Arab Women Comics Say Getting Laughs Harder in U.S.
The Middle East might be more restrictive for women in some ways, but two notable Muslim female comics–Eman El-Husseini and Maysoon Zayid–find it easier to work there than in the United States. One exception: Saudi Arabia.
After touring the United States and the Occupied Territories, professional stand-up comedian Maysoon Zayid has formed an impression that might upset some Western expectations: It’s easier being a female stand-up comic in the Middle East.
Calling the U.S. comedy world “more misogynistic,” Zayid, a Palestinian-American, said her gender didn’t seem like a factor in the Middle East countries where she’s performed.
“In the Middle East, I didn’t feel anybody was surprised when we were going to be on stage,” she said in a recent phone interview “Nobody addressed the issue that we are women. They just saw us as comedians.”
Eman El-Husseini, a Palestinian-Canadian stand-up comic, made the same observations after a recent trip to the Middle East.
One major exception to that generalization is Saudi Arabia, where women cannot perform on stage.
But in many other parts of the region comedy is flourishing, particularly in Amman, Jordan, where the Annual Amman Standup Comedy Festival includes numerous women. During a recent tour of the Occupied Territories, El-Husseini performed alongside Zayid, who has been reported to be 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,” Zayid told Women’s eNews after one of her shows last month in New York. “So we have to work three times as hard just to get them to listen to us, and I cannot figure out why that is.”
Male Comics ‘Dismissive’
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 comics are often dismissive of women, said Jordan Elgrably, producer of the Los Angeles stage show “The Sultans of Satire,” which spoofs the “clash of civilizations” 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,” said 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, El-Husseini said she finds herself straining more to get laughs out of U.S. crowds.
“When you are on stage, people want you to be really funny and are harder on women comics than on male comedians. You have to deal with that when you are on stage and work a little harder than our male counterparts,” she said.
Along with other Arab female comics, Zayid and El-Husseini have performed in Qatar, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
Many women in the Middle East 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 to find women performing in a comedy show.
Egyptian Defied Taboos
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, appear on the screen and to direct or produce their films.
Some of these female pioneers of Egyptian cinema–Aziza Amir, Assya Dagher and Bahija Hafez–left a lasting mark on the film culture.
Today, El-Husseini and Zayid are also blazing trails.
This year El-Husseini, 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 female 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,” El-Husseini said. “I want to show people that women are funny, Arabs are funny and Muslims can be funny.”
Zayid, now 36, has been doing comedy since she was 20 and is considered a trailblazer for Muslim female funny women in the United States. 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.
Zayid said 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 said.
The Arab Spring has added to Zayid’s material, but it’s a subject she mainly reserves for her Middle Eastern 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 said.
In 2003, Zayid 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 comics, 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 Zayid and El-Husseini.
There were more female comedians in previous years in the stand-up part of the festival, a handful or so. But this year a couple of the women were traveling out the country and unable to perform.
Still, comedy remains a tough field, Zayid said.
“When you think of your favorite comic, no one says a woman’s name. That is something we have to battle,” she said.
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Hajer Naili is an editorial intern for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.
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