Shazia Mirza’s Weekend Column

The Edinburgh festival has started. I won’t be there. I’m taking a break from the sex, drugs and bigotry.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole life at school. First I was actually at school, then I was a science teacher in an East End comprehensive, and now I’m a comedian.

If Ofsted had to describe the school I taught in, they would say it was a vibrant, challenging, demanding, fastidious school. If I had to describe it, I would say it was like being at Belmarsh. Students would try to escape the lesson through my lab window; and while they were not looking, so would I. I often wished their experiments would go wrong and the lab would catch fire, so I could waste an hour standing in the car park in my lab coat.

Like school, the comedy circuit is also a reflection of life. There are the geniuses, underdogs, loners, waifs and strays, homeless, ex-convicts and racists. I never met this diverse a group of people when I was teaching. Most teachers I knew were alcoholic Guardian readers.

I became a comedian in secret. Noone knew. Not my parents, family or friends. The only people who knew were the people in my audience. But it’s not something you can hide for long. It’s like trying to be a porn star in secret. Sooner or later one of your uncles will spot you.

I was walking to my hotel after a gig in Huddersfield recently when a woman asked me, “It’s a bit of aman’s game you’re in, how do you cope with sexism?” I had to explain to her that, in my case, sexism is like royalty – I was born into it. Once they discovered I was female, I was automatically a second-class citizen. When people say to me, how do you cope with sexism in comedy, I say, “It feels quite normal to me. I’ve never known anything else.”

What has shocked me, though, is the racism and bullying. I never suffered racism in my life until I started comedy. Lazy, self-appointed critics say, “You’re only where you are because you’re Muslim.” Since when has being Muslim ever been an advantage in comedy? How many people do you know who brighten up because there’s a Muslim around? It’s not a hot pant-wearing, nipple-piercing, bong-smoking religion. What an ignorant thing to say; anyone would think I was working for the Metropolitan police. These people are always good entertainment, though, and as a friend of mine once told me, noone ever made a statue of a critic.

People are always giving me advice on what they think I should be. They say, “Shazia, you should be warm, friendly and unthreatening.” This is intellectual language for pink, fluffy bimbo. But it makes them feel safe. Some would feel more comfortable if I were the stereotypical Asian woman. But I’m not. I just want to be myself.

My race is an accident of birth, but being prepared to talk about thisfact seems to aggravate acertainsort of person. Once awhite male comedian 20 years older than me grabbed me by the neck, smashed my head against awall, then accused me of stealing his material on suicide bombers. Isaid, “If I was going to steal material, I’d steal it off someone good, like Richard Pryor.”

It’s OK to talk about being gay, a woman, deaf, black or German. But for some reason it’s not OK to talk about my Muslim background. Anytime I mention this, I am accused of “always talking about it”. Yet this is how I was brought up, and so has informed most things about my life. And comedians talk about life – their life.

Unlike teachers, though, August isn’t the month of summer holidays for most comics. It’s an exhausting, financially draining, crazy month at Edinburgh. For the first time in years I’m taking a break from the asylum but I’m sure the warmth of the Med will get me through. In any case, not having to be the bigots’ dartboard for once will surely be a fringe benefit.