Ahem, that should actually read “Award-winning Comedy Duo”! If you aren’t familiar with the ‘Shugs & Fats’ web series, now’s your chance. The show stars creators Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz, who combine their individual experiences growing up in conservative Muslim families in a way that seeks to break down negative stereotypes about Hijabi women in a comedic setting.
“At once a cultural commentary and slapstick comedy, ‘Shugs & Fats’ navigates the absurdities of social conformity through the curious, loud-mouthed perspective of two veiled women,” says the description of the series on its website. Nadia plays Shugufta “Shugs”, a 20-year-old enthusiastic millennial, while Radhika is her distant relative Fatima, also known as Fats.
Covering a range of topics including speed dating, immigration, patriotism, and 50 shades of grey, Nadia and Radhika’s voices are a much needed respite away from the tired, narrow and angry narratives we are bombarded with in regard to Muslim women in newsmedia. Nadia is a former practicing Muslim, and although Radhika hasn’t ever been Muslim, she is familiar with the cultural and religious restrictions having grown up in conservative India.
Although the show started in 2014, both women have been performing and writing their own comedy for a number of years. Nadia grew up in London with her Pakistani family, and Radhika traveled all over India living on army bases with her family. Nadia had been performing her one-woman, 21 character show ‘Burq Off’, where she explored the juxtaposition of her reality: modern London mixed with conservative Pakistani culture.
Radhika is the author of a memoir called ‘Unladylike’ which details her upbringing struggling over decisions about sex, religion, puberty and marriage. She too had her own stand-up show, so between the two women, there was plenty of material and commonality to be used for creative fodder when ‘Shugs & Fats’ was launched.
At a time when Muslims are being demonized in the political sphere thanks to inconsistent, unintelligent and divisive rhetoric from Donald Trump, we need to see nuanced, balanced and compassionate voices from within Muslim communities speak out and reclaim their own narratives. With roughly 1.8 billion Muslim people of faith in the world, it is time we stop allowing mainstream media to characterize them in a monolithic way.
‘Shugs & Fats’ follows the lives of Nadia and Radhika as they base themselves out of Brooklyn, NY, “walking the line between hipsters and hijabis”. In a recent op-ed for Lenny Letter called ‘Hijabis not seen on TV’, the women explain why their series is important, with plenty of hilarity throughout the piece.
“Gender norms were explicitly binary and unquestioned. Daddy brings home the bacon (or Halal beef, in Nadia’s case), and Mummy stays home and takes on every domestic duty there is. Even if she does work, her reason for living is to support her family — and never herself,” they explain about their backgrounds.
“Fortunately, we were able to sidestep the inevitability of living like our mothers by redefining these roles for ourselves. Now we perform comedy routines intended to provoke and challenge the ideologies we were raised on. We speak up about how women can and should be in charge of their own destinies.”
Nadia and Radhika also talk boldly about how they are using their platform to talk about feminism in a distinctly Muslim setting.
“This show is a massive f***-you to the notion that women belong in the shadows. It’s our attempt at humanizing Muslim women, because that’s what they are. Humans. This is a show about “oppressed women” leading the way. We haven’t always been feminists, but now that we are, we have become loudspeakers for our newfound beliefs, and we rant and rave about our journey into the #thefutureisfemale light at any given opportunity,” they write.
Nadia says she grew up seeing her brother empowered with the idea of taking on the world, while she was taught not to gain weight or show her skin in public. The horrific rate of honor killings on Pakistan were also a distant threat that she learned came from women not knowing their place in society, essentially.
Radhika mentions that it is different in India, but it has its own gender problems. Sex-selective abortions are common, and many women still need “permission” from the men in their families to do anything in public, let alone stay alive, she said. The devastating gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012, as laid out in the must-see documentary ‘India’s Daughter’, exposed how the rapists decided what they did was right (still to this day) because the young, unmarried woman was out at night with a male friend who was not her husband, brother, or father.
Neither of the comedians grew up with prominent women in their lives leading the way for or inspiring feminism, as any woman who did think outside the conservative cultural norms were considered outcasts of sorts.
“We don’t come from a history of outspoken female voices, especially not in comedy. I think this is why there is a different degree of risk in what we do — being South Asian female comedians is still very revolutionary — because for the most part women don’t expose themselves. There’s a very big risk in that, the risk of bringing shame on our families, and fear of how our communities are going to respond,” said Nadia.
But with people like Malala Yousafzai -“she literally took a bullet because she wanted to go to school” – and Qandeel Baloch – “she took bikini selfies and had a thriving Instagram account, was killed by her brother for her open expression of sexuality” – discussions about feminism in the South Asian and Muslim communities are gaining ground, especially because of social and digital media giving voice to women that previous generations did not have access to.
Nadia only started identifying as a feminist after moving to Boston to study social policy and work at a domestic violence shelter.
“Now I had ways to understand and express my frustration at basically being sexually objectified my whole life and told to cover up so as to not tempt men! It was then that I became committed to women’s rights,” she said.
Radhika’s realization came after writing her stand-up show.
“Until then I hadn’t articulated how deeply I felt the gender disparity,” she said.
After not being able to find interesting, complex and nuanced female Muslim characters in the media they saw, the duo realized they had to create them on their own. They wanted to see themselves reflected back in entertainment and have Muslim women given the same equal treatment when it comes to character creation that, for instance, white men easily adopt. There is no single, stereotype associated with white men in entertainment, whereas Muslim women are, generally speaking, offered a much narrow narrative to operate out of.
“I’m a Muslim who freestyles and dances hip-hop — but where’s that person on TV, in movies, anywhere? Then how are we supposed to know that these people exist? On one hand, you have images of the oppressed and burdened wives of the Taliban, who are hidden behind closed doors and closed burqas, and on the other hand you have the onetime porn star Mia Khalifa, who broke the Internet giving blow jobs while wearing a hijab,” said Nadia.
“The timing of this show couldn’t be better. With Trump, we are all fearful of increasing hate toward marginalized communities — which is why we feel the urgency to depict diverse characters that are rarely seen on TV,” she added.
She says Muslim women are often depicted as the victims, people who don’t have the capacity to determine their own lives or make their own choices. While that is certainly the case for some women, she admits, it is a delicate balance not to swing the complete opposite end of the spectrum, either.
“We don’t want to encourage the Islamophobes, but we want to shed light on our experiences and reflect on the traditions that have shaped us, while also being respectful of them,” said Nadia.
Their message is working well so far, having won the 2015 IFP Gotham Award for Best Short-Form Breakthrough Series, and being featured at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Media coverage from NPR, Refinery29, The Hollywood Reporter and MTV has solidified ‘Shugs & Fats’ as a comedy web series not to be ignored. With 3 seasons of hilarious episodes to choose from, we decided to embed episode 6 from season 3, where they comment on Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ and the nudity in the show.
“It’s Shugs’ favorite show, but Fats is a little uncomfortable with Lena Dunham’s nudity. Why can’t women just make themselves desirable for a man’s pleasure once in a while?” says the description: