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Shabana Rehman: Making Fun of the Mullahs
As a female Muslim stand-up comedian in Norway, 26-year-old Shabana Rehman is breaking a host of stereotypes at once.
Audiences are invariably surprised when Rehman appears on stage in Oslo, clad in a head-to-toe burqah. The garment is “not very practical when you are assembling a bit of furniture from Ikea,” she tells them, though it can be “useful for scaring away children.”
As part of her act, Rehman strips off the burqah to reveal a skimpy red cocktail dress. Thus transformed, she rails against arranged marriages, Shariah law, and female genital mutilation.
Just as edgy are her jokes about Norway’s political correctness. She has no patience for the people she calls “halal hippies,” liberal Norwegians who are blind to fundamentalist oppression. “If an Asian country dropped a nuclear bomb on Norway...these people would run to the nearest bookstore to buy a book about Oriental culture,” she says.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1976, Rehman emigrated to Norway with her family when she was a year old. Before becoming a stand-up comedian, she studied ethics and media science.
Her act has become a polarizing force among Norway’s tiny Muslim population. Liberal Muslim women love her, but conservative Muslims see her as Public Enemy No. 1. They routinely send her vicious hate mail.
Undaunted, Rehman recently posed naked for a newspaper profile, her body painted in the colors of the Norwegian flag. Her aim, she told London’s Sunday Times, was “to demonstrate that as a Muslim woman I am free to dispose of my body as I wish,” and that “you can be Scandinavian even if you were born in the Punjab.”
“She is an important voice,” Norway’s minister of immigration, Erna Solberg, told the Sunday Times. “Her humor allows her to go further than others and incite real reflection.” But Oslo’s liberal Dagsavisen was more critical, saying her “mix of stand-up comedy and commentary is a provocation completely devoid of nuance.”
Rehman, who appears regularly on Norwegian television and writes a column for Oslo’s liberal Dagbladet, says she wants to encourage young Muslims to become independent thinkers. On her Web site, www.shabana.no, she writes,“If we dare to look at ourselves, not as our parents do or as Norwegians see us, but as we see ourselves, we can create a more open arena of expression for the next generation.”