Interview with comedian Mona Shaikh

"Being able to create a dialogue is a very important step for me"

Mona Shaikh is a naughty Muslim comedian who does not shy away from breaking taboos. Shaikh deploys comedy as a weapon to criticise religious leaders and politicians who use Islam and the Koran as an excuse to impose restrictions on women. Roma Rajpal Weiß spoke to her on growing up a Muslim in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 and her unusual choice of profession as a Pakistani woman

Shaikh's family moved from Karachi, Pakistan, to the United States when she was 15. She started her career in New York as a stage actor and went on to become the first Pakistani stand-up comedian to headline at the largest comedy club in the United States, The Hollywood Improv.

What was it like growing up as a Muslim post 9/11 in New York?

Mona Shaikh: 9/11 changed the US forever, along with its citizens. The incident made me realise that the Americans had been shut off from the rest of the world for a long time. The sad event opened the floodgates to negative and positive things. I was a teenager back then and I found myself apologising and defending myself for something I had nothing to do with. New York ceased to feel like home for a while because I felt I was being looked at differently, even by friends. However, it opened up a dialogue.

How did you end up in such an unusual profession, especially as a Pakistani woman?

Shaikh: I was a writer and I fell into comedy. I never thought that I would be a comedy artist, but a friend insisted that I was good at it and should give it a shot. I went to the Comix club in New York and did my first five minutes open mic and killed it and never stopped from that point on. I also run a comedic website called Muslimsdoitbetter.com. The idea behind it is an attempt to separate the crazy Muslims from the average Muslims like myself.

How do you exploit this blog for comedy?

Shaikh: The blog deals with the latest developments in the Muslim world and we talk about the hypocrisy that goes on there. Most people don't want to talk about these issues because it is such a taboo. But somebody has to take a stand on all the dumb stuff propagated by religious leaders. I for one believe that muftis and clerics somehow have a lot of time on their hands and are always issuing these brain-dead fatwas such as "women should not touch bananas because they resemble a phallic symbol". When you in the West hear something like that, despite your background, you scratch your head and think that is just absurd, ignorant nonsense. This can't be faith, that's just not possible. So, for me as a comedian, this is fantastic fodder.

Are people offended by your work?

Shaikh: Recently a politician in Saudi Arabia came out and said that women shouldn't drive because sitting in a car affects their ovaries and will prevent women from having children, because, obviously, the ultimate goal in a woman's life is just to have babies. Seriously? I ask myself!

Mona Shaikh performing at the Westside Comedy Theater (photo: Westside Comedy Theater)
"The empowerment of women in the Muslim world is a subject very close to my heart, having grown up in an environment where I saw women being abused and not having rights or a voice. I want to be able talk about how women have it hard. [...] There are a lot of people who are scared, but they don't have a voice. And I feel that if my comedy can say that and change people's minds, or even help them open up a little bit more, I feel like I have done my job as an artist," says Mona Shaikh, pictured here performing at the Westside Comedy Theater

 
So, when I go out and talk about these things, I hit a nerve with some people, and I get hate mail and death threats. Making somebody laugh is a much more difficult job than making somebody cry. I am accused of insulting Islam, when the truth is that these people haven't bothered to read what I wrote. I only insult a handful of Muslims who are making the rest of us look like idiots. They are pointing a finger at me claiming to be better Muslims, and I simply don't know who gave them the authority to play God.

Muslim societies in general really haven't been given the authority, even though, in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, you were allowed to talk about something even though you disagreed with it. Now, the society no longer questions the Koran and the authority of mullahs, muftis or imams who make these dumb comments. It is wrong and I am absolutely entitled to come out and question it, because it defies logic and doesn't make any sense. So, people get very edgy and nervous when you come out and start questioning and challenging what is the norm for them or the tradition that no longer coincides with the time we live in.

The one thing that all humans don't like is change, maybe they don't understand that the change is better, but the bottom line is that change is uncomfortable, and nobody wants to be uncomfortable. And when somebody like me comes out and talks about things that really need to be talked about, people get very nervous about it.

Was it always your intention to bring about a dialogue through your work?

Shaikh: I didn't start off thinking that I was going to change things. I just wanted to perform and entertain. But, I think as an artist when you find your voice, your work automatically reflects issues that are dear to you. The empowerment of women in the Muslim world is a subject very close to my heart, having grown up in an environment where I saw women being abused and not having rights or a voice. I want to be able talk about how women have it hard. Look at Malala and Nirbhaya, women who suffered because of their gender. And it continues unfortunately. Being able to create a dialogue is a very important step for me. There are a lot of people who are scared, but they don't have a voice. And I feel that if my comedy can say that and change people's minds, or even help them open up a little bit more, I feel like I have done my job as an artist.

How does your family react to your work?

Shaikh: I grew up as a tomboy, being the only girl in a religiously conservative family in Karachi. My grandmother once told me that I, as a girl, was not allowed to wear jeans. Fortunately, we also had western influences that helped take some of the edge off. Also, my father was quite liberal. He supported me wearing jeans back then.

My four brothers are now very big supporters of work. My mom is my biggest cheerleader, but at the same time she is a very interesting dichotomy in the sense that she is a hadji, she is quite religious, but she also has a very liberal perspective; she is very open. For example, one of her dearest friends is an Israeli Jew. But obviously, there is a conflict between our worlds, I come from this western background, I have a much different perspective than she does, and there is a generational gap, but she still roots for me.

Interview conducted by Roma Rajpal Weiss

© Qantara.de 2015

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