A Funny Bone To Pick?
By Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, April 20, 2010
Just when I thought Islam had cornered every available market, I was reminded about the comedy of terror. That has got to be Islamic. The only unfortunate aspect is that it has not arisen out of any ethnic need, but as a response to “painful topics such as terrorism and racial profiling”. And so we had the troupe ‘Allah made me funny’.
Researchers in Germany carried out a study on humour and found that it is not to make others laugh as much as it is to make others know who is in charge. Telling jokes is a method of reinforcing a social hierarchy. According to the lead researcher, Helga Kotthoff of the Frieburg University of Education, “Displaying humour means taking control of the situation from those higher up the hierarchy and this is risky for people of lower status...”
This goes contrary to what we see around. Muslim comic shows have sprouted as a defence mechanism. It sends out no message of control.
I have watched some of these with bearded guys taking potshots at themselves, their religion, their image as terrorists. Is it to mock the society that pushes you into a corner? I am afraid the effect is quite the opposite. It becomes an apology, quite akin to efforts to counter terrorism, to say, hey, we are the good guys, see we can laugh.
For someone who markets her religiosity and virginity, it is queer that British comedienne Shazia Mirza wants to be the flag-holder of liberalism. As luck would have it, her hijab became Houdini and she magically transformed into the Great Other. In some ways, one might say she was saving her skin. If you tell your bosses, look mastah, mah peoples are so poo, they will let you do the cleaning up.
Ms. Mirza was promoted as the First British Muslim Female Comedienne, which was itself a joke on her, but she did not get it. They put her in the slot so that she can regurgitate only what is within that slot. She plays that up. As she once said, “The image people have of Muslim women that cover their hair is they're oppressed and have a hard life. It confuses people that I wear it and am funny. It breaks down stereotypes."
No, it does not. It only buffers the stereotype. Like the time she said, "I felt this pressure...I was being asked 'why are your people blowing themselves up?' It was like they'd never had anyone to ask before. I turned down Newsnight and Question Time because I don't want to be pigeon-holed. I want to be considered as an entertainer."
It is interesting that she believes they had no one to ask. She is the pigeon-hole. Parody is about showing the mirror, not cracking it and exposing your blood trickle. Take this: “All this talk about suicide bombers getting 72 virgins in paradise is a misinterpretation of the Quran. I don’t want to die a virgin. If I do I’ll have to sleep with one of the suicide bombers. That would be horrible.’’
If it is a misinterpretation, then why worry? In her supposedly comic avatar she is reinforcing the tired images. Her so-called sexually explicit talk is a desperate attempt at camouflaging real issues, that is when she is not being downright insulting.
When the USA sent teams of scientists to Iraq to search for Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, she volunteered: “Look up his wife’s purdah, because nobody looks up there.’’
If only she knew the sexual abuses that happen during wars and how pugnacious societies target women, she would stop being so pat: “I got on the plane to Denmark dressed in hijab, and this woman refused to sit next to me. So I told her, ‘I am going to sit on this plane and blow it up. And you think you’re going to be safer three rows back?’”
Is this confident assertion? Was this an actual incident or merely one of her acts? In either case, it reveals a paucity of true understanding. Those who fear Islamic terrorism will not lighten up with such jokes. She may get the applause in the auditorium, but that’s because they know she is being paid to make them laugh, make fun of her community. They are in charge.
She has often said her family was traditional. This traditional family, surprisingly, wanted her to be a doctor. Parents in many societies, even in the West, have set ideas of what they expect their children to do. Unusual professions take some time to be accepted.
While one understands that using her Muslim identity is her calling card, she does not realise that her personal reasons are not manifestations of reality – and there are several realities. At an event in San Francisco in her early days, she had said, “I totally believe in my religion. I think if I were a practicing Muslim and a stripper, then there would be a problem. But there isn't a problem with me being a practicing Muslim and a stand-up comic."
She has been crying about death threats. Was she talking in her capacity as amateur religious scholar? Would a stripper need to announce that she is a practising Muslim? Is such practice public knowledge unless you wish it to be? For Mirza it is a strategy.
However, is she against Islam? Is she against Pakistan? Her recent visit to her homeland became cause for celebration among one group and cynicism among another. The problem is not that she went and floundered, but she went back to Old Blighty and wrote an exaggerated version in The Guardian about her experience.
One wonders why she went there, since on her trip to India a few years ago she had stated, “Pakistan is not the place for comedy.” At that time the Taliban were not feeding her ego by ensuring that she got extra security. On this trip, she was all locked up so that she could crack jokes and people would laugh at last after years of being shackled. Or so she believes.
No doubt, each society has its threshold level. Early Bollywood films would not show couples kissing and even today an onscreen kiss is announced with much blowing of trumpets. Mirza was being simplistic, when she wrote, “In Lahore this time I am told by armed security personnel before going on stage: ‘Be careful, it's best you only do halal comedy.’ Halal comedy? There is no such thing. That's like saying, I only eat halal bacon.”
A bit of education is called for. There are different kinds of comedy – slapstick, satire, dry wit, and although it is not a genre, there is something called clean comedy, at least in our part of the world. It essentially means something you can sit with the whole family and watch. Her reference to bacon was only to ham it up.
Her constant mention of burqas, locked doors, security reveals a mindset that has not stepped outside the canned laughter zone. “The people in authority in Pakistan are telling the public what they can and cannot say, how to behave and what to wear – and this is totally incongruous with what the people really want. All the things the audience laughed at are the things they are most repressed about. Jokes about sex, religion and politics got the most laughter.”
Would it surprise her to know that like her there can be practising Muslims, virgins and political novices who can laugh not because they are repressed but because they laugh at people who slip on banana peels too, and that could be a phallic symbol, if you really want to take it far?
She finally met hypocrisy. After all the homilies, Little Red Riding Hood was offered opium, vodka, porn films and a male Russian hooker. She ought to have been offended and asked herself why she was receiving such hospitality rather than blaming them.
I have met some really wild people in that country and not been offered any of these. Not even a female Ukrainian hooker, which Shazia Mirza missed seeing because she has discarded the hijab but has her blinkers intact.