Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
American culture has a very narrow view of Muslim women. Zahra Noorbakhsh, the self-described pork-eating, alcohol-drinking, premarital-sex-having Muslim comedian behind such shows as All Atheists Are Muslim and Hijab and Hammer Pants, is here to crowbar that view wide open with a mix of hard-hitting truth and side-splitting wit.
We caught up with Zahra to chat about rediscovering prayer, the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy, the state of comedy post-Trump, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and more.
You wrote a piece for NPR called "After Trump’s Election, A Nonpracticing Muslim Returns to Prayer," in which you talked about how the election of Donald Trump prompted you to revisit many of the religious practices you learned as a child. Can you talk a bit about how that happened?
When he won, I reached for these verses of comfort that I had learned as a child, and I couldn't find them. I kept going back into the attic of my mind, hoping they would be embedded in my childhood memories somehow, that I would remember practicing to pray with my father, and I couldn't. The words weren't there. I felt so unmoored in that moment.
Violence is so present right now. There is a lot that I understand differently. I have realized what praying is really for, and how much religion has developed as a source and tool of survival. I had taken it for granted in a way.
Religion has been usurped by people with political agendas, so I am finding my way back, and that's what that piece was about, the experience of understanding how these verses developed for a people under attack, and here they are for us to help us survive and reconnect with our cultural roots.
Since Trump took office, white comedians have been getting a lot of material (John Oliver and Stephen Colbert) and work (Melissa McCarthy and Alec Baldwin) poking fun at the administration. But comedians of color have to be more careful. Can you talk a little about your experience of this?
I have to use my grant money to pay for security. That's how it is. People are like, "Look at you! This is a great year for Muslim comedians! Oh my god, you're going to do so well!" Actually, no. I've been doing this for 12 years. I'm not on SNL. Where are the comedians of color doing impressions on SNL? They're not safe!
I really appreciated it when Samantha Bee said that, when Trump won, her entire staff was terrified. They were being harassed. That's a circumstance. In order to make the space available to comedians of color to explore the irreverent comedy that exposes white supremacy for what it is, we need to know that we're safe, that we're being taken care of physically. I don't mean safe like in a healthy debate in your university classroom safe. I'm talking there's-a-guy-with-a-gun-on-my-side safe, log cabin safe, Brawny safe, THINX underwear safe.
Your podcast is called Good Muslim Bad Muslim, which is a nod to a contradiction many Muslims in this country face: The more you assimilate, the more likely American culture will consider you “good.” And the opposite can be true from the Muslim perspective. What’s been your experience navigating the blurry line between "good" and "bad"?
More and more, I see it now less so as a contradiction and more so as the phenomenon of oversimplification that has taken over this planet. The most terrifying thing has become the oversimplification of very complex ideas and circumstances and identities for the benefit of murder, destruction, and arms-dealing. To oversimplify...[laughs]
You’ve spoken about how the Joe Rogans of the world get to make dick jokes, while a responsibility is placed on you to say smart subversive things about the gender binary and global politics. How do you embrace or resist that?
I'm having a lot of fun embracing my inner Joe Rogan, but the feminist Muslim Iranian-American bisexual Joe Rogan. I'm trying to find my space amongst the white male-dominated bros of comedy. As I embrace this character more, I get a lot of audience members later telling me, "You have such great stage presence!" which cracks me up because would you ever say that to Joe Rogan? Of course I have stage presence. This is my vocation, this is my job, this is what you bought tickets for. As Hermione once said, "Always the tone of surprise."
So much of Muslim representation in popular culture is so serious. Do you have a favorite depiction that feels light-hearted and more realistic to you?
Little Mosque on the Prairie. It's basically like a Muslim Gilmore Girls in Canada. Every episode involves conflicts about family and friends in a mosque, and then they get resolved! It's lovely and soothing.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
Stomping all over the men. [laughs]
But my serious answer is: This year, I have definitely pulled back in the number of performances that I do and how much I put myself out there. I'm generally intimidated by the current administration and by the fear-mongering. It's effective on my end. I notice I'm less trusting. I require security at the spaces where I perform. I check the RSVP list. There are states that I won't go to. I'm more reluctant to do video. I'm more reluctant to post.
There's always this expectation that because I say I'm a feminist Muslim Iranian-American comedian that I've got elbows out and that I'm super brave and like "Out of my way!" But really I'm just trying to carve a space out for myself. So I just hope for more awareness of the safety challenges that women artists face being in the public sphere, and for more support there.
Want more Zahra? Listen to her appearance on KQED's weekly pop culture podcast, The Cooler!