In Burq Off!, Identity Politics Make for Loaded Laughs
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In Burq Off!, Identity Politics Make for Loaded Laughs

Second-generation immigrants' cultural contradictions take the fore of Nadia Manzoor's hilarious, poignant play.

Nadia Manzoor. Photo by Leslie Van Stelten.

Brooklyn-based Nadia Manzoor wrapped her autobiographical one-woman play, Burq Off!, on Sunday night at Small World Music Centre to a full house. Directed by Tara Elliott, the one-woman monologue was gutsy, honest, and hard-hitting—but, most of all, it was hilarious. And that’s something, considering the rather somber subject matter: throughout the 90-minute performance, Manzoor questions, ridicules, rebels against, and battles cultural dogma she experienced growing up in a Pakistani Muslim community in North London.

As the sole performer of Burq Off!, Manzoor assumes more than a dozen identities as she recounts the first 20 years of her life, all throughout rejecting ultra-conservative Muslim values and questioning Islam itself—or at least the way it’s practised by her loved ones.

Manzoor, who both wrote and produced Burq Off!, says her script’s comedic format allowed her to look at her past’s strict culture with a sense of lightheartedness.

“Who will feed your husband if you are floating about in space?” a disappointed Manzoor is told by her father when she announces her dream of becoming an astronaut. “One day, you’ll be a wife and a mother and you’ll make a man very, very happy,” her mother predicts.

Her old-fashioned religious parents were immigrants from Pakistan to North London, and, while they’re far from being fanatics, Manzoor’s story of being caught between cultures—from within her traditional Muslim home to the exciting and free English lifestyle beyond—is full of classic conservative immigrant conflicts. “You will never be British,” Manzoor is told, even as she lives in London. “These people don’t understand you. They don’t understand us.” But, enamoured by all things English, she eagerly allows her white best friend to corrupt her into Western ways anyway.

But her family’s influence is never far. Upon starting university, Manzoor joins the Muslim Women’s Association on campus at the behest of her father. She recalls “29 hijabis discuss[ing] politics over cups of steaming chai, talking about Western oppression against our people.” The women urge Manzoor to don the hijab, calling it the “most empowering piece of clothing a woman can ever wear.” The scene ends with Manzoor musing, “I knew they were my Muslim sisters, but they didn’t feel like family.”

Her twin brother, on the other hand, to whom she was close growing up, discovers fanaticism when he’s pulled into an extremist Islamic group in university. Influenced by the group’s ideology, he disapproves of Nadia’s dress, her relationship with her Irish boyfriend, and scorns her general acceptance of the English culture calling her a “coconut”—brown outside, white inside.

Photo by John Keon.

Following the play, Manzoor stayed onstage for an informal Q&A with viewers eager to get a deeper understanding of making Burq Off!.

When asked about her reasons for sharing her story, she said, “I have always told my stories as a way of understanding myself, my culture and things around me….I have always maintained a journal and been a storyteller.” The initial shows of Burq Off! were a way of healing for Manzoor as she came to terms with her past and the inherent social pressures of the culture she grew up in. “I was extremely anxious during the first few performances, but seeing the audience respond positively and seeing how my story resonated in the current social and cultural context gave me more confidence.”

Her relationship with her family, Manzoor tells the audience, has fully healed now. She happily talks of how her father has changed to become one of her biggest supporters and attends most of her plays. The dynamics of her relationship with her brother have transformed too, she says. It’s no longer as volatile as he has grown to accept his sister’s outlook and has even attended a Burq Off! performance in the UK.

Having played to packed houses in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and in the UK, Manzoor, along with director Tara Elliott, is looking to take Burq Off! to India and Pakistan someday; she was set to perform in Karachi this year, but cancelled in light of the unpredictable cultural climate and security issues.

Additionally, Elliot and Manzoor are also looking at taking Burq Off! to schools to initiate an open dialogue with the youth. “I want to engage with young Muslims and non-Muslims and encourage them to be themselves and to have the courage to challenge the people they care for and love the most,” Manzoor tells the audience.

Considering the topics she covers, Manzoor’s Burq Off! comes at an opportune time when the current social environment resonates with the brutality of ISIS, Islamophobia, and Islamophobia-phobia. Then, here in Canada, there’s the niqab—something Manzoor rejects in Burq Off!—which has taken a life of its own following Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent anti-niqab rhetoric and calls to ban it during citizenship ceremonies.

Manzoor’s view on the niqab—that it’s emblematic of a strain of objectification that could be deemed as one of the root causes of violence against women—is unyielding: “If a woman truly finds it as a means of self-expression then all power to her,” she wrote to Torontoist later in an email, “but to me the idea that a woman needs to be covered perpetuates the myth that women need protection and that too from men—this dehumanizes men as well.”

Irrespective of a response to her political stance, there’s no denying the magnitude of the dialogue Manzoor kicks off with her performance. Burq Off!‘s funny yet nuanced portrait of a life caught between two opposing cultures definitely leaves behind some very meaningful food for thought.