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‘We Are Lady Parts’ Creator Nida Manzoor Explored the Gray Areas in Season 2

Photo: Saima Khalid/Peacock/NBC Internatiional/C4

Spoilers follow for the second season of We Are Lady Parts, all six episodes of which premiered on May 30 on Peacock.

The first season of We Are Lady Parts concludes with a literally pitch-perfect ending. After Ph.D. student Amina (Anjana Vasan) spends the season torn between her self-imposed modesty and her desire to be lead guitarist of punk band Lady Parts, finale “Sparta” delivers delightful wish fulfillment: Amina joins Lady Parts members Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), Ayesha (Juliette Motamed), Bisma (Faith Omole), and honorary fifth member and manager Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse) onstage at a DIY show, and the group of female Muslim punks revels in their friendship and slight fame. If the series were to have finished there, it would have been a ferocious-but-fuzzy fairy tale that put a distinct spin on a comedic coming-of-age formula.

It’s good that it didn’t. In its second season, We Are Lady Parts is still earnest, still celebratory, and still committed to aspects of Muslim womanhood that normally don’t get attention in mainstream pop culture. But the season also interrupts Lady Parts’s upward trajectory with the big question that also hung over The Runaways, Rap Sh!t, Glitter, Girls5eva, and so many other stories about female musicians trying to make it in the music industry: Can they retain their individuality, or is selling out inevitable?

Lady Parts ends up squeezed on both sides: by a white-male-run record label that wants to change their sound and by their musical icon Sister Squire (Meera Syal), a fellow Muslim punk rocker who dismisses Lady Parts’s music as “funny” rather than weighty. Where season one was about the joy of finding companionship and camaraderie, the second season — which series creator, director, and writer Nida Manzoor says she didn’t have in mind when writing the first — is about the challenge of staying true to yourself in the face of increased scrutiny from both inside and outside your community. The path forward for Lady Parts isn’t as traditionally hopeful as in the preceding season, but Manzoor says it was directly inspired by the experiences she and this season’s writers’ room of Muslim women had while trying to break into the upper echelons of their creative field.

You’ve said, “You can’t write jokes when you feel responsible.” I’m wondering if there was a specific scene or character interaction this season that felt most difficult from a writing perspective or that changed because of that feeling.
I think I was different writing season two than season one, if I’m honest. In season one, I think I was still battling my own self-doubt, whereas in season two, I had accepted that there was no way to please everyone, and I was following my own instincts — and also being open to what was happening within my writers’ room. I had the confidence to be more receptive. In season one, I was much more trying to control it. The collaboration was less deep because I was trying to hold the reins and make sure it was right and do the right thing. In season two, there was a lucidity to the writing and the creation of the stories and the character arcs. I didn’t feel that same kind of angst I did in season one, I think from being more experienced but also being so much more supported. I trusted my producers, my story editors, people who are shaping the world with me, and even my studio, not to interfere. All those relationships were in place.

Is there an example of something born from the writers’ room that you felt open to?
There’s been quite a few things. There’s that question of success, and how do you do what you want and speak your truth whilst also entering this very commercial system? It was something I wanted to do, but I was galvanized even further by my writers’ room, a group of six Muslim women from very different backgrounds. Anytime we all disagreed or there was a heated discussion, it was like, Oh, this is something. This is interesting. There being a rival band was something that came out of our writers’ room as well as this feeling that we had all kind of absorbed, that there was only room for one woman Muslim creative; there wasn’t room for all of us.

After season one established the band members’ personalities, season two gives each their own stand-alone story outside Lady Parts. How did the writers’ room tackle that?
I would come into the writers’ room with story ideas already kind of preformed, and say, “Let’s go, let’s discuss, let’s build.” I had gone character by character, and I also listened to what the audience said about the characters. For example, with Bisma in season one, I realized that people just see her as the most put-together, wholesome character. Everything seems to be in order and in place for her. For season two, I was like, How can we upend this? Let’s shake her to her core.

We thought about what for each of these characters would shake them to their core. For Ayesha, wanting to explore more deeply her love story and being queer and being Muslim and the tensions within that — we had all different points of view that informed that story line. And Momtaz being this kind of enigma was something that I love and I think is so fun, and I still decided I didn’t want to show her face. A lot of people say, “In a real group of women inside, in a house, she would take off her niqab.” That’s true, but I just really want the audience to love her without seeing her. You can see someone in a niqab, and they aren’t this alien “other”; they can be a character who brings you to tears. Again, that was a decision in my writers’ room. Not giving away what she looks like but still allowing the audience to love her felt really, really important.

As someone raised Muslim, I’m used to coming-of-age stories that include some aspect of shaking off that you’re Muslim: You take off the headscarf, you tell your parents about your relationship. But at the end of the season, Bisma hasn’t made a decision about whether to take off her headscarf, and Ayesha tells her girlfriend she’s not ready to come out. Those choices feel pointedly like, We’re not going to give you what you might expect from these stories. 
Not choosing to come out, I felt there was a truth to it that I was seeing reflected in the queer Muslims I know in my community and who are close to me. It’s not always so simple, and one of the questions as I was grappling with that story line is, What if she never wants to? What if that’s her truth, and actually the labor of doing that with her parents is something she chooses not to do? There’s so much shame around if you choose not to come out, and I just wanted to allow Ayesha to go there and explore those feelings and be empowered in her decision that it might not be the right time for her.

Similarly with Bisma’s story line, there are so many intersecting things about her: her individual experience of being the only Black woman in the band, but also a mother, and the perceptions that have been put upon her. To give her a clean-cut answer would be just so untrue to the discussions that were coming out of my writers’ room. This idea that your identity isn’t fixed; it’s nebulous, it moves, it shifts all the time. It can be one thing one day and be something else the next day, and that doesn’t make you any less Muslim or any less whatever your identity is.

In season one, when the influencer journalist publishes her piece about Lady Parts, Saira says, “All we had was our integrity, and it’s shot in the head.” Then in season two she becomes the person who might be messing with the band’s integrity by pushing them to write an explicitly political song. How did she become the conduit for the battle over the soul of the band?
I found it most interesting to give it to her, because as you said, in season one, she is the integrity. But in season two, from doing more research speaking to bands, we talked about how it’s so hard to earn a living. We see Saira lose her home, and the band are down and out. To achieve being the band she wants to be, she has to sell out in other ways. We see her having to do a photo shoot or sell mascara, engaging in capitalism with brand sponsorships. She’s in such a tight spot where she’s basically being told, “You can be your dream band. You’ll get paid, you’ll get a record deal, you don’t have to sell stuff and play a wedding. You’re going to get paid to be a band, like a real band.” It’s less the allure of grand fame and more that it’s impossible to exist as a DIY punk band and make money.

I spoke to this incredible Black feminist band in the U.K., Big Joanie, and each of them have proper jobs on the side and do their punk stuff when they can. They’re playing Glastonbury, they’re playing big gigs, but they’re still unable to live off being a band. It was a real lived experience that I’d absorbed from my interviews. I thought making Saira lose everything and her being the one to drive this record deal would be the most interesting way of exploring that question.

Photo: Saima Khalid/WTTV LIMITED/PEACOCK/C4

I’m curious about how much what Saira goes through is influenced by what you have gone through. In interviews promoting We Are Lady Parts and Polite Society, you talked about being prodded to include more predictable or stereotypical aspects of Muslim life within your work. In season two, Lady Parts rankles at being described as “Zeitgeist-y,” and you’ve talked about being described as “Zeitgeist-y.” How meta did this story line become?
To some degree there is that meta element, and I do get a level of catharsis from it. Being “Zeitgeist-y” feels like it’s temporary, of the moment — but then, no other moment? Early on in my career, I was really faced with having to choose between what I perceived as my own integrity and getting a job. I was asked to co-write something about Muslim women, which was horrible, and I was brought on to rubber-stamp this thing. But it was a really big writer and I would get a credit, and I remember being like, I really need to work. I’m about to have to give up on my dream of being a screenwriter. And I remember considering it because I was kind of desperate. That is something I wanted to explore, the truthfulness of how difficult it is. The music industry is different, but that was definitely something I’ve experienced and I really wanted to bring that to Saira. And how Saira grapples with this idea of being in a “funny” Muslim band writing “funny” songs — I love comedy, and comedy is my go-to way of expressing whatever it is that I’m feeling. But I also feel that comedy is undervalued as an art form; drama is held in this high regard and comedy is seen as inconsequential, and that was something I worked into the Saira story line and something that I’ve also felt. Ultimately, I disagree. I love comedy, I think it is powerful. But it’s something that I’ve grappled with.

I’m fascinated by Sister Squire criticizing Lady Parts for not using their voice in the right way. Were there different versions of that character before we see her pop in to destroy the band’s entire sense of self?
She did evolve as I was writing it. In one iteration she was much more this figure that is all inspirational, You go, girl, and it just felt a little bit empty. To be honest, I’ve been Sister Squire’d by an artist from an older generation who wasn’t just one-dimensional. There was so much complexity to what she’d been through, of not having the opportunities I had. She’s an artist who has a tremendous ego — which is so great, because you don’t get to see women of color having that ego — and there was encouragement but bitterness but love; all these shades and all these nuances and all these contradictions that I was receiving. I felt like this is much more an interesting and real portrayal of someone who’s been through it. It was tough for me, but it was 100 times harder for the generations before to have even tried to break through. And so it would have been a disservice somehow to make Sister Squire just a “you go, girl!” figure. She needed to be her own artist and have her own ego, to have her own anger and rage but also love. She’s not the perfect hero; she’s problematic in ways. I needed her to occupy this gray area because it just felt more interesting and more true.

Are you willing to share who that person was?
No. It definitely was not Meera Syal, who has been so encouraging and so lovely. She was my comedy hero. She was in a British comedy sketch show that came out in the ’90s, Goodness Gracious Me, and it was the first time I’d seen a South Asian woman be so funny. That show was so subversive and witty. She’s not Sister Squire; she is a kind, generous figure, and getting to honor her on the show was amazing. It was so weird because she was playing this character who was very intense and negative, but her on set was the most joyful experience of my life.

There was about 60 percent of me that was like, Sister Squire’s right, and Lady Parts should be commenting on more serious things. And then another 40 percent of me that thought, But isn’t the freedom of what they’re doing tied to their ability to say and do what they want? How much did you want to leave us with the sense that Sister Squire might be right?
I didn’t want to give the audience the answer because I don’t have it. And just like you, every time I watched that scene in the edit, I would feel differently. I would be like, No, she’s totally wrong. They should be speaking their truth, and then I would swing the other way. Whenever I end up with a question mark, I’m like, Cool. I’m happy to leave it at that, because it’s for the audience to then have to make their own minds up. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m preaching or delivering a sermon about anything; instead, just posing the question.

In that scene, the band refers to a list of “atrocities” affecting Muslims around the world that Saira comes up with, but none are specifically named. Did you consider actually putting in a list of things that the band would comment on?
In the writers’ room, as we were discussing it, it was like, if you go specific, it makes it about the issue, whereas actually, this is really from the artist’s point of view, and that’s all they have. To just flippantly mention a huge atrocity, and not actually go into the specifics of that atrocity, for me, didn’t give the proper due that any form of Muslim suffering would deserve.

When Saira tries to sing a song she’s written about her conflicted feelings on all this, after singing, “I could be your puppet, mouthpiece, window dressing,” her next line is garbled by a static sound effect that drowns out her voice. How did you decide on that sound design?
We played around with using a redacted line, but the blur was more menacing because it was almost as though her mouth had been morphed shut or slammed shut. We tried different versions of VFX of how that blur could work, and that one felt the most sinister. I had experience doing wire work after Polite Society, and there was something about the brutality I’d learned from using those wires to really pull and drag characters across the room that I thought would be such a great way to show how Saira is feeling — like she can’t be the artist she wants to be or say what she wants to say, through this very visceral force that’s pulling her and pushing her around. It’s a testament to my sound design team, who I worked with on Polite Society and season one; Jay Price at Halo is my sound designer. He created the soundscape using a lot of metallic sounds. All the times you hear Saira be silenced, it’s actually still her voice, but it’s being warped this way and that way.

It reminded me of The Matrix, when Neo’s mouth melts over.
Oh my God, Roxana, that was our main reference. I was like, “This bit in The Matrix — how can we get it to sound in this world?

There’s a scene in the third episode where Lady Parts are talking about a fashion photo shoot and whether it’s good that a company has Muslim representation when they could still be using sweatshops to create their work. The larger question seems to be, “What does representation achieve when we’re faced with large-scale injustice and inequality,” which is something I personally struggle with. I wonder if your thoughts on the value of representation have changed over time, when we’re dealing with ongoing systemic issues that sometimes feel impossible to take on.
I struggle with that. I think the reason why it’s in the show is because I don’t know, and I don’t have the answer. Moment to moment, day to day, I feel differently. Maybe it’s still good to see us on the poster and get to see that we’re there, to show other artists coming up that actually, you can take up the space, your voice is important. Creating and feeling seen in a way that I know I didn’t as a child, as a youth, is so meaningful in how you feel about yourself and your own internal self-worth. But that said, when you drill down into those questions of, What is this company I’m supporting? Who are they? Who are they using?, then you’re like, Maybe we should just completely tear away from that, you know? I think I’m just stressed about it, which is why I put it in the show. Again, it’s that gray area where you can argue both sides, and I can convincingly argue with myself and go in circles, and that’s what’s interesting.

The season ends with Lady Parts blowing up their record deal and reuniting with Momtaz, and Saira walks through the collaborative space Momtaz has opened for her artists and is moved by all the creative energy. How did you decide upon the artists that are featured in that sequence?
I have a close friend of mine who really inspired the character of Momtaz. Her name is Saima Khalid Sai and she creates these spaces. I remember going to one of her events; she runs them with her brother. They’re called Makrooh; between halal and haram, there’s makrooh. It’s this amazing safe space for Muslims from different backgrounds to come together and create art and express themselves in a very supportive, loving environment. Seeing the world she built was very, very inspirational for me. I wanted Momtaz’s world to feel like a cave of wonders, this really intimate space where it’s small and unassuming but also really vibrant and magical and full of art.

The three main artists featured in that space are people I was listening to while I was writing the show. Elaha Soroor is the first artist you see, and she’s this incredible Afghan singer. She’s had to flee Afghanistan, and I wanted to honor this artist because she is brilliant. The second artist you see is Haleemah X, a rapper from Manchester, she’s someone whose gig I went to. She’s Pakistani Jamaican and she brings all her culture to bear in her work. And the last artist we see is Rasha Nahas, who is this incredible Palestinian singer-songwriter. I was listening to her on repeat whilst I was writing the show, and to get to give her this moment, when her music has been so influential on me, was really cool.

This season asks Lady Parts what the path forward is for their band and for punk at large, and the answer seems to be Momtaz’s artists’ collective. Maybe the return to grassroots events and playing for each other is what success could mean.
I think so. We’re in a world where this idea of the American dream is what is told to us as the ultimate success. We’re being told we should seek outside validation. But when you think about where you derive your joy, is it from fame, or is it from those intimate moments where you get to express yourself in a safe space and feel seen? I think the answer is the latter.

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