Happy Persian New Year! It’s Nowrūz today and to celebrate the beginning of the new year in the Iranian calendar, Our Other Sisters has interviewed Zahra Noorbakhsh. Zahra is a Muslim, Iranian-American writer, performer and comedian. She has two one-woman shows: “All Atheists Are Muslim” and “Hijab and Hammerpants.” Zahra has contributed to the Anthology “Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women” with her memoir “The Birds, The Bees – and My Hole” in which she shares her experience losing her virginity.
Living as an Iranian-American presents challenges for Zahra. Talk of a potential war with Iran has exacerbated these difficulties.
Zahra tells us about how she comprehended and interpreted her identity during her childhood: “Growing up Iranian, Muslim and American, for me, was a very performative experience, in that I was always trying to find an example for how I was supposed to act, think, or feel as an American. In retrospect, I think I was just trying to relate, which is so much a part of my work today.
“I spiritually connect with the tenants of Islam, but not in a daily practice”
Despite growing up in a “very religious household” Zahra tells us that she considers herself a “secular Muslim” today.
“I like talking topics that would otherwise seem heavy-handed—topics like interfaith relationships, Islam and the politics of wearing hijab, sex and love—and looking at them through a comedic lens. Nothing brings people together like laughter. In order to laugh about something, we have to genuinely get the joke; so I feel there are a lot of ways that comedy is able to get into the hearts of people where a lecture, an article, or even a dramatic piece cannot.”
Zahra tells us that the prevailing Western image of Middle Eastern women “is that we’re oppressed, in need of saving; that we don’t think for ourselves or that we don’t know how to.”
Gender inequality is a global concern and Zahra is adamant that Western women need to become conscious of their own oppression before telling other women how to live their lives.
“Currently, in the United States there’s a war on women’s reproductive rights that our politicians can’t seem to acknowledge or protect us against. It makes me wonder: if we can’t come to a general consciousness as to what is and isn’t a woman’s right to her body here, then how can we help women’s rights abroad without imposing on them an “American” way of being.”
“There is a misconception that Iran and other cultures of the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa can be lumped together”
In terms of the Arab Spring, Zahra is inspired by the women’s voices which have emerged from the revolutions.
The American in Zahra reflects that; considering the “resources we have here in the US to give women a platform and with the value we place on individual liberties, it’s a wonder we’re not further along in the battle to preserve women’s rights on our own soil.”
“I’m afraid for the Iranian people on the whole”
Zahra was more hopeful for the rights of women in Iran before Ahmadinejad’s “reign.”
“President Khatami was considered by many, a ‘feminist’ president (as we understand the term here) ad so was his daughter, who herself was very outspoken.”Khatami, the fifth president of Iran served between 1997 and 2005.
Under Ahmadinejad’s current regime Zahra fears what the future will bring for Iran’s foreign policy. She is worried how future foreign policy might hurt the Iranian people.
“Unfortunately, where general human rights violations are afoot, women’s rights and the progress of women’s place in culture, take a back seat.
“Manifest destiny still seems to have its place on the congressional floor”
What does Zahra think about the persistence of the West to intervene in Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian countries?
“When I open up to the idea of “Western Intervention” for human rights in Iran, it feels like I’m just fueling the enemy with the excuse they were looking for to bust-in, “in the name of democracy,” to hurt my family in a thinly veiled effort to hoard more oil and boost arms dealing profits.”
Zahra expresses her personal experience as an Iranian-American through a performance medium. She tells us that her show “All Atheists Are Muslim” is an “autobiographical boy-meets-girl story up against thousands of years of cultural tradition and religious doctrine.”
A condensed interpretation of reality, the show retells Zahra’s 25-year-old self moving in with her “white (infidel-non-believing) athiest boyfriend Duncan.”
“The conundrum of the show being that I want my Islamic, Iranian family’s blessing and I don’t want to convert Duncan, or get married.”
Zahra makes it very clear that this story is one Muslim girl’s story, not every Muslim girls’ story.
“The title suggests that if atheist and Muslim ideologies aren’t all that different than the rest of us in between can come together too!”