One of the last things many people might expect a Muslim Pakistani-American woman to do when she takes the stage is crack a joke, openly talk about smoking weed, or say that she is gay. Conversations about South Asian women in America are more usually limited to topics like early marriages, abuse and oppression. If the woman happens to be Muslim, fundamentalism and terrorism are often added to the narrative.
As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie summed it up: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
A bunch of young Muslim Pakistani-American women, however, are now completing that picture. Not only are they pushing the boundaries on how desiMuslim women are perceived, but they are also encouraging the audience to have a good laugh while they are at it.
“Nobody expects Muslim women to be artists, let alone comedians,” says New York-based writer/performer Aizzah Fatima, who gave up a sparkling career as an ads engineer at Google for a stage career. In fact, it was her frustration with the limited range of roles offered to her – primarily those of a refugee or an abuse victim – that led her to produce Dirty Paki Lingerie, a one-woman comedy show about Muslim women reconciling their ethnic identities with their American lives.
“The idea was to show people the diversity within ‘brown women’. We laugh, cry, scream and act silly just like the rest of them,” Fatima says. In the show, she plays 20 different characters ranging from a hijabi feminist caught between her commitment to Muslim culture and her desire to wear sexy lingerie, to a mother searching for her daughter’s suitor in the local newspaper’s matrimonial section.
The show demonstrates that Muslim women are stereotyped by society, but part of the problem begins at home. As Fawzia Mirza, a Chicago-based actor/writer/producer says candidly, few Pakistani parents encourage their children to be artists. “We come from a conservative culture that, for the most part, does not look at being an artist as something to aspire towards,” says Mirza who has produced several documentaries and performs regularly onstage. “There’s no guaranteed income and there is a chance that people might talk badly about you, so there’s a negative impact on your reputation. Also you are [thought to be] bringing shame upon yourself, your family, your ancestors, and probably even your unborn child,” she adds jokingly.
Mona Shaikh in performance: ‘I couldn’t care less what my parents thought.’ Photograph: Supplied
Comedian Mona Shaikh’s family moved from Karachi, Pakistan, to the US when she was 15. When she expressed her desire to pursue stand-up comedy during her teenage years, her parents’ worries included “what people might say, how I would ever get married if I entered this field. But I couldn’t care less. I just wanted to travel, experience the world and ball out.”
Shaikh had to wait for 10 years until she moved out of her parents’ home and relocated to New York City to pursue her calling. Now based in LA, she has performed at the Laugh Factory and Hollywood Improv and is the founder of website Muslims Do It Better, which was banned in Pakistan and earned her death threats. “I was here after 9/11 happened. I remember people looked down at me,” she says. The website “was an attempt to separate the crazy Muslim from the average Muslim”.
“People should know that extremists like the cleric banning women from touching bananas for fear of getting dirty ideas is as offensive to me as it is to them,” Shaikh says.
The comedians’ work is as much an attempt to make sense of their personal experiences as a response to society’s treatment of Muslim women. New York-based Nadia Parvez Manzoor, who grew up in a conservative Pakistani Muslim household in north London, calls her childhood “difficult and confusing”. Her one-woman show Burq Off! tackles the conflict of growing up in two vastly different worlds.
While her work has been applauded for its honesty, her depiction of South Asian men – as closed-minded, oppressive and misogynistic - has been criticised as buying into stereotypes. Nadia, however, argues that it is a representation of the men she has dealt with in her life and not a representation of every Pakistani Muslim man. Also, she argues that it is hard to give a backstory and work in nuances for every character in such a limited time on stage.
Nadia Manzoor in a scene from Burq Off! Photograph: Supplied
Manzoor says that conveying those nuances onstage is challenging. Furthermore, she says that her story is not a representation of the majority of Muslim Pakistani households – something she points out in a Q&A session at the end of her show. “People expect me to be some kind of a spokesperson for the Pakistani Muslim,” she says. “I am not. This is my experience, I am sure there are thousands of Pakistani Muslim girls who have had completely different ones.”
Mirza’s experience was shaped by growing up gay. “I started talking openly about my sexuality in order to reconcile my identity. Whether I was surrounded by queer white people, or by straight brown people, I just didn’t understand how I fitted in. One of the ways I dealt with the isolation was to talk about it, joke about it and put it out there for others to see and hear,” she says. She adds that her goal now is to gain visibility for women and brown performers, and find space for queer stories.
Fatima says that its paramount that the stories of Pakistani Muslim women are told in all their variety and complexity: “We need more brown people telling our own stories; on stages, on camera, behind the camera, writing, being honest and sharing histories.” Manzoor and Shaikh are delighted with South Asians making their mark in prose, comics and performing arts. However, both point out that there is still a long way to go, since they are operating in an industry that is less receptive to Asian artists, and far kinder to men than women.
But while the bigger changes may take time, smaller things already have started to shift. Mirza narrates a recent incident at a university in Karachi where she concluded her talk by saying that her trip would be worth it if one person in the room felt less alone in the world and a little more connected. “A young woman came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I am your one.’ That, to me, feels like success.”