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 iranian.com Night
of Comedy and Satire in San Jose on Friday February 27 >>> Details
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
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
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
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?
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
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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