Zehra Fazal’s Shock-n-Schtick

When I clicked on a link forwarded to me, I was pleasantly surprised to see a woman wearing a headscarf with a guitar in hand, an almost rare sight given some socio-communal stigmas associated with music. I was even more intrigued by the subject of the video, “The Ramadan Song”–a take on Adam Sandler’s “The Hannukah Song,” with a Muslim angle, of course.

The song (from her one-woman show, entitled Headscarf and the Angry Bitch) itself starts off wonderfully, borrowing the melody from the Christmastime favorite “The Little Drummer Boy.” The song is witty, well done and Fazal has a great voice. She is also extremely funny and even more so personable, with an exuberant personality. The punch line is great in and of itself and definitely shocking, giving “swallowing” another meaning during Ramadan–I was a bit taken aback by her verbal sexual abrasiveness. Curious about the funny woman who had both entertained me and made me furrow my brow, I checked out her website for further information.

And I was pretty disappointed.

While video showcased in this post is quite funny, it’s part and parcel of really shticky comedy, particularly with the use of the hijab, which Fazal does not wear off the stage. Such shock-n-schtick is not exactly the highest form of comedy and one also previously embraced by British comic Shazia Mirza, also vying for a sort of legitimacy and shock low-scale comedy pubs.

Unfortunately, many women in comedy find the need to amplify female sexuality, sexual abrasiveness and/or shock (see: Sarah Silverman) in order to make it in an industry primarily led by men. Add ethnic/religious minority into the mix, and the career-in-comedy terrain is made far rougher. While Fazal is ostensibly a funny person, her over-clichéd adornment of oxymoronic  imagery (e.g., beer in hand, bacon strip in mouth, hijab on head) will only attract a limited audience, pulled in by the novelty and not by her humor. It will undercut what is indeed a creative mind.

Here’s hoping to success for Zehra Fazal–beyond schtick.

Thanks to Hussein Rashid for the tip!

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  • http://www.livingasmuslims.com Elizabeth

    This is actually pretty disgusting to hear and is only a small bit of the huge illness that has affected our Muslim community as a whole. May Allah guide all of us to what is right that will bring us closer to HIM. Ameen

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Her act sounds like utter, tripe. To use the hijb like this doesn’t sound much better then blackface.

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  • Rahat Kurd

    This is a very interesting and thoughtfully presented piece. I am not a fan of the vulgarian/shock school of contemporary comedy either, for the usual reasons. But it’s an established genre within the form, you know? If this actor and writer has decided she wants to make it in that field, let’s judge her performance by the genre’s standards. Taking moral pot-shots at something this obviously offensive to our conservative sexual codes is way too easy. It doesn’t get us anywhere – it just silences everyone. My two observations: I think her approach with the song is really original and clever, and the lines that are intended to shock, which make religious prudes like you and me cringe, do actually work as jokes. The way she says hopefully, “that ought to count for something” is actually a very sharp sendup of the kind of moral relativizing that all humans engage in and the audience really laughs because she is revealing a human fallibility they can relate to. My other point is that while Fazal has clearly won over the audience – and I’d argue the ripple effect is that those people will see Muslims in general more as humans and not a PBS program on colorful religious customs, after this – her act is based on Muslim fallibility. She should own that up front and go bare-headed on stage as she does in life. The scarf strikes the one false note in her act – it’s too patently costumey & not connected to her subject. Going without it might make it harder to get the audience’s attention at first, but once she starts singing she won’t likely have a problem. And it might make her work harder to keep developing original material – maybe with a higher tone. I generally want high-mindedness and originality from the art/performances I seek out, so if she sticks with the bacon-and-beer schtick you described on her site, I probably won’t follow her act.

  • adam

    the ramadan song was already done 3 years ago… and it was much better!


  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Lowest common denominator “ethnic comedy” especially by comedians of that ethnicity is ok to listen to once or twice. But if that form of comedy becomes a prominent part of that comedian’s act, I feel his/her jokes will become boring pretty fast. Its similar to potty humor or jokes about having sex.

    More intelligent and socially astute comedy, whether having an “ethnic” flavor or not, can clearly become more popular and in demand as Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock and Margaret Cho have shown amongst others.

    That’s why I never could get into Shazia Mirza’s act because it was too much like the former; it’s too bad Zehra Fazal’s schtick is similar to Mirza’s. I think I’ll be avoiding her too from now on.

  • Tria

    Maybe you shouldn’t be judging an entire woman’s career and talents based on one video clip you saw. If you’re going to judge her, maybe you should actually see the show and not a 3 minute context-less video on youtube and call that reporting.

    I have seen Ms. Fazal’s show and loved it. She is not abusing or misusing anything, but rather, using humor to tell a more universal story about growing up a minority in this country and being Muslim in America. It’s not a stand-up comedy routine, but a charcter that’s meant to share a relatable and honest experience. The humor, what you call schtick, is a vehicle for this larger, more poignant message, which you wouldn’t get from just watching this video.

    So maybe you should actually do some research before condemning someone and their work because a youtube clip didn’t utterly thrill you.

  • steve

    I’m not entirely sure how you can judge a one-person show based upon a clip you saw on YouTube. As a DC Director, I’ve seen this show twice, and I’d happily see it a third time. What Zehra is doing isn’t being done anywhere else in DC, and her message is both unique and necessary. It would be akin to judging your entire blog based upon one post.

    Perhaps if you make plans to see the show, you might think differently. Until then, you may want to lay off criticizing someone you’ve never seen perform.

  • Me-san

    As others have stated, you might just want to slow your roll on casting judgements.

    I could just as easily rewrite my response saying how your blog is just another tired example of cheap authorship that uses an unresearched tidbit as an instrument to climb up on their favorite soapbox about some broader issue.

    You don’t want womena and/or minorities pigeon-holed into making fun of themselves. Fine. But you picked a lousy way to make that point.

    Are you aware, for example, that Ms. Fazal has historically portrayed far more serious characters? Are you aware, that she brought tears to an audience in the character of a black woman? Or that she is experienced in Japanese theater? Someone familiar with her work could not possibly consider that Ms. Fazal is an actor that lacks courage or versatility.

    Zed Headscarf is a thoroughly endearing character that – I think an earlier poster hit the proverbial nail – expresses universal themes that attract the attention and entertain the audience because, whatever their background, they can relate. The fact that she is Muslim, ironically, is almost besides the point…which indeed is the point, eh? Zed is goofy and vulnerable, just like someone we all know. She is torn and trying, just like each of us.

    Zehra Fazal is a talented artist, and the success of Headscarf and the Angry Bitch speaks for itself. Neither bear the responsibility of combating (or making you feel better about) the marginalization of women or minorities in comedy.

    I would highly recommend you go to see the show, but that “limited audience” seems to leave performance after performance sold out.

  • Jeff C

    Perhaps before condemning or criticizing perhaps you should see the show. It has been performed in other cities.

    I’m looking forward to seeing it, personally.

  • Caitlin

    I’d just like to second the above two comments. I’ve also seen Ms. Fazal’s show twice and with good reason. Its vignettes, both musical and not, are very personal and utterly unique.

    Judging based on one out of context number and her marketing materials (*meant* to garner attention, of course, and not at all capable of representing such a complex show on their own) is irresponsible reviewing. WELL DONE. And by well, I mean poorly.

  • Gillian

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion but how about you take more than three minutes out of your day before acting as if you truly know and understand all that Zehra is doing with her show. I am not going to sit here and tell you all of the great things about the piece (which I have seen in its entirety several times) because you have, as we all have, preconceived opinions about certain topics but I invite you to actually attend the show and then see how you feel. It might not change your mind but at least you could say you gave it a go. I know religion is a touchy subject for everyone and I am certainly not saying that I have never been offended by someone presenting my religion in a certain way but at the end of the day I would rather have someone putting it out there, getting attention and representing the “human” side of my religion – letting people relate or at least realize that they don’t know all they think they do. We can all benefit from a good discussion every once in a while but let’s talk AFTER you’ve actually seen the piece you are criticizing.

  • The Editor

    Looks like some of Zehra’s supporters turned out.

    Thanks for your comments, everyone, but please keep in mind that you’re coming into a space that is primarily for Muslim women to critique images created by our communities.

    I’m genuinely happy to see that Zehra has so many supporters (even if you’re all rolling out a cut-and-pasted defense), but also a little dismayed to see so many non-Muslims (making an assumption here, but I’m willing to bet it’s correct) coming into a space for and by Muslim women and telling Sana how to do her job. Her opinion is a valid one, and if you disagree with it, stick up for Zehra by giving examples of how her comedy isn’t what Sana thinks, rather than telling Sana she’s not going a decent job.

    Like I said, I’m happy that Zehra is supported, but I’m not going to approve any more of these cheerleader comments UNLESS they can constructively offer a different opinion.

  • Amos Lem

    You want to look at facts and not have cheerleading? Well that just sounds like you only want to hear one side.

    How about a fair analysis of what has been published on this site.

    Let’s start with the writer’s credibility in the regards to the performer Zehra Fazal and the show Headscarf and the Angry Bitch. Sana has none. To my knowledge the writer has yet to see the show and is basing an entire article on a 3 minute video clip .

    (I’m just going to address the writer directly form this point on.)

    “While Fazal is ostensibly a funny person, her over-clichéd adornment of oxymoronic imagery… will undercut what is indeed a creative mind.” So you’ve made not only an assumption regarding her whole show, which you haven’t seen, and you’ve also made one about the effect the comedy, of which you’ve seen 3 minutes of, will have on her career. It kind of reminds me of Fox News depicting 3 muslims setting an American flag on fire and then blaming all of Islam for… everything that’s wrong.

    “… giving “swallowing” another meaning during Ramadan–I was a bit taken aback by her verbal sexual abrasiveness. ” Yeah, I’m pretty sure Ms. Fazal, as talented and creative as she is, didn’t give “swallowing” another meaning all by herself (see: double entendre). In addition, this sounds like you’ve got personal/religious qualms with publicly speaking about sexuality.

    I’d like to point out that the show is described on the artist’s website as “a folk-rock comedy exploring faith, love, sex and what it means to grow up Muslim in America.” If you do not want to have an open discussion regarding those issues, or at least hear Ms. Fazal’s creative exploration of those issues, then perhaps it’s not for you.

    “Here’s hoping to success for Zehra Fazal–beyond schtick.” Now that’s just plain back-handed.

    TO THE EDITOR: Perhaps a review of the responsibilities of journalism is in order (not that I’d consider this journalism, though the sentiment remains the same)

    SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: The intention behind press is to aide in creating a well-informed, well-aware, and well-educated audience by presenting a balanced and fair assessment that meets the needs of the audience.

    PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY: The authors presentation must be truthful, unbiased, well-researched, and above all, never cause embarrassment or defamation of character in any way as a result of the presentation.

    LEGAL RESPONSIBILITY: Libelous, defamatory, and/or inaccurate writings can result in but not limited to, retraction of the offending statements/opinions, a great number of replies and public responses in opposition to the presentation, statements within or opinions within the presentation, legal action.

    Now i’m not saying you don’t know this, but it might be worth reviewing prior to each publication. I keep a copy posted right next to my keyboard.

    Here’s an example of a differing opinion from the Persian News Network for those wanting a more unbiased review from someone that did see the show (as is required when writing a review on one- what some would call ‘common sense’):

    Here’s another example of a well-balanced piece:

    Did you notice how that review sounds like it’s coming from someone who has seen it? Note how it provides a full and well-rounded perspective and opinion. Unbiased, informative, and effective.

    Go see the show, take some notes, then write something that has some factual basis. Not an uninspired, uninformed, biased piece like this one.

    And try to remember that Ms. Fazal is doing something very necessary in our society. She’s opening a discussion. If opening it with a joke and then coolly slipping in something real to think about is her way of doing it, then so be it. It is her’s after all.

    You don’t have to like it, but talking about something you have no knowledge about is just silly and irresponsible. Especially when your words can directly influence her livelihood as a performer (see: Professional and Legal Responsibility).

    ::: Since I am a bit of a cynic, I’ll let you know that if this isn’t posted, I’ll assume it was too pointed for your taste and you can rest easy knowing that I’ll be posting it in many other places in the future (with hash-tags, links, and all the fun web goodies.) If you do decide to post this, feel free to remove this section indicated by the set of 3 colons as markers :::

    • Fatemeh

      @ Amos: Thanks for “mansplaining” all of that to us poor, dumb Muslim women. THANK YOU.

  • steve

    Sana/Editor/et al:

    The reason that people are “coming to Zehra’s aid,” as it were, is that we’ve seen her show, and this post gives people the impression that the show isn’t worth seeing, written by someone who hasn’t seen the show. I won’t pretend to speak for Zehra, but as an audience member, the show lifts the curtain on common (if sometimes misplaced) perceptions of Muslim women. That it’s done with humor is what makes the show so special: it educates and entertains, which is the best way to get your point across.

    I don’t think anyone here is trying to tell Sana “how to do her job.” And while the audience for this blog may primarily be Muslim women (which is a wonderful thing), it’s also an open blog, which leads one to believe that all viewpoints are welcome.

    “Headscarf and the Angry Bitch” has been an international success, playing in DC, Toronto, Cincinnati and other places. Zehra herself was featured on the Voice of America program on the Persian News Network (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsCKQl-0S5o&feature=player_embedded). With so much support and respect being given to Zehra, it’s disconcerting to see her show reduced to a comparison to Mirza, which, I think, does a disservice to them both.

  • Heather

    Wow! It’s getting kind of heated up in here!

    I would just like to make one further point about Zehra’s particular piece, having seen it a couple of times. I think that the value of this piece is that it connects what a lot of us think as “American” with preconceptions many have about what it is to be Muslim. This pieces bridges the perceived gap between the two that has been so hyped in the media. Someone made the point that she humanizes Islam for many that are unfamiliar with it. Zehra’s “Zed Headscarf” (who, it should be noted, is a character and not intended to reflect who Ms. Fazal is off stage) uses humor and “shtick” to talk about Islam with true faith and beauty. Religion is a touchy subject for many – my mom still gets annoyed when I criticize the Pope – but humor is a very American way to approach it. And I truly believe that she honored her faith in the production. I would love to buy Sana a ticket to see it. Thank you.

  • Amos Lem

    “I’m not going to approve any more of these cheerleader comments UNLESS they can constructively offer a different opinion.” -Editor

    “@ Amos: Thanks for “mansplaining” all of that to us poor, dumb Muslim women. THANK YOU.” -Fatemeh

    • Fatemeh

      Mansplaining isn’t constructive. But at least you have thorough to fall back on.

  • http://www.livingasmuslims.com Elizabeth

    “SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: The intention behind press is to aide in creating a well-informed, well-aware, and well-educated audience by presenting a balanced and fair assessment that meets the needs of the audience.”

    I’ve become well informed and well aware simply by watching the clip.I didn’t even need comments. :)

  • Sana

    As Fatemeh mentioned – I’m critiquing the image of Fazal. I looked at other clips, I looked at interviews and I read articles about her and her website. I didn’t just watch a three minute clip and make up my mind about her. Nor do I have my mind made up about her right now.

    What I did see, however, for the most part seemed schticky – especially this particular show, for which she has gotten a lot of international attention. I do think we need to have a healthy conversation regarding sexuality, for everyone really, but I think it can be done without the sort of ‘shock’ comedy displayed by not only Fazal in this particular show, but many others.