Her religious twin brother, her Islamic teachers, her first boyfriend, and the man who presented her with his three sons for her to choose her husband from – Nadia Manzoor plays 21 characters from her life in her comic, one-woman autobiographical show Burq Off, which she is bringing to London next month.
“I play the strongest influences in my life,“ explains Nadia, who grew up in Borehamwood and went to Radlett Infant School before going to a local all-girls schools. “I portray my life as a young girl until I am 20 years old, and show the constant struggle of what it means to be a Pakistani Muslim girl growing up in the West.“
Nadia, 31, started writing about her life five years ago and shared her work in her writing group in New York, where she now lives.
“People were fascinated with the story,“ she says.
“I’ve always loved doing characters and impersonating people. When I read the memoir to my writing group, they were compelled by hearing me tell the story, with all of my accents and voices.“
The book became Burq Off, a combination of storytelling, theatre, dance, stand up, monologue and dance that takes you on a journey through the ‘world of the burqa and the bikini’.
“This is serious social commentary and there is also the very real story of a girl who isn’t accepted by her family, and ultimately what she needs to do in order to be accepted by herself.“
Nadia was born in Chicago and moved with her family to Singapore and Dubai before they settled in Borehamwood (“It was where my father felt the western world was most civilised“), where Nadia experienced myriad conflicts of identity, sexuality and culture, growing up in her conservative Pakistani family while being desperate to belong to the culture and society around her.
She was required to wear loosely-fitting clothes – the accidental uncovering of an ankle inside the house was ‘haram’, or sinful – and contact with boys was forbidden or carefully monitored.
“We were raised with a lot of restrictions,“ says Nadia, “and with little explanation for these restrictions. When I was young, it was more geared around instruction into what it means to be a good Pakistani woman: small, dainty and someone who didn’t make a lot of noise. These things never defined me though.
“As I got older, I wasn’t allowed to talk to boys, I wasn’t allowed to go out. I could see my friends when they came to my house. I think it felt more rigid to me because I lived amongst the English who, as far as I could tell, didn’t face any of these limitations or rules.“
Nadia started to rebel – in her mind at least – from an early age.
“When my hair was long my aunts would tell me to cover it up or hide it or I’d burn in hell,“ she remembers. “My father taught me that real women have long hair and wear long, flowy skirts that don’t show your contours. So I cut my hair short when I was 13 and cut my pants too and secretly wore shorts in my room and danced to Janet Jackson.“
Nadia and her twin brother started to grow apart as they found themselves at opposite ends of this cultural conflict – while she rebelled, went to university and made a name for herself as a writer and performer in the United States, he immersed himself in Islam and adopted far more hardline views.
“When we were 20 and at university, I started drinking and fell in love with an Irish Catholic,“ says Nadia, “while my brother got involved with a fundamentalist group and started to be repulsed by every part of me. We were operating on opposite ends of the spectrum.“
The situation grew so bad that Nadia left the UK when she was 22 – her mother passed away and her brother had stopped associating with her after the family found out about her boyfriend. Her father agreed to let Nadia go to the US for a year to study. (The boyfriend secretly went with her.)
It was there that she discovered her love of writing and performing and, five years later, started work on the memoirs that would become Burq Off.
The show has sold out all its runs in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Nadia plans to take it to Dubai, India and Toronto after London. But it’s the response of two people in particular, which has meant more to her than any other plaudit.
“My dad is now the biggest fan of the show and one of my best friends,“ Nadia reveals, “he’s been to almost every performance. This show has been remarkably healing for our relationship, in ways I could never have imagined. He’s super proud.“
The other person is her twin, who still lives in England and abandoned his religion and conservatism a few years ago.
“He came to see the show in the first run in New York City. It was very surprising and touching to have him there. I didn’t know he had seen the show until afterwards, and I was a crying mess.
“I don’t think we’ve ever really healed as siblings over some of the pains in our life and we are emotionally quite distant now, which has been very hard for me to come to terms with. I’m very attached to him and I love him a lot, but sometimes relationships need space and times for things to settle, and I think that’s what is happening.
“It’s been quite shocking how my immediate family has all moved from traditional thinking and adopted a more open-minded and secular worldview.“