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

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Between 2012, when the sitcom “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 haven’t exactly been awash in Muslim women.

“It’s definitely few and far between,” said Nawaz, who made what’s 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 teenage Pakistani-American superhero, but “women in hijab, like, you’ll see one popping up here and there in ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or different cop shows,” she said during a Zoom call.

“There are very few shows out there with Muslim women as leads, for sure, which is why I’m working hard to get this show off the ground and other shows off the ground.”

“Zarqa,” an engaging comedy about a divorced Muslim woman who decides to one-up her ex-husband when she hears he’s marrying a much younger white woman, presented a new challenge for Nawaz: she not only wrote and produced it, she plays the lead character despite never having acted before.

And no, it’s not autobiographical. The 54-year-old mother of four is still happily married. “Everyone’s sending me tweets going, ‘Oh you’re such a brave woman to be raising four children alone,’” she laughed.

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

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

Zarqa Nawaz, the creator of "Little Mosque on the Prairie," stars in her newest show, "Zarqa," as a divorced woman trying to get even with her ex with the help of brain surgeon Brian (Rob van Meenen).

She also wanted “to explore that whole issue of divorce because I’ve had a lot of friends who are divorced, and that whole universality of feeling like you’re not valued anymore and you’ve been replaced … It just tied in perfectly to this idea that I would be a vengeful woman and try to get back at my ex.”

In real life, Nawaz’s husband really stepped up when she was making “Little Mosque,” which ran from 2007 to 2012 on CBC. He shifted to part-time work to take care of the kids in Regina, Sask., the youngest of whom was in Grade 1, while Nawaz spent six months at a time in Toronto making the show.

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

How she ended up being 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 writing the plays as a kid at Muslim camp, she planned to become a doctor, a dream of her Pakistani immigrant parents.

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

But it didn’t satisfy her creative itch.

A friend pointed her to a three-week, short filmmaking course at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) and her five-minute film, a satire on terrorism called “BBQ Muslims,” was accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival, which led to more short comedy films, 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, which is where she pitched the idea that would become “Little Mosque”; CBC came on board 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 United States and endorsed by super producer Shonda Rhimes, no less — and wanted to get back into TV.

Zarqa Nawaz's second novel, "Jameela Green Ruins Everything," was released in Canada in March.

She decided to “‘Seinfeld’ my way back in by doing standup comedy” and was doing well until the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to live shows.

But with the help of “Little Mosque” writer Claire Ross Dunn and actor-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 that Canadians can’t do sitcoms,” she said.

That’s certainly not the case today. But beyond making her latest contribution to the burgeoning field of Canadian TV comedy, Nawaz is interested in laying the groundwork for other women of colour to make their own shows.

Making “Zarqa” was a fantastic way to learn “the nuts and bolts of production” and how “to run my own production company,” she said.

And don’t bet on it taking another decade before you next hear about Nawaz in connection with a TV show.

She hopes to adapt “Jameela Green” into a series. If that happens, the woman in the hijab definitely won’t just pop up in the background.

“Zarqa” debuts May 13 on CBC Gem.

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

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