Funny, Shazia Mirza looks Muslim...
Her religion doesn't preclude making jokes onstage, British stand-up comic says
At first, it's a bit shocking to see Shazia Mirza onstage in hijab, the head scarf that pious Muslim women wear to cover their hair. Isn't Mirza supposed to be a stand-up comic? Isn't Mirza -- a smart (and smart-alecky) 27- year-old Londoner with a master's degree in biochemistry -- supposed to be a liberated woman?
Mirza, whose parents are from Pakistan, is adamant (in a funny way) that her appearance is simply reflective of her religious ethos and that there are no contradictions between this ethos, her modern sensibilities and her proven ability to make people laugh.
"I totally believe in my religion," says Mirza, who is making her U.S. comic debut Saturday night at the "Funny Girlz" event in San Francisco. "I think if I were a practicing Muslim and a stripper, then there would be a problem. But there isn't a problem with me being a practicing Muslim and a stand-up comic."
Promoters often bill Mirza as "the world's only female Muslim comic" -- a title that guarantees an audience for her biting, deadpan observations that frequently refer to the Muslim world and her day-to-day life:
-- About the male gaze: "I was walking past this building site in Mecca when a group of Muslim builders shouted, 'Show us your . . . face.' "
-- About arranged marriages: "My friend Julie says, 'How can you sleep with someone you don't know?' -- but she does it all the time."
-- On the search in Iraq for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction: "Look up his wife's purdah (dress), because nobody looks up there."
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mirza captured laughs this way: "My name is Shazia Mirza. . . . At least that's what it says on my pilot's license."
Mirza has been doing comedy for only three years, but she has already become one of England's best-known comedians, and her increasing bookings beyond Britain (she's already performed throughout Europe) have fans predicting big things for her. Yet Mirza's life is not without reminders that some people -- including her parents -- are reluctant to see her on public display in a profession that can be rough. Beyond heckling, Mirza must endure occasional threats from those (often Muslim men) offended by her act.
During a show two years ago, three men jumped onstage and attacked Mirza after she recounted the time in Mecca when a man touched her inappropriately: "I felt a hand on my bottom. I ignored it. I thought, 'I'm in Mecca. It must be the hand of God.' "
The men said she was a disgrace to Islam and shouldn't be onstage because of her gender. The incident made Mirza more resolute about her newly chosen field, though she took a month off from performing and continues to get occasional angry notes.
"I've had nasty e-mails from Muslim men and other threats, but they're really from fundamentalists -- it has nothing to do with Islam," she says in her distinctive British accent. "They believe in limiting women under Shariah law, which was how women in Afghanistan were living under the Taliban."
Mirza took a circuitous road to stand-up comedy. She was raised by traditional Muslim parents in multicultural Birmingham, Britain's second- largest city. At an early age, she wanted to be an actress and knew she had a gift for humor, but her immigrant parents (who, she says, "never laugh") insisted that she become a doctor, so Mirza compromised. She got two degrees in biochemistry, then taught science at a high school -- while simultaneously going to drama school and taking a stand-up comedy writing course.
Her brusque students forced her to learn how to be sharp and witty to maintain their attention. Her drama and comedy lessons taught her to mine her life for material and to give performing a chance. A comic was born, albeit one who wears a scarf that instills a powerful reaction in audiences.
"The image people have of Muslim women that cover their hair is they're oppressed and have a hard life," she says. "It confuses people that I wear it and am funny. It breaks down stereotypes."
Mirza regularly wears hijab outside of comedy (though not all the time), prays at her local mosque, doesn't drink alcohol and has gone to Mecca on religious pilgrimage. Her appearances on TV and growing reputation have given her a kind of role-model status among many Muslim girls and women in Britain. And though Mirza is flattered by the attention, she insists that she doesn't want to be known only as "a Muslim comedian." She pokes fun at many different subjects.
"I have so much more to talk about than just being a Muslim woman," Mirza says. "I live my life just like anyone else. I play tennis. I go swimming. But that's still interesting for people to hear about because they've never really had firsthand insight into a Muslim woman who talks about life onstage, in a funny way."