Iranian-American Comedian Tackles Muslim Stereotypes

Writer, performer, and comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh performed her monologue “All Atheists are Muslim” in USF’s Presentation theatre last week. The place was crowded with students, professors, and members of the local community. Zahra played four characters in the monologue; her boyfriend Duncan, her father, her mother, and of course, herself. The story centers on the autobiographical story of Zahra and her family when she tells them that she and her white atheist boyfriend are moving in together. The performance was greeted with constant laughter from the audience. Themes of Islamophobia, inter-cultural relationships, stereotypes, and family were intertwined in the performance.
Islamic Studies Professor Aysha Hidayatullah said that it was important to have this event on campus because “it communicates so much of what remains unspoken about Muslim Americans’ experiences: the pressures, ambiguities, and complexities that ordinary media neglect.” Professor Aysha added that performances such as Noorbakhsh’s monologue succeed in transmitting feelings about identity the Muslim community rarely expresses.
In a private Foghorn interview, Noorbakhsh said, “The idea that all Muslim women are oppressed and that we don’t have a platform for feminism is a stereotype I confront in my monologue.”
In “All Atheists are Muslim”, Noorbakhsh is faced with explaining to her parents that she and her boyfriend Duncan are moving in together which is not usually allowed in traditional Muslim families. Dating someone who is not Muslim is not common either.
However, in the monologue Noorbakhsh’s father develops a compromise that allows her to live with her boyfriend.
“It isn’t very often when your favorite character is the patriarchal Muslim father that was the one who comes up with this compromise, that itself busts many stereotypes,” Noorbakhsh said.
Aly El Sakhawy a member of the Muslim Student Association present at the event said, “I was surprised and I really like the fact that she described her experience as a Muslim in American society with traditional parents”.
Muslim Student Association President Rabell Afridi said, however, that Noorbakhsh’s family has a liberal view in allowing their daughter to date someone who isn’t Muslim.
“Although I was born and raised in the bay area, my family is from Pakistan and I know that my mom would prefer me to marry a Pakistani man but I’m sure that if she knew how much I cared about someone then she would ultimately let me make the decision. However, religion is not something that I or her are willing to compromise on. I prefer to marry a Muslim because I really love my religion,” Afridi said.
Noorbakhsh explained that being in an intercultural relationship comes with “hiccups in the road” but seven years later she and Duncan are still together. She said that her parents are her biggest supporters and they loved the performance.
When asked if she really thought all atheists were Muslim Noorbakhsh said, “We all believe in forces greater than ourselves and therefore we all have Islamic characteristics.” Her father in the monologue uses gravity as an example of a greater power thus alluding that believing in a force bigger than oneself can be an expression of faith. This can be true regardless of one’s religion or lack of belonging to a structured religion.

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