TV writer Zarqa Nawaz creates stories that challenge stereotypes about Muslim women

Between 2012, when the sitcom “The Little Mosque on the Prairie” went off the air, and today, as Zarqa Nawaz’s latest TV series is about to debut, our small screens have no not really been inundated with Muslim women.

“It’s really rare,” said Nawaz, who directed what is described as the first sitcom about a Muslim family in the Western world with “Little Mosque” and whose web comedy “Zarqa” premieres on CBC. Gem Friday.

She mentioned “We Are Lady Parts,” the British comedy about an all-female Muslim punk band, and “Ms. Marvel,” the upcoming series about a Pakistani-American teenage superhero girl, but “women in hijabs, for example.” example, you’ll see one pop up here and there on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or different crime shows,” she said on a Zoom call.

“There are very few shows with Muslim women as protagonists, that’s for sure, that’s why I’m working hard to get this show and other shows off the ground.”

“Zarqa,” a gripping comedy about a divorced Muslim woman who decides to marry her ex-husband when she learns he is marrying a much younger white woman, presented a new challenge to Nawaz: not only did she writes and produces, but she plays the title character despite having never acted before.

And no, it’s not autobiographical. The 54-year-old mother of four is still happily married. “Everyone sends me tweets saying, ‘Oh, you’re such a brave woman raising four kids on your own,'” she laughed.

The show was inspired in part by reviews of the 2017 film “The Big Sick,” in which white actor Zoe Kazan played Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani’s love interest.

“There were all these angry thoughts about how Hollywood treated women of color when it came to romantic comedies. And I just thought it was hilarious,” Nawaz recalled.

She also wanted to “explore this whole divorce thing because I’ve had a lot of friends who are divorced, and all this universality of feeling like you’re no longer valued and you’ve been replaced… is just perfectly related to this idea that I would be a vengeful woman and try to get revenge on my ex.

In real life, Nawaz’s husband really stepped up when she was filming “Little Mosque,” which aired from 2007 to 2012 on CBC. He transitioned to a part-time job caring for children in Regina, Saskatchewan, the youngest of whom was in grade one, while Nawaz spent six months at a time in Toronto doing the show.

“It was a really tumultuous time in my life,” she said.

How she ended up becoming a TV writer in the first place is a story that wouldn’t be out of place in its own sitcom.

Although Nawaz was always the one who wrote the plays as a child in a Muslim camp, she planned to become a doctor, a dream of her Pakistani immigrant parents.

She earned a science degree at the University of Toronto, but her grades weren’t high enough for medical school, so she pivoted to the journalism school at the former Ryerson University (now the Metropolitan University of Toronto) and won a valuable internship with legendary CBC journalist Peter Gzowski.

But that didn’t satisfy his creative itch.

A friend referred her to a three-week course in short filmmaking at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) and her five-minute film, a satire on terrorism titled “BBQ Muslims”, was accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival, which led to more comedy shorts, which led to a serious documentary about patriarchy within Islam called “Me and the Mosque.”

The National Film Board paid for Nawaz to take the doc to what was then the Banff World Television Festival, where she pitched the idea that would become “Little Mosque”; Radio-Canada joined us and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to 2019: Nawaz had finished her second novel, ‘Jameela Green Ruins Everything’ – just released this week in the US and endorsed by super producer Shonda Rhimes, no less – and wanted to return to television.

Second novel by Zarqa Nawaz, "Jameela Green ruins everything," was released in Canada in March.

She decided to “‘Seinfeld’ my way doing stand-up comedy” and was doing well until the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to live broadcasts.

But with the help of “Little Mosque” writer Claire Ross Dunn and actress-director Elizabeth Whitmere (“UnREAL”), Nawaz successfully applied to the Independent Production Fund for seed money to make “Zarqa “.

Back when “Little Mosque” first aired, “I remember being told Canadians couldn’t do sitcoms,” she said.

This is certainly not the case today. But beyond her latest contribution to the burgeoning field of Canadian television comedy, Nawaz wants to lay the groundwork for other women of color to create their own shows.

Doing “Zarqa” was a fantastic way to learn “the inner workings of production” and how to “run my own production company,” she said.

And don’t bet it’ll be another decade before you hear about Nawaz on a TV show.

She hopes to adapt “Jameela Green” in series. If this happens, the woman wearing the hijab will definitely not appear in the background.

“Zarqa” debuts May 13 on CBC Gem.

Debra Yeo is an associate editor and contributor to Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of conduct. The Star does not share these opinions.