Norway may be associated with nordic ski sweaters and very blond people, but it is also home to immigrant populations from all over the world. WENA POON talks to the country's most famous Muslim stand-up comic, Shabana Rehman, about laughter, Islam, and growing up Pakistani in the land of snow and reindeer.
Shabana Rehman, 27, in her publicity poster for her stand-up act, "Skiing Across Greenland". Her act is named after a famous skiing feat by a Norwegian hero; "Greenland" is also the local term for an immigrant neighborhood in Oslo, Norway.
Your family immigrated from Pakistan to Norway in the 70's. Where were you born?
I was born in Karachi, at the south coast of Pakistan, in 1976. My family immigrated to Oslo the year after I was born.
Why Norway? Were your dad and mum worried about bringing up kids there?
My father worked in several countries in Europe before he ended up in Norway. He found Norway quiet, kind and small enough for his wife and children. There was lots of work here in the service sector. My parents have seven children and believed very much that in Norway they would get the chance to give all of us a good education and a safe future.
Tell us more about your family of seven kids.
I have four brothers and two sisters. I am in the middle, and I love to make jokes about my family, especially my loving, caring and smart mummy. She`s really funny. She's a proud mother of seven, but also a great comedian (but she doesn't know this, don't tell her!)
My parents werenīt "highly-educated", but neither were they from the village like many of the member in the Pakistani community in Norway. They werenīt strongly practising Muslims - they focused more on survival. They did a great job in giving us the opportunity to grow up in a free country. We learned to be ourselves, not to be who others wanted us to be.
There are pretty large Muslim communities in Britain and America. What's the Muslim community in Norway like?
In Norway there are approximately 70,000 Muslims out of a total population of 4 million. Most Muslims live in or around the capital, Oslo. By now, 35% of all children starting school in Oslo have a non-western background.
There are only three generations of immigrants here. The first generation took the jobs that the native Norwegians didnīt want. The second generation of immigrants - people in their twenties and thirties - speaks Norwegian very well. They are educated here and are getting better jobs. They do, however, face discrimination against their faith and the color of their skin.
How would you characterize some of the current issues facing the Norwegian Muslim community?
There is growing Islamic fundamentalism in Norway, like elsewhere in the world. I believe this is a much more dangerous issue for Muslims here than the problem of racial discrimination. Young Muslims have to fight for their rights and not become victims or allow themselves to be brainwashed by Islamic fanaticism. The new generation of Muslims in Norway have never been exposed to anything outside of the country. Fundamentalism is not good for their social education.
It`s important to talk about these issues in an open debate, to demand human rights and freedom, democracy, free speech. Freedom to choose your own future, clothes, sexual life, social life, and work - even for Muslim women - without being physically attacked for your views.
Let's talk about your stand-up act. How long have you been a comedian?
I started in 1999. I was a columnist and used to write short, satiric articles. A friend became a stand-up comedian and asked me to help him to write some material. When he saw my jokes, he told me to try doing stand-up myself. I did, and since then I have been working full time as a stand-up comedian.
In the beginning it was just for fun, but soon I realized that people found it strange and shocking that a girl with a Muslim/Pakistani background is standing on a stage and joking about life in Norway.
Why is it strange to them? What do Norwegians expect a Muslim Pakistani woman to be?
The Norwegian newspapers tend to focus on tragic stories of immigrant life, like the burning of Indian women, honor killings, crimes, and young immigrant gangs who scare the white majority. Like many youngsters, I felt that these stories create a lot of prejudices and are not fair to us. So I told jokes about what Norwegian guys ask me when I date them, like: "Hi, if I get hot on you, would your family burn you up then? And I answer, "Shut up, just screw me, I`ve got a fire extinguisher in my kitchen!'"
In the media or in politics, there weren't any voices of immigrants who reflected positive values. On stage, I started to talk about and attack prejudices about the immigrant community.
What was the reaction from Muslims?
To my surprise, I realized that there were immigrants who didn't like what I was doing on stage. They didn't want me to say things like "I own my own body, I decide what I should wear, who I want to sleep with, who I want to marry, who I want to work with." They didn't like how I decide what I want to say on stage, and many Muslims don't want me to become an ideal for their daughters.
I start asking why, by writing columns in the newspaper. Why shouldnīt all girls in Norway have the same rights? Why canīt I talk about whatever I want, when other Norwegian stand-up comedians can?
The reactions and answers I got was anti-democratic. Religion was one of the hot topics which came up again and again in the criticisms I received. Many Muslims believe religion is an ok reason to oppress other people.
My answer to their reactions was to paint my body with the Norwegian flag and pose in the nude. My message was: my body is my property. Neither religion, cultural practices, or even Norwegian prejudices can take that from me. After that, I think both Norwegians and Muslims were shocked and had to accept that I really mean what I said.
What are some of your favorite subjects during your stand-up routine?
I love to kick both East and West on stage. One of the things I like to point out is that living in a multicultural society can be a funny, crazy and loving experience, if only we can prevent discrimination and Islamic fundamentalism from destroying our rights and our chances of friendship.
What's your current favorite joke in your routine?
Oh, are you sure you want to hear that? Well, once I told the audience that I am gonna tell them a really dirty joke, and then I do so: in Pakistani!!! Norwegians always love that one.
How would you describe your relationship with religion in your life?
My only relationship to religion is to make people laugh at religious arrogance and the consequences of religious discrimination. But I have to admit that in the private I like to pray to some kind of power somewhere who can protect me. Isnīt that sweet?
Stand-up comedy requires a lot of courage, but your job is even more difficult because as a female Muslim comedian you risk antagonizing members of your community.
What motivates you to get up everyday and do what you do?
I am motivated by laughter - the laughter of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, women, men and children in the audience. I am also inspired by my life experience, about thoughts about the future and the next generation. The stand-up comic's stage is a fantastic and honest stage. You can perform miracles. When someone is laughing, he can't shoot at you, can he?
When you're not performing on stage, what are some of the things you love to do?
Be with my fiancé, spend time at my sisterīs restaurant. I also love to sleep, read and surf on the Internet. And eat. I like being with children , they inspire me a lot. And .....there are many things. I do so much comedy now, that during most of my free time I want other people to make me laugh.
If you were in charge of the world today, what are some of the first things you go about fixing?
Now, that is a typical Miss World question! I would destroy all kind of weapons , educate as many people as possible about democracy and human rights, and make all high-heeled shoes disappear. I would also tell the Pope to stop killing people by telling them lies about condoms.
When can we see you perform in America?
I have been receiving lots of kind and reflective e-mails from Americans lately and hope that someday - maybe next year - I can perform in the U.S.
How do you say in Norwegian, "Asian Girl Power!"?
Hey I like that ! Say it like this: ASIATISK JENTEMAKT!
Shabana Rehman's Norwegian website is www.shabana.no.