British TV network Channel 4 just aired an hour-long documentary called Muslim Drag Queens, and police are on alert to protect the performers who appear in the video from any death threats following its presentation.
Narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, the hour-long film features three of the nation’s self-identified “Gaysian” drag performers, including the glamorous Asifa Lahore (aka Asif Quaraishi). In her Youtube videos, Lahore dons a burqa and sings “Punjabi Girl” (to the tune of “Barbie Girl,” of course.) She also performs Parvati Kahn’s 1982 song “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja”, a Bollywood standard which was made internationally famous more recently by the singer MIA. (Sample lyric: “Don’t tell me that you’re busy / Your loving makes me crazy / Don’t try to make me angry / I’ll start swearing in Punjabi.”)
But it’s not all fun and games for the performer. Quaraishi has been the target of death threats, some of which he reads aloud in the film: “You think I don’t know who your Mum is? Who your dad is?… I will kill you with my own hands.”
Quaraishi has been quite vocal about saying how supportive police have been, and he told the BBC that he regularly keeps them updated on his whereabouts. When asked why he continues performing when he has to constantly look over his shoulder, he explains that he’s doing this for other gay Asians and Muslims living in the UK: “I’m brave enough to talk about it publicly,” he told the BBC. “And what I represent is hundreds and thousands of people up and down the country who can’t be themselves.”
But when questioned about how drag and Islam can exist together, he doesn’t seem bothered. He told The Guardian: “I fast, I pray, I believe in one god, I give to charity, I’ve been on pilgrimage. All I do know is I exist. I’m gay, I’m Muslim, I’m a drag queen, I’m British, I’m a Pakistani.” Zareena Khan, another Muslim drag performer featured in the film, compares herself to Catwoman, who switches identities at night.
The documentary is based on a short film made for The Guardian last year by Kieran Yates, a British Asian journalist who has been extremely vocal about her disapproval of the Channel 4 documentary, which was brokered without her knowledge or involvement. She explains on her Tumblr: “The fact the story was told the way it was, and the director was able to get to access these people and spaces, was solely thanks to my understanding of the culture, as a minority very close to it… the central point that should be made here is just how crucial it is that minorities are allowed to tell their stories. It’s our capital. We have emotional attachments to how we experience the world, and our stories, from positions of authenticity.”
But for McKellen, the openly gay actor who plays Magneto in the X-Men movies, the film was a revelation. “I’m ashamed how little I know about drag and trans and areas of being gay that I’ve not been part of,” he told The Guardian. “It makes me begin to understand what it was like 20 or 30 years ago about simply being gay.”