Across the UK, many young British Muslim women struggle to get their voice heard. The sometimes conflicting pressures of combining two cultures a challenge for the adolescents.
Ambreen Razia’s debut play takes a witty yet straight-talking look at the typical life of an aspirational 16-year old “Hounslow Girl”. As the show prepares for a UK tour, Razia spoke to Glen Pearce about the process of creating the play.
The Diary of a Hounslow Girl sees a young woman trying to reconcile her British and Pakistani heritage. What was your approach and reason for creating it?
Before getting into acting, I worked as a facilitator, working with a group of young girls between the ages of 12 – 16 in a project called Raised Voices. It was a project where we tackled issues like FGM [female genital mutilation], teen pregnancy, stuff like that, and then we created a short film and toured it around the borough. So I had a year to get to know these girls, who were incredible young women but also not the most well-behaved young women. So yes, they inspired me a little bit to write a show based on a 16-year-old girl and the reason why she was Muslim is because I combined basing it on them and also some of the characters that I knew at school and some of my friends that I had at school who were Muslim. That’s kind of where Hounslow Girl came from and also it was to give myself a platform into the industry as well, because I found that when I came out of university I desperately wanted to work. But there’s a big for lack of roles for Asian and black actors.
So is it hard to write a character like her without resorting to stereotypes?
No, not really, I think because I had such a good year to conjure up a load of research before I even started writing it. It’s sort of semi-autobiographical, in terms of the characters I’ve met at weddings and some of the people that I’ve known in the past, but, at the same time, it’s not really particularly based on my own experiences but based on a lot of people I know and their experiences. I guess it’s all coming from real places and real people.
I mean it’s real life. There’s nothing really made up about it, even though it looks quite bold. There are young women out there who are like that.
You’ve said it’s based on real life. What’s been the reaction from other girls from the same background?
It’s been so positive and that’s what’s been so great about it! On my opening night at Ovalhouse there were three girls in the front row and they all had hijabs on and were what you may class as “Hounslow girls”. I looked at them and my throat just closed up and I was like: “Oh my God – what are they going to think?” Actually, at the end they came up to me and said “thank-you” and that they’d really, really loved it and they’d enjoyed it because it’s nice to see a character unravel in front of you, particularly if you’re not able to express your feelings or what you’re going through openly. It’s nice to see a character make all the mistakes for you and to give young women all over the country – and all over the world – a voice.
You’re touring the show to some locations that are perhaps less ethnically-diverse than Hounslow. Do you think it’s a universal story? Will non-ethnically-diverse audiences react the same way?
Definitely! I think that the themes that are tackled with in the show are universal. There’s nothing political attached to it or anything like that. It’s about a young British Muslim girl coming of age. Particularly women – I think every woman will be able to relate to it. Everyone’s been 16 at some point so in terms of that it’s very universal.
Also I’m really looking forward to touring to those areas as well. There’s certain references in the play that people might not necessarily be familiar with. But I suppose it’s quite interesting to have a character that you wouldn’t normally see walking down your street come to that area.
The show originally started out at Ovalhouse in 2015. How’s it developed since then?
It’s gone through a lot of development in terms of the script. I’m writing with a dramaturg at the moment. I suppose that at Ovalhouse we got such an overwhelmingly positive response that I just wanted to bring out certain things that could have been brought out more, take away certain things that didn’t necessarily work in the initial draft. A lot more has been brought out in terms of the relationship she has with other characters in the play, for example, her mother – that’s been brought out a lot more now. Again, that’s a very universal thing, the relationships that people have with their parents and how open they can be at that age – what they can say, what they can’t say.
This is your debut script as a playwright. What drew you to writing?
Initially, I just wanted to tell this story about a young, British-Pakistani 16-year-old, a strong leading character. But it also came from the fact that just wanted to get back on stage again! For me, as a writer, after having written Hounslow Girl, my passion comes from wanting to tell untold stories. Wanting to expose characters that we don’t necessarily see on our stages and on our screens, but they walk past us every day. Characters that you wouldn’t necessarily think exist, but they do.
These days the arts are facing tough times and there’s a lot of talk of programmers looking at “safe programming”. What’s your view on the state of new writing at the moment?
I think new stories need to be told all the time. I think there are people who are sitting there with scripts and stories and there are stories that need to be told from certain artists, who have either come from a certain community or a certain culture or a certain social class. More stories just need to be told and space needs to be made for those stories. There are some fantastic plays that are timeless and we do need to have those plays on but I do think that there needs to be more room in the arts for new writing. That’s what ultimately creates accessibility for people who can’t – or won’t – go to the
There are some fantastic plays that are timeless, and we do need to have those plays on, but there needs to be more room in the arts for new writing. That’s what ultimately creates accessibility for people who can’t – or won’t – go to the theatre and watch Shakespeare. Having worked with young women between the ages of 12 – 16, if you told them “We’re going to see Hamlet.”, they’d be like “Oh that’s boring!” There just needs to be more stuff that people who can’t access the theatre can relate to.
This show’s being toured via the Black Theatre Live initiative, which brings culturally diverse productions out on the road. Is that something that more producers and venues should be doing to encourage that diversity?
100%! Not necessarily from a cultural perspective but even certain working class stories that still need to be told. I know we’ve got classics like A Taste of Honey and stuff like that, but there are new working class stories that need to be told. I have a huge passion for working class stories. I think Hounslow Girl falls under that as well. And Black Theatre Live are terrific – they encourage and promote that work all the time.
So what’s next for you?
In terms of the writing side, I’ve just finished writing my comedy sketch show, called The Raz & Deep Show, which is networking on The Wall of Comedy in which I’m collaborating with an actress called Mandeep Dhillon – it’s a bit Goodness Gracious Me, Smack the Pony style and I’m currently working on my new play which is about the comeback of gang culture in the UK, and again just getting those sorts of stories out there.
The Diary Of A Hounslow Girl tours the UK 4 May to 18 June 2016
Image: Talula Sheppard