Over this past weekend, I spent some time at Chicago Theological Seminary, for their Raging Issues of Today Conference (RIOTcon, for short). It brought together academics and activists from across a progressive spectrum of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
While I was there, I got the chance to meet Fawzia Mirza, a wiry woman with a ten-thousand watt smile. It turns out she’s neither an academic nor an activist - she’s a comedian. So why was she at the conference?
“I guess I’m here because I do a lot of work across identities,” she said. “I create a lot of content across different identities - across my own identity - breaking down stereotypes - across race, and sexual orientation, and religion, and gender. And I use comedy to do that.”
An actress of Pakistani origin who hails from Canada, Mirza now calls Chicago home. Se has performed in a number of well-received plays around the city, and has made a guest appearance on Chicago Fire.
Where she really shines, though, is when she goes for your funny bone.
“The way I know how to communicate best is by laughing with someone,” she says, as she runs her thumbs across the tips of her fingers, as if she’s trying to get the feel of something. “Connecting with someone in a different way. Kind of, I don’t know, kind of in a little bit more earthy way.”
“Once you can connect with someone in a different way, you can open up a space for a different sort of conversation.”
And why is that important?
“Well,” she says, that smile lighting up again as she cocks her head sharply to the side and throws her eyes upward with just the teensiest hint of exasperation, “I identify as a queer Pakistani Muslim woman. So I am one of the raging issues of today.”
She recently made a web mockumentary where she played Ayesha Ali Trump, the illegitimate Muslim daughter of Donald Trump, to explore what she sees as a “climate of hate” in America towards Muslims at the moment.
“But more than that, you know, one of the raging issues I see is these minority groups who are learning how to - and need to - have more conversations about the intersectionality of identities versus the differences.”
What exactly does she mean by this?
“Well…,” she says, nodding, as if she’s letting us in on a secret, “I am a Pakistani woman who looks like Ralph Macchio” - you know, that skinny actor from the ‘80s who played The Karate Kid - “So one of the raging issues of today, as I see it, is why do I exist?”
This was, for me, the most brilliant moment of this brief interaction - because it made crystal clear what was at stake in this conversation. This is not an abstract moment of political theory; this is who she is. Her very existence - as a Muslim, as a woman, and as someone who visibly identifies as queer - makes her a spectacle, an object of conversation, and, unfortunately, a target.
Mirza plays the moment with a light touch - she is a professional comedian, after all - but that makes the point all the more poignant. She’s aware that these combinations that collide in her make her problematic for the many communities in which she moves:
- As a Muslim, she is “the other” in America.
- As a queer woman, she is “the other” within Islam.
- As a Pakistani, she is tied up in an ancient set of hatreds and conflicts, even though she lives thousands of miles away from them.
She will cop to the haircut, though, That was all her own doing.
“There’s so much work to be done in a new way,” she says, bringing the point home. “I don’t think we have the answers of how to do that yet.”
“But that’s what’s so cool about this conference. It’s getting all of these people together, from their own kind of backgrounds with their own styles of conversation. Like me: I’m basically trying to make you laugh. That’s what I add to this conversation. So we’re basically brainstorming, and trying to create this think-tank, to find out what we can do better.”
And with that, Mirza went back into the commotion of the conference, to add her queer, Muslim, Pakistani, woman’s voice - once again - to the conversation.