tv review

We Are Lady Parts Rocks Outside the Box

The women of Lady Parts. Photo: Saima Khalid/Peacock

The absolutely delightful We Are Lady Parts opens with a depiction of Muslim life that, at first, looks similar to ones we’ve seen before in film and on television.

A young woman in London named Amina Hussain (Anjana Vasan) sits on a sofa, sandwiched between her mother and father while chatting with a potential suitor, also flanked by his parents. Amina tries to seem like traditional marriage material, but her mother and father keep blowing up the façade. First, they suggest that Amina play a song on the guitar, a notion that her would-be love match views as haram, something forbidden and sinful. Her parents then try to course correct by explaining that, while Amina teaches guitar lessons to children, she never performs onstage. Her nervous disposition, notes her mother (Shobu Kapoor of EastEnders fame), “induces diarrhea and vomiting.”

The Hussains are open-book oversharers and do not care if Amina, who is finishing her Ph.D. in microbiology, gets married or not. It’s Amina, a dreamy romantic feeling pressure from her engaged best friend Noor (Aiysha Hart) to lock down a fiancé, who’s convinced that her self-worth is tied to her ability to land a husband. This is clue No. 1 that We Are Lady Parts, a British series that debuts today on Peacock, will seek to upend a lot of stereotypes about Muslim culture, including the notion that elders are uniformly fixated on marrying off their daughters against those Westernized daughters’ wishes.

Clue No. 2 arrives loudly and brashly when we drop in on a rehearsal with Lady Parts, a fierce all-female, all-Muslim punk band determined to win a spot in an annual competition called Sound Smash. Immediately we can see they have talent as they tear through one of their originals, the cheekily titled “Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me.”

“I’m gonna kill my sister,” screams the sneering, serious front woman Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), “This ain’t about you!” Saira is the one who decides that the three-piece band, which also includes drummer Ayesha (Juliette Motamed) and bassist Bisma (Faith Omole), really needs a lead guitarist. Clearly Amina’s path will intersect with these women and she will somehow become that guitarist, diarrhea and vomiting be damned. That inevitability does absolutely nothing to diminish the energy and joy of watching We Are Lady Parts from beginning to end.

Series creator Nida Manzoor — who also co-wrote and directed the six episodes, and co-wrote the original songs with siblings Shez Manzoor, Sanya Manzoor, and Benni Fregin — has said she was inspired by This Is Spinal Tap and the classic ’80s comedy The Young Ones while working on this. Those anarchic influences come through, amplified and clear. We Are Lady Parts also may remind some viewers of the culturally specific sensibilities of more recent shows such as Ramy and Never Have I Ever. Like the latter Netflix series, We Are Lady Parts makes clever use of narration, though this time the POV and voice belongs to the awkward, charming Amina and not John McEnroe.

What We Are Lady Parts reminds me of most, though, is Fleabag. Even though the subjects and characters in these British series diverge significantly, Manzoor’s work, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s, has a rom-com lightness, a decidedly female gaze, and embraces fun without seeming frivolous. For all its familiar touchstones, We Are Lady Parts also feels like something I haven’t quite seen before, in the same way that Fleabag felt.

We Are Lady Parts takes all the clichés about women in hijab being uniformly submissive or oppressed and immediately kicks them to the curb with the toe of a Doc Marten boot. Take the band’s manager, Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), the most enigmatic character in the series. Shrouded always in a niqab that obscures everything on her head and face except for her eyes, she also wears spiked bracelets, fingerless gloves, may or not have committed arson at one point, and vapes frequently, blowing puffs of smoke through the fabric of her veil. When she’s not trying to get gigs or publicity for Lady Parts, she’s working at a lingerie store and asking customers if the kind of bra they are seeking falls in the “recreational, titillational, factual, respectful, shag-me-kind, or shag-me-hard” category. The fact that we never fully see Momtaz’s face does the opposite of reinforcing tired assumptions about Muslim women; instead it makes us curious to find out more about her.

Manzoor photographs all of these women lovingly, sometimes in slow-motion sequences that are almost Tarantino-esque in their emphasis of how badass they are. While the interior life of each band member is explored, ultimately the series is defined by Amina and her conflict between being the good girl she believes she’s supposed to be and the liberated rocker she becomes every time she strums an electrified chord. Vasan absolutely shines in this role. Her wide, vulnerable eyes project utter panic when she’s playing Amina’s bumbling insecurity for laughs, but are just as convincing when she’s going for genuine heart in a scene. She also has lovely chemistry with Zaqi Ismail, who plays the handsome Ahsan, Amina’s unrequited crush and the brother of Ayesha, who is as impatient with him as she is with most things and humans.

Another major We Are Lady Parts asset is its music. The band, whose name winks at the more bluntly titled Pussy Riot, doesn’t make corporate-sanctioned punk cranked out of the Disney factory. Lady Part’s songs, both the ones written for the series (“Voldemort Under My Head Scarf”) and their covers (a killer version of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”) are rousing and authentically rough. Between We Are Lady Parts and Girls5Eva, this is a real moment for music created for fake all-girl bands on TV.

What’s so special about this series is that it’s impossible to pigeonhole anyone or anything in it. While all the members of Lady Parts can be described as anti-establishment feminists, it’s also accurate to say that they are people of faith. In the fifth episode, Saira, the one most invested in the group’s success, wakes up one morning and washes her hands in a bathroom lightly graffitied with, among other things, the anarchy symbol. Then she goes into her bedroom, kneels, and quietly prays toward Mecca. Like her bandmates, she gets off on rolling through a wild set in front of an audience. But she’s also defined by her religion, along with many other facets of her life and experience. You can’t fold any of these women into a tidy little box, because they will inevitably burst through those constraints. We Are Lady Parts affords us the pleasure and privilege of watching them break out.

We Are Lady Parts Rocks Outside the Box