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World: Comedy No Laughing Matter For Muslim Comediennes

Stand-up comedy in the West is still very much a male-dominated business. So when a Muslim woman stands up on stage to make jokes, it can take audiences by surprise. And when she wears a hijab, the effect is even stronger.

Prague, 13 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Three weeks after suicide hijackers flew planes into New York's World Trade Center, a young woman dressed in a hijab went on stage in a London comedy club.

"My name is Shazia Mirza," she said. "Or at least that's what it says on my pilot's license."

The shocked audience finally laughed -- and a career was born for Mirza, the woman who became famous as the world's first female Muslim stand-up comedian.

Mirza's fame grew. But two years passed before she told her Pakistani-born parents about her new career.

"I used to be a teacher, and so they just thought I was teaching and they didn't know," Mirza said. "And then one day I was going to appear on a big program in England, which 8 million people watch. And I thought, 'Well, I'd better tell them because they might see me.' So I told them I was going to be on this game show and they watched it. And my dad was really proud afterwards. He said, 'Oh my God, my daughter has been on a game show!' But what he didn't realize was that I'm a comedian and I actually do that for a living."

Now her parents know the whole truth about her new career. And Mirza, an observant Muslim, says they hope it's only temporary.

"It's not part of our culture to sort of go on stage and for women to make a fool of themselves," Mirza said. "It's just considered a really low thing to do. I don't think it's ever going to be acceptable. But now that I'm sort of doing well, my parents think, 'Oh well, she's doing well. I hope she grows out of it and gets married soon.'"

As her career developed, Muslim life was often at the center of her comedy routines. She once joked about having her bottom pinched at Mecca, Islam's holiest site -- it must have been, she said, "the hand of God."
"I don't want to be known as a Muslim comedian. I want to be just a great comedian, and that's what I want to be, and so I don't want to be pigeon-holed and to be just one thing, ever." -- comedienne Mirza.

Perhaps it's no surprise that some of her fiercest critics have been from Britain's Muslim community. She was even attacked on stage once by a group of Bangladeshi men.

But she brushes off the criticism.

"You can't get everybody to like you," Mirza said. "So what if some Muslims didn't like it? So what? It's never going to stop me [from] doing it. It doesn't bother me."

Mirza owes much of her fame to jokes about life as a British Muslim woman and the West's largely negative perception of Islam.

But now, she says, she's eager to make a change.

"I don't talk about being Muslim anymore [in my new comedy material]," Mirza said, "I don't talk about being Asian, I don't talk about being a woman -- because I don't want to be known as a Muslim comedian. I want to be just a great comedian, and that's what I want to be, and so I don't want to be pigeon-holed and to be just one thing, ever."

But for now, many people will label Mirza as a female Muslim stand-up comedian. It's a tiny category. But it's starting to grow.

Tissa Hami, from Boston, said she began her career because she was upset by the negative images of Islam and veiled Muslim women that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

"People just thought, 'Oh my goodness, they're so oppressed,'" Hami said. "And I thought, 'What if I went up on stage veiled and started talking about these things that people are scared about?' Things like airport security, terrorism. I thought it would be a great way to capture people's attention and to break the stereotypes."

So a year after 11 September, the Iranian-born American donned a hijab and started telling jokes in comedy clubs.

"In a mosque, the men pray in the front and women pray in the back. Most people see this as a sign of oppression of women. But really we're in the back because we like the view. And we're praying for a piece of that!"

Like Mirza in the United Kingdom, Hami is not universally popular.

"I have received hate mail," Hami said. "My parents -- from people they know and sometimes from people they don't know -- get comments like, 'What is your daughter doing? Why is she doing this?' So I certainly do get the negatives. But what I find encouraging is I get many more positive responses than negative ones."

Hami -- who doesn't wear the hijab offstage -- said she wants to keep challenging prejudices through performing, writing, and speaking.

But as yet, she has no plans to go full-time as a comedienne. She still has her day job -- as an admissions officer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.