muslim drag queens are finding their voices in the uk

Muslim Drag Queens is a new documentary uncovering the plight that gay Asian men face in exploring their sexuality openly.

by i-D Team and Stuart Brumfitt
12 January 2015, 4:45pm

Asifa Lahore

Muslim Drag Queens, a short documentary made for The Guardian by i-D contributor Kieran Yates, follows 22-year-old Ali (who fled Pakistan where he was persecuted for being gay) as he prepares for his first performance at the UK's biggest "gaysian" night, Club Saathi, and is taken under the firmly mothering wing of the pioneer on the British scene, Asifa Lahore. Whilst homophobia is still a very real problem for many in the UK, for these practising Muslims (who attend mosque regularly), it's a whole different ball game. Yates and her crew record Ali as he gets his first taste of freedom on the gay scene as "Shilpa" (after Bollywood starlet Shilpa Shetty) and shows the saddening abuse Muslim drag queens experience for simply being themselves. i-D caught up with Kieran to find out more. 

How big is the Asian drag circuit? There's Disco Rani and the night in Birmingham, but any others?
Yeh, there's lots of clubs dotted around the UK. Club Saathi is the biggest, which we went to to film along with Club Zindaghi in Manchester and Disco Rani, and Urban Desi in London.

Have these drag queens crossed over with other drag queens on different scenes, or is it very separate?
At the moment it seems really separate, but queens like Asifa Lahore are trying to integrate, and is increasingly being booked for other drag nights.

Do you think they would benefit from meeting more drag queens across the gay scene, in terms of solidarity and numbers?
I think that at the moment the solidarity gained from other queens facing exactly the same hostility is very empowering for them. Obviously, support from the mainstream world makes the point that they are not alone, and that there are spaces where difference is welcomed. But there is something strong - and touching - in the community aspect. They can lean on each other and share stories to people who can empathise completely.

Asifa Lahore seems to be the mother figure of the scene. Ali calls her his "ideal." Can you talk about her role on the scene?
Asifa is definitely a matriarchal figure in my opinion. She's been on the scene for years, and has broken a lot of boundaries, and by doing so has made it easier for queens like Ali to come out. She started her career facing a lot of homophobia from her community but her strength and resilience has inspired a new generation of queens. It's a pretty amazing transition.

Ali and his friend talk of their fears and how scared they are. They're incredibly brave to face this. What pushes them to continue? Clearly it's something that they can't deny and that they get great pleasure from.
I can't speak for them, but from my perspective, being a queen is a source of empowerment for them both. Despite their struggles, what they do is inherently political. They are standing up and being visible. Their defiant reaction to homophobes has been something amazing to witness, because when you're close to them you realise just how hard it can be for them.

Asifa sees it as the responsibility of drag queens to bring greater visibility to the gay Asian community, almost to force the wider Asian community to confront any prejudices they may have. Do you think that's fair, or putting too much pressure on newcomers like Ali/Shilpa?
I think that Asifa is trying to start a conversation - one that seems to be really gearing up in the South Asian LGBT community. At the heart of that dialogue is the idea that none of these gay men should be silenced. I think it's complex, especially when you're close to a group of people who are actively scared at points, but my personal feeling is that by confronting their community they are making the point that they can't be silenced. They can't just be pushed into the shadows - what Shilpa is doing is making the personal political, and Asifa is just trying to make him see that.

How was it spending time with everyone in the film? Do you get a sense that their lives are very tough and that they face lots of abuse day-to-day, or is it more occasional?
I think it was different for each individual. Asifa, is a British Asian who has used the media to his advantage, and has subsequently garnered a lot of confidence from that. It doesn't necessarily mean that he gets less abuse - he definitely gets name-called and online abuse etc. but it means that he's learned and employed coping mechanisms early on. He talks about wearing burqas on buses to hide his identity, and using taxis so he feels safer which are all ways of him protecting himself. However, Shilpa and Rezzia certainly endure hostility more frequently. Both have been physically attacked, Rezzia has had threatening letters posted through her door, Shilpa has been jumped in the street, and both avoid certain areas and spaces through fear. That has almost become part of their lives. They're the scene's heroines, and watching them shrug off abuse - and even agree to be filmed - has been a lesson in heroism I won't forget. Despite everything, they wanted their voices to be heard, they wanted to challenge attitudes in their community. It feels like an exciting moment in LGBT history.


Interview Stuart Brumfitt

Kieran Yates
muslim drag queens