Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz

I hadn’t heard of Shugs & Fats before but now I have, and they sound amazing.

Growing up, comics Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz never dreamed that they would one day co-star in a sketch-comedy series about two women in Brooklyn.

“Being onstage was something that I could’ve never imagined,” Manzoor, who grew up in a Pakistani-Muslim community in London, tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “The only time I thought I was going to be onstage was as a bride; that’s how Pakistani women were on stages.”

But now, in the Web series Shugs & Fats, Manzoor and Vaz (who grew up in India) play immigrant roommates whom they describe as “walking the line between hipsters and hijabis.” Manzoor is Shugufta “Shugs”, a 20-year-old enthusiastic millennial, while Vaz is her distant relative Fatima, also known as Fats.

“[Fats] is in her mid-40s,” Vaz says. “She’s got these very conservative views about marriage and that’s what she keeps trying to put on Shugs all the time.”

Though Vaz is not Muslim and Manzoor is no longer a practicing Muslim, their characters in the show are Muslims who wear hijabs. Manzoor says the hijabs are a visual reminder of the challenges the characters face as they try to reconcile their cultural and religious beliefs with speed dating, catcalls and other aspects of life in Brooklyn.

It’s a great interview; I recommend listening.

From the transcript:

GROSS: So there’s a sketch where Shugs gets her period. And Radhika, do you want to describe what your character does in response?

VAZ: Sure. You know, that really comes from experience that I’ve had first-hand in India because it’s – you know, in the Hindu culture if a woman has her period, she doesn’t go into any kind of place of worship; she doesn’t go into the kitchen; she doesn’t come in contact with – you know, depending on how conservative your family is – to this day and even in cities – the fact is a lot of this stuff is still very much to taken into consideration. So it was something that we both wanted to do. And I think the idea of a woman having her period just – a lot of people know – it’s such a normal thing. But oh my God, it’s made into such a big thing. We have to keep it so secret and all of that – so Fats, obviously, coming very much from that point of view.

The moment Shugs comes out complaining about having, you know – oh, I got my period and my stomach hurts, Fats just quarantines her. She wants – so we’ve taken it to an absurd level of, you know, you have your period, you’ve got to be quarantined. So we have – do not cross the line – you know, police tape and, you know, the episode has hazmat suits and all kinds of – it’s like a – you know, it’s like she’s disposing of a bomb, basically.

So, tell us about puberty.

GROSS: Nadia, when you were growing up in [the UK], being raised by Pakistani Muslim parents, was there a dividing line in the amount of freedom that you were allowed as a girl versus as a young woman? And if so, what was the dividing line?

MANZOOR: A lot of the conflict that came as a result of me growing up was a lot about how I presented myself physically in comparison to my twin brother. So as I started to hit puberty, I became very aware that I had ankles and wrists. And those were always supposed to be covered.

I wasn’t supposed to show the contours of my body, so wearing tight-fitted clothing was a total no-no. I wasn’t supposed to be forward with men or look men in the eyes, not shake men’s hands. And my sexuality really became the forefront of my awareness and existence, which is very different to when I was a young kid. Growing up with my brother being allowed to, you know, run around in the mud and go on BMX tracks and just be a kid and be free, it really started to hit me when I hit puberty. And it was the dividing line was really around my sexuality.

[Shudder] Puberty is so horrible for girls. That’s when you realize how the world sees you, and how it differs from the way you see yourself. You’re not allowed to run around and be free and just be a person any more – you’re not just yourself any more, you’re what people see.

GROSS: So what did that do in terms of how you felt about your own body and about your sexuality?

MANZOOR: You know, I definitely – I think it made me much more self-conscious of my body, frankly. I – you know, walking down the street, I was always very aware of the male gaze or people looking at me and always trying to cover that. And as a result, I think it really affected my confidence.

Honestly I think that’s true of all girls, not just girls in modesty cultures. There are degrees, certainly, but girls are doomed to self-consciousness. In “the West” there’s bound to be a huge amount of self-consciousness coming from the opposite direction: the pressure to be hot, to be sexy, to be gorgeous, to be “empowered” through “owning” your “sexuality” which actually means your hotness in the eyes of the consumer. Manzoor says that at the end of that segment of the conversation.

And, you know, I think that’s typical of just, you know, women in general of how beauty is supposed to be the number-one standard of how we’re measured and because I think that was just reinforced in my home context and in the, you know, cultural context of just beauty.

It’s a lose-lose situation.

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