Books Magazine

We Are Lady Parts

Posted on the 03 June 2024 by Cathy Leaves @cathyleaves
We Are Lady Parts
Stuck in the master’s house with the master’s tools.

In the penultimate episode of We Are Lady Parts, it feels like the titular band has finally fulfilled its dreams. They are in the studio of their choice, recording their first album with legendary producer Dirty Mahmood, days away from releasing Villain Era to the public and going on a tour that takes them beyond intimate venues (a Glastonbury slot!). Then Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey) – who has been through it this season, losing her home to London real estate redevelopment and recently turning thirty – meets her idol, singer Sister Squire (played by the great Meera Syal). She fumbles and stutters, trying to express how important this role model was to her development as an artist, how she paved the way for Lady Parts against the odds of a hostile recording industry. Sister Squire remains stoic and holds back from returning the compliments – in her eyes, Lady Parts has had it easier than her, and is squandering the platform they’ve been given, that has always been denied to her, by making “funny Muslim songs” instead of addressing issues of inequality and racism. 

Saira, in the midst of an identity crisis, brings the concerns to her bandmates, who are hesitant to agree with her. To them the idea of speaking about issues that go beyond what they have personally experienced feels like co-opting atrocities for clout. Lady Parts is already radical, and punk, because its very existence makes it so, and their presence in this recording studio, after signing a record deal with a label (ominously the only people we see from the label are floppy-haired white men), and replacing their great friend and advocate Momtaz with a white manager who promises better access (why is that?), already feels precarious enough without ruffling more feathers. After the initial rush of finally reaching their goals, Lady Parts are hitting a glass ceiling – their music is being rewritten by those very same floppy-haired white guys to make it more palatable, and their manager advises against writing songs that go beyond what they’ve already written, because the contract they’ve signed means that the label can sit on the album indefinitely, in full possession of their rights, if they go beyond what they’ve established their songwriting to be so far.
What happens next is stunning. Frustrated and sad, Saira makes an attempt to write a song about what she perceives as censorship and a limiting of her artistic expression. She is in a space that she’s coveted all season: this great recording studio, where her role model once recorded her own songs. But just as she gets to the meat of the song – “I won’t mention the…”, the space turns hostile. She can’t get the words out, they are bleeped out, and the more she tries to speak, the more violently she is rebuked by this space that she’s dreamed about making music in. Even in the absence of other people there, the studio itself and its connection to the establishment: the label, the white manager – Saira is not allowed to speak. The more she tries, the more furious the silencing becomes, until it chokes her and throws her against the studio wall.
The thing that makes this scene so devastating is that Saira never gets to speak the full sentence, but the audience can guess what is being left out here – Saira is being stopped from saying it, and so it is never said on We Are Lady Parts, the show we are watching, and from what I’ve been gathering from reviews, this blank space continues to exist in the conversation about it. It acutely feels like a commentary that works on the meta level too: We Are Lady Parts does not mention what is happening in Gaza, but there is a whole episode about not being allowed to speak. Over the credits of the episode, Rasha Nahas’ Nbeed plays: “And in a river / In a running river / In every country I've been to / Its water extinguishes everything that burns / And there is a girl / There is a free girl / Dancing barefoot on the top of a mountain / With her eyes she sees the waves of the sea”. Rasha Nahas appears in person in the final episode, when we see what Momtaz has been up to since Lady Parts replaced her: she’s created a space where young musicians can perform that looks genuinely like it fulfills the DIY imperative of punk, far away from the censorship of the music establishment. 

The question of how to navigate the establishment without undermining and giving up values permeates the whole season. Saira’s decision to let go of Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), who has been so tirelessly supportive from the start and has tried everything in her power to boost the band is a bitter pill to swallow, even if it leads to Momtaz rediscovering what she loves doing and carving out a meaningful space for herself in the process. Juliette Motamed’s Ayesha spends the season trying to figure out if she should come out to her parents, after being given an ultimatum (ugh) by her rich white girlfriend, a question that comes down to what she wants for herself and what is being asked of her as a role model for other young girls (in one of the many funny but deeply cringeworthy moments of the show, a member of Second Wife, a Gen-Z band that is covering Lady Parts’ song and trying to make their own way after they’ve paved it for them, shows Ayesha queer fanart of her and Saira – a veil that should never be lifted between fans and artists). Anjani Vasan’s Amina, who once again functions as a narrator for the series, stands up to the little microaggressions of her job and writes the inspirational Villain Era (“I'll respond to your email at a reasonable hour” feels like the perfect expression for post-2020 attempts to fight back against the horrors of hustle culture), and figures out that the white folk-singer (shudders) she’s coveting is indeed exoticizing her instead of appreciating her as a person, when it becomes clear that he finds it exciting to be seen as the kind of guy who would date a hijabi. Faith Omole’s Bisma, who is raising a rebellious teenager (a song dedicated to her, Malala Made Me Do It, features actual real life Nobel Prize winning Malala Yousafzai, on a horse-throne), encounters the public’s perception of her as “mummy spice” and struggles with the question of how to live her truth as a black Muslim, of what it means to cover her hair with a hijab, when one is the expression of her Muslim and the other an expression of her Black identity (I can’t think of another show that has the capacity to tackle this intersection, or does it so well). All the characters are balancing demands on them with their own desires, and are navigating a world that is built to make this struggle particularly difficult. We Are Lady Parts magic is in its punk spirit, its heartfelt humour, and ability to find so many moments of glorious reclamation and power.

2021-, created by Nida Manzoor, starring Anjana Vasan, Sarah Kameela Impey, Faith Omole, Lucie Shorthouse, Juliette Motamed.

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