″The Diary of a Hounslow Girl″

Bursting the bubble

British Pakistani actress, playwright and comedian Ambreen Razia is currently touring the UK with her acclaimed one-woman play ″The Diary of a Hounslow Girl″. In it, 16-year-old Shaheeda talks non-stop about running away, her mother who does not understand her, a fight with her friend on the bus and a messed-up Pakistani wedding. Ambreen Razia spoke to Thomas Baerthlein about being a Muslim girl growing up in London, the struggle with ″British identity″ and the importance of Sadiq Khan′s election as Mayor of London

Shaheeda, the “Hounslow Girl” in your play, seems full of contradictions: she wears a hijab and frequents the local mosque, presumably for some kind of religious class – but she also smokes weed and has a boyfriend who doesn′t seem to be Muslim. Why is she called a ″Hounslow Girl″ and where did you get the idea for this character?

Ambreen Razia: I first discovered that term when I was in college. I was with a friend and we saw a girl with a hijab. She was on her phone and was quite loud and she was wearing very tight clothing. And my friend turned around and said, ″Oh my days, look at that Hounslow girl!″ And from there, it was something I wanted to look into, ″Well, what is a Hounslow Girl?″ Having done some research, I realised that it has become a stereotypically categorising name for a young British Muslim girl growing up in the UK, particularly London, trying to balance two co-existing worlds – trying to stick to her traditional values while assimilating into UK society.

What audience did you have in mind when you wrote this play?

Razia: I always wanted it to go out to a very wide audience because I feel that it′s a character that has yet to be tackled on our stages and screens. But I did work with young women between the ages of 12 and 16. Before the acting and writing, I was facilitating. I met a few young girls who were young mums at the age of 14 and it was them who really inspired me to write it. So I suppose my initial target audience was young women who are coming of age.

There is another stereotype these days about young Muslim girls which is related to the girls who run off to Syria. The only time terrorism comes up in your play is when Shaheeda is asked in school about her plans for the future – and she says she wants to become ″a terrorist″. It is a joke, she′s just competing with her friends to come up with the most outrageous answer. But could it become serious if she were in other company? How does she -– somewhat religious, very angry, desperate for adventure, naive and quite confused – differ from those teenage girls who go to Syria?

Razia: I feel one link between Shaheeda′s character and those girls is that perhaps she could have gone that way because of the lack of love she received at home and also the lack of communication. I think that is what it ultimately stems from. It′s just that her life turned out differently because she became a young mother at the age of 16 – which could be considered by some communities to be just as shameful! It is all about individualising stories about young British Muslim girls and not having to go down the political route all the time.

Was that one of your motivations, then, to offer a voice that hasn′t been heard much?

Razia: Yes. When I heard the term ″Hounslow Girl″, I thought ″I′ll get in there before reality TV discovers it and make her question everything″. She is very strong, she is bold, she is confident. She may be struggling, but she′s basically just a normal teenage girl. I suppose with the kind of struggle she goes through, a young, strict Catholic girl could be going through the same thing. I think when you have those two worlds and you are trying to balance them, it can be very difficult. So that part of my motivation: give a young British Muslim girl a voice and make her quite raw and edgy, as well as like any other sixteen-year-old.

″Integration″ is a big issue in the immigration debate. One common perception about the British Pakistani community is probably that it is less well integrated than other immigrant groups. In the play, you keep quoting the sentence ″you may be British, but you′ll never be English″ – summing up the experiences of the older generation of Pakistani immigrants. Is this something you heard a lot in your family?

Razia: No, I haven′t heard that personally, but I did ask a group of young women of that age who come from different ethnic minorities whether they are proud of their British identity. And half the room said ″no″ and the other half said, ″I don′t know what that is″. So I suppose that′s something I really wanted to tackle – ″What is being British?”

Now a British Pakistani, Sadiq Khan has been elected the Mayor of London. How important is this in your opinion?

Razia: I knew this was going to come! I think it′s very important! Personally, I don′t know much about politics. But just to see that diverse voices are coming to the forefront makes me really happy. Because that′s essentially what I′m trying to do as a writer, to bring out those unheard voices. In whatever field it is, just hearing a range of voices means that we are moving forward.

Is that your vision of a British identity – that it allows for different voices, different experiences?

Ambreen Razia performing in her one-woman play "Diary of a Hounslow Girl" (photo: Richard Davenport)
Embrace the future: "Maybe young British Muslim girls will come and watch 'The Diary of a Hounslow Girl' and think, ″We don′t have to be perfect. We don′t have to be this or that. We can mess up and we can be young… and things can go wrong″"

Razia: I don′t know – I think if you come from a different background, British identity may be something you′re always going to struggle to identify with. Though it′s great when new voices emerge, I don′t know whether it moves us any closer to our British identity. And I don′t think we have to.

So you think this obsession with ″identity″ is maybe not really necessary?

Razia: Because I have worked with young people, my mission is just that I would like young women to come of age comfortably. And I think identity can be a big issue when you come of age. But then I also think your identity can be something you create yourself. Like you can be a Londoner, or you can come from a certain town. This constant striving for a British identity – personally, I know I am a British citizen, but it can be very difficult because I know I have a Pakistani heritage as well. It is a good question – can we ever like fully integrate? The main thing is finding your own identity, just knowing who you are is really important. I don′t think it necessarily has to be related to being British. I think it′s maybe just about embracing your two cultures, being comfortable with who you are as a human being and being proud of wherever you′re from. Being proud of where you are, which is Britain, but also being proud of your roots.

Do you have any vision or hope for the next generation of Shaheedas? In ten years from now, what will life be like for British Pakistani teenagers?

Razia: They are going to be parents, aren′t they? I hope that it gets better and that my generation has all the open-mindedness of fourth generation young British Muslims. I just want young women to be able to think for themselves: I know some backgrounds are more oppressive than others. But maybe young British Muslim girls will come and watch ″The Diary of a Hounslow Girl″ and think, ″we don′t have to be perfect. We don′t have to be this or that. We can mess up and we can be young… and things can go wrong.″ They have the same hormones and the same energy as any other sixteen-year-olds – it′s just about bursting that bubble of expectation which surrounds them, integrating them into the world of other sixteen-year-olds and showing them that these emotions and hormones are absolutely normal and fine.

How have audiences reacted to your tour so far?

Razia: I′ve had really positive feedback! There was an imam in the audience a few weeks ago and he was up on his feet and was clapping! I spotted him during the show and I′m not going to lie, part of me was thinking, ″How′s he going to react?″ But actually he loved it!

Thomas Baerthlein

© Qantara.de 2016

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