Meet Val Qaeda, Manchester’s Premier Muslim Drag Queen

There are few people in my own community of queer people that I admire more than Val Qaeda. She is Manchester’s premier Muslim drag queen and somebody that I truly look up to as a pillar of queer excellence. I’ve been lucky to have followed her career and spoken to her over the past few years. In that time she has solidified herself as one of the most dynamic queer artists the UK has to offer. When I caught up with her for our feature for LGBTQ+ History Month she didn’t disappoint. She brought her whit, charm, and phenomenal intelligence to the table as she shed light on what it means to be a Muslim drag queen of South Asian heritage in Britain today. 

Please explain who you are and what you do for our readers

My name is Val Qaeda and I am Manchester’s premier brown drag queen, the Pakistani princess, the Bollywood diva in a burkha, and the Muslim maven. I started drag because there was a lack of representation of South Asians in the gay scene and I hoped to inspire the next generation of drag queens. I feel I have done that and continue to work to represent my community in all that I do. 

Your name is obviously a play on the name of a well known terrorist organisation, was this a response to islamophobic micro/macro aggressions?

Yes, when I started drag I wanted to embrace the part of my life that I used to be embarrassed by and share that with my audience. I left home at 15 and became quite removed from the Muslim community, I tried to assimilate. I tried to conform to white culture. Through my drag name, I was able to embrace my background and turn Islamophobia on its head. By twisting fear and ignorance into a joke and reclaiming an organisation’s name which has been used to hurt me I can control the narrative. At the time Al-Qaeda was quite a big topic in the media. I liked that my name could have humour and shock value. As a Muslim drag queen, it was important for me to show who I am.

How is your art used to process your identity as a Muslim drag queen of Pakistani heritage?

I use my drag to bridge the gap between Western culture and South Asian culture. I do this with the aim of making it easier for Western mainstream culture to understand South Asians and our culture. Essentially it is to show that South Asians aren’t ‘others’ and that desis are not so different. I want to highlight some of the similarities. There’s a lot that happens behind closed doors in South Asian households that I show on stage through comedy.

I aim to open people’s minds and change their minds about us. I’ve always wanted to bridge the gap and let people into our culture. I had to create a space in the British drag market for myself to bring in a wider crowd of queer South Asians into venues. As my following grew I was able to make my work more accessible to both the predominantly White and South Asian audiences and continue to bridge the gap.

Val Qaeda in Muslim dress inspired drag

Recently you weighed in on the controversy surrounding hate directed at Pangina Heals after she eliminated Lemon on Drag Race, do you feel that the queer community is an inherently racist one?

I think the idea of Asian drag is still quite new to the traditional English drag consumer. Asian queens are still trying to find their footing and need to band together. Through visibility and strength in numbers, we can break through and change minds, asserting the presence and existence of Asian drag. I reached out to Pangina to show there is an Asian diaspora in the UK who protect their own and show that we are here behind you. Pangina has come to the UK from Thailand where she’s part of the racial and cultural majority, so I wanted to back her with my tweets to show that the Asian queer community of the UK is supporting her and that we don’t stand for racism. The Asian diaspora in Britain is powerful and we need to assert our voice to protect our own. 

In matters of race, culture, and ethnicity in the queer community how can white people best be allies and combat discrimination within queer spaces?

People who want to be allies should be open to learning and respect what they’re learning. They need to understand that they are students. I enjoy being creative and using my drag as a vehicle to bridge the gap and educate. I obviously focus on uplifting South Asians as a Muslim drag queen and want to help remedy the negativity that South Asians face in the UK. You need to be open to learning and accept that people of colour are not a monolith. Not everyone shares the same views and everyone is unique. Get to know people and learn how you can support them as individuals. Understand when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to listen. Being an ally means not speaking over people of colour. Have an open heart and want to get to know people. 

Val often references South Asian imagery and culture in their drag

Do you identify with feminism? If so explain what it means to you and where you fit into the feminist movement?

Yes 100%, my drag is female impersonation so to not be a feminist would be hypocritical. I aim to uplift South Asian women. Because of this, I don’t direct my comedy or my jokes at South Asian women. As a queen portraying a South Asian woman, there is a line that you don’t cross and it’s important that you maintain respect. This means not treating women as the butt of the joke. South Asian women are very poorly represented and I want to be a part of uplifting and giving a voice to them.

I use my male privilege and my unique position as a Muslim drag queen to show a side of South Asian femininity and particularly Muslim femininity that may not be seen otherwise. One of my most well-known acts involves me removing a burka part way through the number. The idea behind that act isn’t to fetishise the burka but to show my audience that there’s a real person under there. Maybe when they go home and they think about what they’ve seen they’ll think about the fact the hijabi on the street is more than her scarf too. 

Do you feel that queens are mouthpieces for feminism, I know that there are women and particularly transwomen who participate in drag. How do you view this and your relationship with AFAB and trans queens?

Drag is a conversation about toxic masculinity, where would we be if we denied the position of women (particularly transwomen) the ability to participate in a culture that impersonates women. Transwomen like Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought for the rights of all our community at Stonewall. We need to pay that forward and fight for the protection of trans queens. The whole point of drag is to push the boundaries. Everyone is welcome to take part in drag as long as we’re ensuring that the historic significance of drag is understood along with its power. Drag is not just about impersonating a woman or man, to me, it is a sacred art. As drag artists, we are the pillars of the queer community. It is our job to pass on the history to the next generation. We are a walking talking encyclopaedia of queer history. 

As a Muslim drag queen is it particularly important to stand for a community underrepresented in the media? Obviously Priyanka (of Canada’s Drag Race) has made strides for queer desis but overarchingly the community is widely under represented.

I feel like one of the pioneers along with Asifa Lahore and Blaq Ivory who are foundational drag queens of South Asian heritage. When I started drag I wanted to assert my Muslim and South Asian background. It’s so important for me to be myself and inspire others. What Priyanka has done is really impactful and she has been a massive support for me. She often shares posts about my upcoming gigs and projects on social media. Priyanka is bringing a seat to the table for us all. I hope if I ever have a platform of her size to do the same.

You’re a queen who started working before drag race came to the UK, and before it hit the mainstream success it has now. How do you feel it is changing and warping the art of drag? I know for one that some drag fans expect the same level of budget as is shown on the show.

It has raised the standard to something almost unattainable. The most successful queens that aren’t on TV are the queens with the strongest personalities. These days you need to have the strongest personality to have a chance of standing out. Because it’s so oversaturated it’s really hard for many queens. It is getting harder and harder to be unique and create a lane for themselves. Recently on Drag Race: UK Vs The World Lemon did a split off some stairs. You know next week a queen somewhere is going to jump off a double-decker bus into the splits to compete.

There’s a culture of trying to constantly one-up one another and hurt our bodies in order to be successful. I honestly don’t blame the drag kings and drag queens who are doing. We don’t have a choice, this is how we survive. Every queen puts 100% into what they do. It’s important to remember that drag race money and not on the show money is massively different. Drag race fans should get out there and appreciate all drag, really see what it’s like and love all forms of drag regardless of the budget.

Val is an advocate for using comedy as a way to bridge the gap as a Muslim drag queen

How do you feel queer people respond to you and your religious identity? I assume for many of your audience you’re the only Muslim drag queen they know.

Because I’m not the most traditional or conservative Muslim I feel like my audience see me as queer first before they see me as Muslim. People don’t tend to take into account my identity as a Muslim drag queen. That’s why I infuse Islam and Islamic culture into my drag so much. It might be a hard concept to grasp for a standard non-religious queer person. In my experience, I’ve found most backlash from the Muslim community on social media.

There are some who think there’s only one way to be a Muslim and that I’m going against that. I also know that I’ve been able to bridge the gap between the queer community and the Islamic community. Through my drag on social media, people have been introduced to the queer community. Like I said before, we aren’t a monolith and there isn’t a singular way to be a Muslim.

Please let us know where to find you and how to support you.

You can find me on all social media @ValQaeda and on TikTok @ValQaeda_ where I post videos pretty regularly. Social media is where you can find my gigs. I’m travelling regularly around the UK coming to several major cities. Linked are Val’s main social media accounts. Instagram TikTok Twitter YouTube Linktree

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