Sex, religion and politics collide in 'Dirty Paki Lingerie'

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Aaron Schachter: Pakistani American Aizzah Fatima has brought her one-woman play to all sorts of venues in recent years. Yes, New York and London, but also to Turkmenistan and Pakistan. That, despite the fact that even the title offends some. It’s called, “Dirty Paki Lingerie.” In the play, Fatima explores what it means to be a Muslim Pakistani woman in America these days. She says she decided to write the piece because she was fed up with the roles available to South Asian Muslim actresses.


Aizzah Fatima: I was just tired of auditioning for “terrorist #2’s girlfriend” all the time, and so I started developing these characters, and I just thought there was a human side to this experience of being a Muslim American woman that was completely missing in the media, completely missing in the types of characters we see in film, TV, theatre.


Schachter: What does it say about you that you weren’t getting roles for the girlfriend of “terrorist #1”?


Fatima: I know! That’s the thing I hear. They’re like, “You’re not trashy enough.” It’s like really ridiculous kinds of things you hear sometimes in this business.


Schachter: So, what is “Dirty Paki Lingerie” about?


Fatima: I describe the play as sex, religion, and politics as six Pakistani American Muslim women air their dirty lingerie.


Schachter: And where does that get us?


Fatima: It’s basically stories of these six characters that range in age from a six-year-old girl to a 65-year-old lady, and it’s a series of monologues that comes together, and each character is dealing with a different issue, be it issues of sexuality, identity, religion, culture, racial profiling, and bullying.


Schachter: Now, you profile, as you say, six different characters, from a woman who wears a veil and also adores sexy lingerie, to a mother searching for a husband for her daughter, which is a pretty funny one. Why don’t you give us a taste of it? Maybe the character Selma, who’s a 22-year-old American Pakistani.


Fatima: “When I first started covering my hair, my parents thought I would never get married! They didn’t think any guys here would like me if I covered my hair! My dad was like, ‘(?), it is not safe for you to cover your hair with all that is going on!’ And my parent’s friends are like, ‘Aw, she covers her hair...  And she is friends with the black people! What good family would want her to marry their son?’ And then they complain it’s racist here, and how the food is too bland!”


Schachter: Now, that’s your character, Selma. You call her a “hijabi feminist.” What is that?


Fatima: All the women I know in America who cover their hair, they do it to assert their identity and tell the world who they are. So, that character was kind of born out of a frustration, a personal frustration of mine, where you constantly see Muslim women who cover their hair in the media as victims or abused. So, I wanted to portray Muslim women, especially women who cover their hair, the way I know them to be: activists and feminists, and very outspoken, and go-getters.


Schachter: I wonder who this was for. Was this for fellow Muslims to see themselves, or was it for the rest of America to see that Muslim Americans are just like them?


Fatima: Yeah, well it started off the other way around. I wanted to create this for just fellow Americans to normalize Muslim Americans; to be like, “Hey, we’re just like you.” And it was actually a big challenge, when I first started doing this play, to get the Muslim American community to support it, for various reasons, like the title being the biggest barrier I think--in the beginning, at least--and that’s really changed.


Schachter: I wanted to ask you about that, because this title, “Dirty Paki Lingerie,” that word, “Paki,” is really derogatory, especially in Britain, where from the ‘70s on it was used as a slur for almost anyone of color, of South Asian origin. How is that going down among the community, and is there a difference in America and Britain?


Fatima: Absolutely. So, in America the word doesn’t mean anything. It’s just like a short--like saying you’re a Brit, or a Scot, or a Paki. But here, it’s been a big challenge. I’ve had theatres program the show and then drop it because they were worried. We were in Bradford, which I think is one of the poorest cities and the largest concentration of Pakistani people in the UK, we were performing there and there were definitely people in the audience who had an issue with it, and they were vocal about it, yet they still came to see the show. Also, for as many people who have dropped the show and not programmed it, there have been just as many people who were like--in Britain, in particular--who were like, “Hey, oh, it’s ‘Dirty Paki Lingerie’? Great. Bring it. We want to create a conversation around this.’”


Schachter: I’m always interested in whether you feel like the experience of Muslim Americans is still different somehow from non-Muslim Americans. Do you know what I mean?


Fatima: Absolutely. Look, I think it’s just historically, right--it’s whoever the newest waves of immigrants is in America, has kind of faced a lot of trials and tribulations, whether it was Jewish people, or Japanese people, or--


Schachter: Irish people, Catholics, everything.


Fatima: Irish people, Catholics, everything, right? So, we just happen to be the latest wave, and I really hope in my lifetime, 30 years down the road, we’re able to look back at this time and say, “Hey, now we’re beyond it,” we’ve moved on, we’re just like everybody else, everybody sees us in that light.


Schachter: Pakistani American Aizzah Fatima is on tour through the UK with her one-woman play, “Dirty Paki Lingerie.” Aizzah, thank you so much.


Fatima: Thank you so much for having me.