Last Female Muslim Comic Standing

Controversial stand-up comedian Shazia Mirza isnt afraid to joke about 9/11, sexist Muslim men, or the fact that she's a 28-year-old virgin. But not everyone is laughing.

By Priya Jain

Published September 22, 2004 12:00AM (EDT)

You wouldn't expect the teetotaling, Muslim virgin to be the funniest person in the room -- but if that person were Shazia Mirza, you'd be wrong. Originally from Pakistan but raised in England, Mirza began doing stand-up four years ago, and quickly became famous in the U.K. and Australia for her dry sense of humor and the fact that she challenges cultural expectations of what a Muslim woman is supposed to be. Simultaneously biting and good-natured, her one-liners have a slow burn. Often at a Mirza show the audience is silent for a beat after she delivers a punch line while they figure out the joke. She wryly tackles everything from Muslim traditions ("The women in my family all use the same passport") to politics ("I said, oh, come on, Germany, join the war, it's not the same without you"). But Mirza is best known for her takes on post-9/11 tension; her most oft-quoted joke is, "My name is Shazia Mirza -- at least that's what it says on my pilot's license."

Her humor is often lost on her family and fellow Muslims, some of whom have sent her death threats because of what they perceive as her disrespect for Islam. In fact, as part of her current show, "The Last Temptation of Shazia," Mirza performs in front of a bulletin board covered with printouts of the nasty letters she's received, and at various points in her act, she pulls them down and reads from them.

But "The Last Temptation of Shazia" isn't just about hate. It's also about Mirza's travels through Europe and the United States; being mistaken for everything from a suicide bomber to Dobby, the house elf in "Harry Potter"; and what it's like to be a 28-year-old virgin.

Mirza, dressed in a simple gray T-shirt and slacks, her hair recently freed from her burqa, brought her show to New York last week. Salon spoke to her the morning after her sold-out opening night at Baruch Performing Arts Center, over a mug of hot chocolate near Gramercy Park.

Are you really the world's only female Muslim comic?

No, I'm not the only one now, but I think I was when I started out four years ago. After 9/11, Muslims got terrible press and people were like, my God, how can there be a Muslim comedian, they're all terrorists, aren't they? There have been Jewish comedians and Catholic comedians but there's never been a Muslim comedian. We were famous for blowing people up.

Is being a Muslim and being a comic contradictory?

Some people say you can't be both. I stand up onstage for an hour and a half and make people laugh and tell them mostly the truth -- most of the stuff is true, it happened to me -- and then I go home and pray. I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't take drugs, I don't eat pork, and I'm a good Muslim. I don't understand why people say I can't be a comedian. I don't relate the two at all.

And there are always Muslims in my audience. I was so happy there were women with hijabs on [at my show], having a good time. And that they're allowed -- that there's somewhere where women with hijabs on can go out for entertainment, to watch comedy. They've probably never watched comedy in their life! And maybe it's opened a door for them, that they're watching comedy, and they're enjoying it.

You've said before that Muslims, generally, are not your biggest fans.

Right -- as you can see by the e-mails I read in the show. But I think a lot of them are hypocrites because they've never seen me. They'll write to me because they've heard about me or read about me, but they've never seen me perform. And it's stupid and it's hypocritical that they write to me. I mean, they should be writing to the people who did 9/11, to the people who blow up people all over the world -- those are the people they should be writing to. Not a comedian who is telling jokes, who is making people laugh. They've got it all wrong.

Why do you think people feel that you can't be a Muslim and make fun of yourself?

I think mainly because I'm a woman. I'm a woman and standing in front of an audience that is, most of the time, predominantly men. And, a lot of the times, predominantly drunk. And I think many Muslims feel that women shouldn't be exposed to that, they shouldn't be in an environment where there are men, there's alcohol, there's temptation. It's got nothing to do with religion, it's got to do with culture. A lot of predominantly Muslim cultures -- Arabic culture, Middle Eastern culture -- they don't like women to be in the public eye.

There have never been any Muslim women in positions of power. There was Benazir Bhutto, who was the prime minister of Pakistan, but that was it. I could never tell a man, look, she did this and she did that, why can't I do it? People question me and criticize me and I've got no role models to be able to say, well, you know what, they all did it before me. I have to justify what I'm doing. And you know, I'm not sleeping with the audience, I'm just telling jokes! It makes people laugh and think. And I think people need to see a Muslim woman. We've got no power and all people think we do is get beaten by our husbands and we've got terrible lives and we're all oppressed. And I don't think that will change unless we do something about it.

Do you think through your show you're changing perceptions about Muslims?

Maybe. Maybe they'll be able to laugh at something that they normally wouldn't be able to laugh at. And also now I'm beginning to do material that's more personal to me -- like about my travels, my parents, being a virgin. I want to do more of that than generally speaking for all Muslims -- I can't and I don't want to speak for all Muslims.

You say in your show, "I'm so happy to be here, especially because my dad let me out for the night." Did you spend a lot of time locked up in the house, growing up?

Yeah, my dad was very strict. The last thing he expected me to do was this. He wanted me to go to university -- which I did -- get married, have kids and be a good Muslim woman. And when I say "good Muslim woman" what I mean is, serve my husband and look after the home and the children. And I just knew I was never going to do that. And I thought, Where is this in Islam, that women are treated like that? And it made me angry, and a bit of that anger is in my stand-up.

"The Last Temptation of Shazia" is all about your travels and having to confront offers of sex, drugs and alcohol -- all the things you don't do. I think the most fascinating part of that is the sex.

Americans are obsessed with sex! America uses sex to sell cheese. I think everyone is sex-obsessed, but in England they don't talk about it as openly as they do here. I think normally when you go see a comedian, they're talking about their girlfriend, what they did with their girlfriend last night or how many people they've slept with. And the last thing people expect is for someone to come onstage and say they've never done it. They're thinking, is she making this up?

Well, to be 28 and a virgin is sort of unbelievable!

I remember when I started that material thinking, they don't know whether to laugh or not. I wanted to say, yes, this is true.

You also talk about going to Texas and seeing the silver ring movement, where teenagers pledge abstinence until marriage and are given these rings to wear as a reminder of their commitment.

Yeah, had you heard about that?

No, never.

Isn't it amazing? It's in every newspaper in Europe and in England, and I talk about it here and people don't know what I'm talking about. It's your country, and you don't know about it?

How were you received in Texas, anyway?

They tried to convert me to Christianity.


Honestly, I had e-mails every day from Christians saying they wanted to save me, and when I died did I know where I was going to go, and didn't I want to go to heaven, and, would heaven allow Muslims in?

But a lot of those people are virgins -- they wear it on their sleeves. They go to these carnivals and celebrate being a virgin. I met this guy there with his girlfriend, and they said they had been going out for five years and had never had sex and were going to wait until they got married. And they said, oh, we have been so tempted, but that temptation has made our relationship stronger, and we've now written a book about it -- that is so American. You've written a book about it?

Did they get your comedy?

Comedy? (laughs) They were like, why are you here to do comedy? We want to convert you!

In your show, you make a joke that if nuns are all married to God, then God must be a polygamist. I thought that was pretty funny, but it didn't go over very well with the crowd.

I know. That never goes down well, anywhere. That's why I do it. When I did that in Edinburgh, people were like, can we laugh? But some people came up to me later and said it really made them think. Nuns wear rings because they're married to God. So all these women are showing their commitment to God. And how do you know he's showing that commitment to you? It's meant to be hilarious. But I know it made people feel uncomfortable.

You used to wear a burqa. Why did you stop?

The reason you're meant to wear it is because men are meant to be sexually attracted by hair. But I've tried, it doesn't work! (laughs) And I thought, men are the weak ones, yeah? They should be wearing the burqas, they should be locked up in the house, and women should be out. Why is it that those guys who can't control themselves are let out, and we're the ones that have to wear the burqas? You can be a perfectly good Muslim without wearing it. You know, it's not what you wear on your head, it's what you do with your life.

One of the letters you read onstage was from a Muslim man who first berated you for being a bad Muslim, and then asked you out for coffee. Being Indian myself, I've seen that type of behavior -- an Indian man, a perfect stranger, once yelled at me on the street for wearing a tank top, and then asked for my phone number.

[Muslim men] are attracted to [strong women], because normally they would get subservient women who would do what they wanted them to do. But actually, what they'd really like is somebody who is comfortable in their own skin. They criticize you for being yourself because they can't cope with it. Usually, the balance of power is on the man's side. It's OK for men to sleep around, it's OK for men to have girlfriends before marriage, it's OK for a man to go out with white women, but if a woman does it, she's a slut and nobody wants to marry her. That's terrible! And yet they're still interested in [strong women] because it's something different.

Do people really think you look like Dobby?

I was walking down the street once in New York and was wearing my burqa, and somebody said that I looked like Dobby, the elf from "Harry Potter." And then I went to watch the film, and Dobby was awful! I couldn't believe someone called me Dobby.

That is a pretty horrible thing for someone to say to you -- that, and the comment made by one of the other letter writers you mention in your show, the Jewish lesbian from the Midwest who said, "I can't imagine what it must be like to be as hated as you are."

I know! I was like, where are you getting this information from? I'm not that hated!

Priya Jain

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

MORE FROM Priya Jain

Related Topics ------------------------------------------