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A different image
I thought it was time to present a different image of the Muslim woman

Interview by Jahanshah Javid
February 27, 2004

Email interview with Tissa Hami, who will be performing stand-up comedy at the Night of Comedy and Satire in San Jose on Friday February 27 >>> Details

Q: Obiously the first thing that caught my attention was the fact that the hijab is part of your comedy act. I read a quote from you that you want to crack jokes about things that women are "all scared about". This may sound like a dumb question, but what is it about the hijab that is scary to you? I'm sure many men like myself are not fully aware of what it really means/feels like for a secular woman to be forced to wear the veil.

Hami: Dumb questions are my favorite kind! What I find scary about the hijab is that it's not a choice for many women - they are forced by their government or their family to wear it. A woman should be free to choose whether or not she wants to veil.

As for my quote, I said that I wanted to crack jokes about things that we're all scared about, not just women. There was so much fear in this country after 9/11. People were scared not only of Muslims but also of mere Muslim look-alikes. I recently read that a few South Asian nuns wearing habits were barred from a flight because they were mistaken for Muslim women in hijab. How crazy is that?

Q: Do you remember your very first encounter with the hijab? Can you tell us about the first time you seriously thought about creating comedy around it? How did your parents react?

Hami: I remember being in Bloomingdale's as a young teen, and two women who were completely covered walked by me. I mean they were COMPLETELY covered -- you couldn't even see their eyes because they had a heavy mesh covering over them. I was stunned. I had certainly seen women in headscarves before, but I had never seen anything like that before. You couldn't even tell them apart. I asked my mother why they were dressed like that and she said they were probably Saudi Arabian because that's how Saudi women dressed.

I was reminded of that incident after 9/11, when images of Muslim women flooded the American media. The images were so one-dimensional. They showed women who were oppressed and at the mercy of their men, women who had no voice. I thought it was time to present a different image of the Muslim woman.

For years my friends had encouraged me to become a stand-up comic, but it was the negative images of Muslims, particularly women, after 9/11 that finally prompted me to take the stage. As I was thinking about putting together an act, I came up with the idea to go onstage in hijab. I thought it would be so funny - and hopefully thought-provoking - to see a veiled woman onstage cracking jokes about things like airport security.

My parents are both professionals - my father is a computer scientist and my mother is a dentist. They wanted me to become a doctor. I knew my medical career was doomed when I took biology in high school and hated it. So what do they think of my doing stand-up comedy? They're thrilled! What Iranian parents wouldn't be? ;)

Q: Is your stage character fictional, or based on a person you know or saw in the news?

Hami: It's based on someone I know quite well - me! Everything I talk about onstage is based on things that really happen to me. What's funnier than the truth?

Q: As you know, there's a new law in France banning the hijab in state schools. Has this move and the angry reaction by French Muslims had an impact on your perspective on the hijab? Has it added a new angle to your comedy routine?

Hami: I actually spent a year and a half studying abroad in France, and I can tell you that based on what I saw, I'm not too worried about French laws because France will be an Arab country in 10 years. ;)

Q: Have any Muslim groups/activists objected to your act? Any members of the audience?

Hami: I've done several shows for Iranian audiences, and it's always an adventure. Most people are thrilled and they come up to me after the show and say how much they enjoyed it. But my parents have received a few comments along the lines of "your daughter is so, um, unusual". I think those comments have come mainly from people who expected a daughter of theirs to have a proper, acceptable career.

A lot of Iranians and Muslims have also come out to comedy clubs to see me perform. It's always interesting to see them, because so many of them hesitate as they enter the club, and they seem to feel so out of place. I can tell they've never been to a comedy club before.

Q: I vaguely remember reading about a Muslim woman in Scandanavia who would come on stage fully covered and by the end of her comedy act, remove all her clothes as a symbol of liberation. Where is the line you would not cross? Lampooning centuries-old dogma is not easy and there must be some areas you would not be comfortable in poking fun at.

Hami: You're talking about Shabana Rehman, who is a Pakistani-Norwegian stand-up comic. She and I haven't met, but we have been in touch over email. To Shabana I say, "You go, girl!" Nothing is sacred.

Just to be clear, Shabana doesn't remove all her clothes onstage - she just tears off the hijab. It's funny because I actually do the same thing (and yes, I was doing it before I knew about Shabana!). The great thing about stand-up comedy is the freedom it provides. You can say or do anything you want - as long as it's funny, of course!

See Tissa perform in San Jose on February 27 >>> Details

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By Tissa Hami

By Jahanshah Javid





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