on a series of personal interviews, and research of experiences post-9/11. According to Aizzah, the play “takes a peak in a single moment of the real lives of Muslim women — not our fantasies, not what we think it would look like.”
The excerpts below are based on an interview conducted with playwright, Aizzah Fatima, prior to the launch of the Lady Liberty Festival:


MuslimGirl: What inspired you to write “Dirty Paki Lingerie?”
Aizzah Fatima: Lack of representation of Muslim women in theater, or anyplace really. Or I should I say, lack of accurate Muslim women are represented sometimes, but it’s always that, if a woman chooses to cover her hair, she is oppressed, battered, and abused.

“I was once asked to audition for the role of Terrorist #2’s girlfriend. The girlfriend didn’t even have a name.”

Every time you see a Muslim woman in media, she covers her hair and has an accent like she’s from another country. On the other side of it, Muslim women who choose not to cover her hair are really not represented at all. T
he Muslim American Woman’s experience is not covered at all. As an actor in New York City, I was frustrated. I auditioned for the types of roles that were out there – stereotypes. I was once asked to audition for the role of Terrorist #2’s girlfriend. The girlfriend didn’t even have a name.
How did you come up with the title of the play?
I thought about these very intimate stories, and I thought of my own mother who comes from a very different generation, conservative in some ways. I thought my mom would be mortified if she thought of women talking about people talking about these very private moments of their lives.
This is, in some ways, very part of the Pakistani culture, and I think it’s true of many Middle Eastern/South Asian cultures where you don’t talk about the personal and private, not in the public sphere anyway.
I thought to play around with that idea. I thought the title was very fitting for the theme of airing your very personal stories, your dirty laundry – but it’s lingerie because you’re talking about the intimate moments of women’s lives.
Tell us about each of the six women featured in “Dirty Paki Lingerie.”
One of them is about a 6-year-old girl who is dealing with bullying. Post 9/11, a lot of men were taken from their families. A lot of Muslim men, South Asian men, and Middle Eastern men. Sometimes they were put in jail, detention, or deported.
This story is based on a real event where a gentleman by the name of Mohammed something or another, who happened to have a name similar to a guy on a Terrorist Watch List somewhere. He was a Green Card holder, and owned a bunch of 7-Eleven stores.
His wife was a stay-at-home mom, to four girls. The guy had been taken away, at this point, for a year, by the time I found out about this particular case and his family didn’t know where he was and had no means to provide for themselves because his businesses had been confiscated.

“She is constantly getting rejected by the mothers of potential suitors for being too short, too dark, too educated. I just wanted to poke fun of a culture which is obsessed with marriage with that particular character, for the sake of starting a debate and conversation around these issues.”

I wanted to explore what a little girl, who is maybe 6 years old and is in this kind of circumstance thinks and feels, and how she articulates it. The story is told through her eyes, but a lot of the piece is about her mom too, who is dealing with a lot of the aftermath and trying to keep the family together with very little.


 
Then there is story of a young immigrant, who’s just come to America. She thinks it’ll be great — the place where dreams come true — in a way that I believe was true for people of our parents generation perhaps, but maybe not so for the wave of recent immigrants coming through. She then discovers that the realities are very harsh.


 
Then there is a 65-year-old lady, and she is trying to get her daughter married. But it seems like she is not marriage material in any way, especially in Pakistani/South Asian culture. She is constantly getting rejected by the mothers of potential suitors for being too short, too dark, too educated.

“We need a lot more Muslim women telling their stories. If you don’t tell them, other people will tell them for you.”

I just wanted to poke fun of a culture which is obsessed with marriage with that particular character, for the sake of starting a debate and conversation around these issues. I believe this character has often done that, I remember having performed that particular piece at ISNA one year on a finding marriage/work balance panel.
At the end of the panel, a woman walked up to me and said, “you know, I’m a doctor, and thank you so much for performing that and showing me that, because I just realized that when my mom comes to me about marriage, I feel like I’m the problem, but after watching this I realize that no – our culture is the problem.”
The way that society works is where the problem is.


 
There is a business woman, who has given up on finding a suitable partner. Then she finds somebody who she thinks is perfect, but it goes in a whole different direction. It touches upon women who choose to have careers.

“I wanted to use that character to show duality, and show to the audience that Muslim-American women are not a monolith in thought or practice.”

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That particular character that I’ve performed in front of a lot of different audiences, it seems that the theme I’ve gotten is that it’s across many cultures. It’s every woman’s story. You don’t have to be South Asian, or Pakistani, or Muslim, to relate to it.
I’ve have Jewish women tell me it’s their story, I’ve had Black women tell me it’s their story, Hispanic women telling me it happens in their culture. So again, I feel like these stories are very personal for these women, but then they become very universal as well.


 
There is another character in the play that is praying to God for good grades so that she can get into medical school. She’s also getting married soon and goes lingerie shopping with her best friend, and she is the only character that specifically uses lingerie in the show.
I wanted to use that character to show duality, and show to the audience that Muslim-American women are not a monolith in thought or practice. There is this huge misunderstanding, in America in particular, that if you cover your hair — you must be so conservative. You don’t have a voice, and you can’t have opinions.
With that kind of character, I love using her to show that women in America who cover their hair, it’s their choice and that it’s part of their activism and feminism more often than anything else. It’s their option, and not oppression in any way.


 
In the play, all the characters are not sure as to where they’ll end up, but I think the sixth character has is figured out. A 65-year-old woman decides to leave a loveless marriage. It wasn’t a forced marriage, but she was married at a young age.

“They were worried their children wouldn’t get married in the community that they belonged to if their parents were divorced. They were no longer together, but they were pretending to be.”

I remember the first time I performed it, there was a Christian-Persian guy friend of mine who came and there was an Indian-Hindu girl from Canada who came, and they both said that they each have aunts and uncles in that kind of situation.
Where they had basically separated, but would not tell their families that they had separated because of the loveless marriage, because they wanted to put on a face for the family. They were worried their children wouldn’t get married in the community that they belonged to if their parents were divorced. They were no longer together, but they were pretending to be.
“Dirty Paki Lingerie” was launched near the 10th year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, was that intentional?
The show really took off in July. Around the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it really felt like it was time to use something, informally, to bring people of different faiths together. The last decade had all been about highlighting our differences.
In the media, and in general, that was sort of the vibe. “Muslims are this, and this, and this.” We really wanted to use the piece as an interfaith piece of work. My Director is Jewish, and I am a Muslim, and we worked on this piece together and talk about how much we both related, as a Muslim and as a Jew, to these kinds of characters. It showed that they were so universal, and we really wanted to highlight that.
Now, we’ve hit the 15th anniversary of the attacks. What has changed for the play in regards to your audience and reception in the past five years?
I feel like five years ago, I may be wrong, but no one really spoke about this hyphenated identity. We didn’t have the language, no one would say “Muslim-American” back then. I was at a theater conference for Middle Eastern artists a few months ago, and we had this whole session talking about whether Muslim-American is an identity.
When we’re casting plays with Muslim-Americans, is it okay to cast someone, who for example, is a Sephardic Jew? Directors and playwrights were seriously discussing this, because they didn’t know what the answer was.

“I feel like five years ago, I may be wrong, but no one really spoke about this hyphenated identity. We didn’t have the language, no one would say “Muslim-American” back then.”

We’re starting to see now that Muslim is a culture, not just a religious thing. During the Lady Liberty Festival, on 9/11, we are doing a series of readings, we are starting with an interfaith prayer because Monica is a minister, I am Muslim, and then we have a lot of others involved who are Jewish and of other faiths as well. Then, we are following up with a series of readings with all feminist, all female-centered female-characters, about the immigrant experience and the hyphenated experience of being American and slash something else, whether it’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or something else.
What do you have to say to the creative Muslim Girl who is reading this interview?
We need a lot more voices in this realm. We need a lot more Muslim women telling their stories. If you don’t tell them, other people will tell them for you. That’s the key. Just start, and keep going.
Don’t worry about whether it’s great or amazing – just put it out there, and it’ll eventually get great and amazing. Just keep going. Never be afraid to take the first step.
With about two weeks left of the Festival, and performances every night, check out the upcoming showtimes and ticket information!
 

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