- The Washington Times - Monday, October 29, 2001

Shazia Mirza is fast becoming the world's most wanted Muslim woman. She is popular because she tells jokes about Osama bin Laden.
As Britain's only Muslim woman known to be performing stand-up comedy, Miss Mirza, 26, is becoming a favorite with comedy-club promoters and radio-discussion programs.
Demand for the Birmingham, England-born comic also is coming from two countries at the heart of international events: the United States and Pakistan. In America, she has been asked to appear on Oprah Winfrey's television program and take part in a benefit event to raise money for families of the victims of the World Trade Center attack.
In Pakistan, where her parents were born, she is wanted for a one-woman show in Lahore. In another career boost, she collected a Young Achiever of the Year prize in this week's GG2 Leadership and Diversity Awards, which recognize success stories within the Asian community.
Miss Mirza, who has been in stand-up comedy for little more than a year, wears a Muslim scarf when performing and speaks with a distinctive deadpan drawl. She says she is a centrist, devout Muslim, placed between two cultures and able to cast a critical, as well as a forgiving, eye on both.
"The whole point of my act," she said, "is to help reduce Islamophobia in Britain. The reason it took off was that no one had really heard what it's like to be a Muslim woman here. There were so many stereotypes. I talked about my life and I allowed people to laugh along with me."
Religious comedians are still relatively new. Some work the evangelical Christian circuit and others are Jewish, but rarely does one find an Islamic comedian, much less a female one.
But the white, male-dominated world of stand-up, so often inhospitable to women comedians, swiftly took her to heart.
"A lot of Muslim men think that it's not the place for a woman to stand on stage in front of a drunken crowd trying to make them laugh," she says. "But actually Islam gives women a lot of power. We're not all as oppressed as the women in Afghanistan.
"Just by standing on stage, I'm liberating women, and some men clearly fear that means they'll lose the upper hand."
Since Sept.11, she thought no one would want to listen to her at all. Even the most famous American comedy shows were afraid for days to address the terrorist attack or deliver what Comedy Central host Bill Maher called a "cathartic leavening of the situation." The Onion, one of the earlier publications to make gags about the situation, wrote up an account of the hijackers arriving in hell.
Miss Mirza likewise was afraid to say much.
"I canceled gigs for a week afterwards and on the first night I went back on stage, there was so much tension in the air; people were scared to laugh," she says.
"I could see everyone thinking, 'Is she going to address the situation?' It wasn't until two weeks later that I did. I came on and said: 'My name is Shazia Mirza at least that's what it says on my pilot's license.' They stood on their feet and applauded."
Since then, the former biochemistry student, who taught physics after leaving her university, has expanded the amount of material she devotes to the crisis, which shows no sign of abating. Pakistan, her parents' homeland, is right in the midst of the conflict.
"You have to attack ignorance with humor," she said. "We're not all fanatics. I tell audiences how they can distinguish me from Muslim terrorists: They have bigger moustaches than I do."
She finds terrorist mastermind bin Laden absurd, but the attempts to catch him farcical.
"I was amused by comments made by his son that when he gets angry, he becomes invisible," she says. "He has led a ridiculous life. And now this one man has got the whole of the West running after him trying to get him out of a cave. It's quite funny when you think about it."


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