Muslim women comedians find it's harder to get laughs in the US than in West Asia.
After touring the US and the Occupied Territories, professional stand-up comedienne Maysoon Zayid has formed an impression that might upset some Western expectations: It's easier being a female stand-up comedian in West Asia.
Calling the US comedy world “more misogynistic”, Maysoon, a Palestinian-American, says her gender didn't seem to be a factor in the West Asian countries she's performed in. “In West Asia, I didn't feel anybody was surprised when we were going to be on stage,” she says, adding, “Nobody addressed the issue that we are women. They just saw us as comedians.” Eman El-Husseini, a Palestinian-Canadian stand-up comedienne, made a similar observation after a recent trip to West Asia.
An exception to that generalisation is Saudi Arabia, where women cannot perform on stage. But comedy is flourishing in many other parts of the region, particularly in Amman, Jordan, where the Annual Amman Stand-up Comedy Festival includes numerous women. During a recent tour of the Occupied Territories, Eman performed alongside Maysoon, who is reportedly the first person to perform stand-up in Palestine and Jordan.
“In America, when a woman steps on stage, the audience immediately thinks she is not half as funny as men,” says Maysoon. “So we have to work thrice as hard just to get them to listen to us, and I cannot figure out why that is.”
In stand-up comedy, performers often take the stage in rapid sequence and have only a few minutes to show their talent. In this highly competitive atmosphere, male comedians are often dismissive of women, feels Jordan Elgrably, producer of the Los Angeles stage show The Sultans of Satire, which spoofs the “clash of civilisations” between America and the West and the Arab and Muslim world.
“I have had many conversations with male comedians, and they say often that women are not as funny,” says Elgrably. “It is a very territorial and jealous field, even worse than acting. Comedians are very insecure, so they are always concerned about competition.”
In the face of that resistance, Eman says she finds herself straining more to get laughs out of US crowds. “When you are on stage, people want you to be really funny and are harder on women comics than on male comedians,” she says.
Along with other Arab female comedians, Maysoon and Eman have performed in Qatar, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
Many women in West Asia still need the approval of a male relative before making a major decision. However, since 2003, women have become more visible participants in public life, education and business in the Gulf countries, according to a 2009 Freedom House report. They have also gained more freedom to travel independently, as laws requiring a guardian's permission for a woman to obtain a passport were rescinded in 2009 in Bahrain and Qatar.
Despite other restrictions, it's not considered abnormal when women perform in a comedy show.
Egyptian women may have something to do with that. In the last quarter of the 19th Century, Egyptian women of the middle and upper classes defied social taboos and censure to establish their own film or song companies, to appear on screen, and to direct or produce films. Some of these female pioneers of Egyptian cinema — Aziza Amir, Assya Dagher and Bahija Hafez — left a lasting mark on the country's film culture.
Today, Eman and Maysoon are also blazing trails. This year, Eman, who has been performing since 2006, produced the first annual women's comedy festival called ‘She's Canadian, Eh!' in Montreal to combat the idea that women comedians aren't very funny. “The whole point of me doing stand-up has a lot to do with the stereotypes of being Arab, Muslim and a woman,” she says. “I want to show people that women are funny, Arabs are funny and Muslims can be funny.”
Maysoon, now 36, has been doing comedy since she was 20 and is considered a pioneer for Muslim funny women in the US. Tackling such serious topics as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and terrorism, she is currently a full-time on-air contributor to Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Current TV.
According to Maysoon, many of the problems that concern her don't seem any closer to being solved. “Palestinians are still being oppressed, Arab-Americans are still being discriminated against and Muslims are being vilified. So that part has not changed and that is something I still have to address in my comedy,” she says.
The Arab Spring has added to her material, but it's a subject she mainly reserves for her West Asian audiences. “I think comedy is all related to the audience, and the audience in America is more interested in who I am, my love life, my relationship with the United States, rather than the Arab Spring or Palestine,” she adds.
In 2003, she founded with comedian Dean Obeidallah the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. Held in September, it attracts national and international media coverage of Arab-American comedians, actors, playwrights and filmmakers.
This year, the festival hosted about 40 performers. While dramatic performances were dominated by women, the stand-up comedy section was all-male except for Maysoon and Eman.
There were more women comedians in previous years, but this year a couple of the women were travelling out of the country and unable to perform.
Still, comedy remains a tough field, Maysoon believes. “When you think of your favourite comic, no one says a woman's name. That is something we have to battle.”
By arrangement with Women's eNews.
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