Veiled humor
A female Muslim stand-up comic?

By Annika S. Hipple
March 7, 2003
The Iranian

Tissa Hami is not your average standup comedian. For one thing, the 30-year-old Iranian-American performs her routine dressed in traditional Islamic hijab. For another, she talks about such things as stoning, harems, and hostage-taking.

"It was scary growing up Iranian in this country," she tells audiences at the Cambridge, Massachusetts clubs where she has been performing since November 2002. "But when other kids teased me, I threatened to take them hostage."

With her unconventional approach to standup, Hami has caused quite a stir in the local comedy scene. Stash (he goes by only one name), who has booked Hami repeatedly for his comedy show at the All Asia Cafe in Cambridge, Massachusetts calls her "one of the best comics in the whole Cambridge scene."

The key to Hami's appeal, says Stash, is "tension and release. She puts on the clothing, a great big black scarf over her head -- the whole outfit, the whole nine yards. No one knows what to expect."

A female Muslim stand-up comic? What is she going to talk about? This sets up the tension. Then Hami opens her mouth and breaks the tension with her funny stories and witty punch lines. Says Stash: "Here is this comic up there dressed as a woman from the Middle East, which has seemed inaccessible to us, now suddenly revealing an American-style comedy, which is a set up and a twist in itself."

Born in the province of Mazandaran in northern Iran, Hami came to the United States in 1978, when she was five-years old. The daughter of traditional Iranian professionals (her father has a PhD in computer science and her mother is a dentist), Hami grew up in a predominantly White suburb of Boston. Her parents had high expectations, urging her to become a doctor, get married, and have children. However, Hami says, "That was never my dream for myself."

Though she did take pre-med courses as an undergraduate at Brown University, she majored in international relations, her "true interest." Still, after graduating in 1995, she continued to do the "proper" thing, working for a few years on Wall Street.

Eventually she realized that Wall Street was not for her and went back to school, completing a dual master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and Sciences Po in Paris, where she lived for a year. She returned to the United States in September 2001, expecting to find a good job quickly. Then came the terrorist attacks.

"In the aftermath of 9/11," says Hami, "I found myself growing increasingly tired of the one-dimensional image that Americans had of Muslim women as oppressed, mute women who were at the mercy of their men. Meanwhile, I couldn't find a job, and my friends, who for years had been telling me that I should become a stand-up comic, were pushing for me to finally do it." At the same time, Hami noticed that Muslim-American comedians were beginning to get some attention -- and all of them were men. An idea was born.

In her act, Hami tries to draw attention to the challenges facing Muslim women. "I see myself not only as a comedian, but also as an activist who tries to make people think as well as laugh," she says. "Through my comedy, I hope to help break down stereotypes about Muslim women and to increase understanding between Iranians and Americans."

"Her whole act without even seeming to try breaks down snobbery and fear and that even darker thing, bigotry," says Stash.

"For me, the key in stand-up comedy is in the first two words," says Hami. "When I get up on stage, I feel that I am standing up for Muslim women. I perform in hijab to make a statement, to show that a Muslim woman can use her voice to speak up and to speak out, and even make people laugh in the process."

Onstage Hami pokes fun at the traditional Iranian preference for the medical profession. In a recent performance at the annual dinner of the Iranian-American Medical Association of Boston, she told the assembled doctors her idea for a book about the dating trials and tribulations of a young Iranian-American woman who vows that she will not celebrate her next birthday unless she has landed a handsome Iranian doctor boyfriend to celebrate it with. The title: "Not Without My Doctor."

Sara Ghassemi, a dental student, saw Hami's performance at the medical dinner and thought it was "absolutely hilarious." As an Iranian-American herself, Ghassemi found it easy to relate to Hami's material. However, she says, "I don't think it's just an Iranian-American thing, but any foreigner who has grown up here would relate. It's like I had waited all my life to hear a stand-up comic talk about these issues, and make fun of them."

Hami uses her routine to clear up many of the misconceptions that Americans have about Islam, saying, "I wouldn't call myself particularly devout - and I would even say that I'm somewhat irreverent - but this is the culture and religion of my family and my country."

One of her jokes deals with the fact that in mosques, women always pray in the back, behind the men. Americans see this as a sign of the oppression of Muslim women, Hami says, but really, "We just like the view." She pauses. "We're praying for a piece of that."

Irreverent indeed. And how fortunate for those of us who enjoy smart, thought-provoking comedy that Tissa Hami isn't afraid to speak up and be heard.

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