Muslim Comics Say Getting Laughs Harder in U.S.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

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.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--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.

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"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.

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