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.

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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.

Unresolved Issues

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.

For more information:

New York Arab-American Comedy Festival:

Sultans of Satire:

The Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival:

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