But performing at the mosque in 2001, and I was like most Canadians, I didn’t know a thing about the Muslim culture. I didn’t know that there were over a billion Muslims in the world. That Islam meant submission to God, Muslims are followers of Islam, and the God they worship is called Allah.
When I expressed my concern to the woman hiring me from the Islamic Women’s Steering committee, she saw it differently. “You’re speaking on International Women’s Day, and they’re female, and you’re female. Plus, funny is funny.”
I prepped as best I could, and got there early, to case out the joint. I do this before every performance because walking around getting a sense of the space calms my nerves. When I went to the washroom to put on my lipstick, I came upon the first difference. There were watering cans in each stall and I had no clue what they were for.
Soon, a diverse-looking group started filing in, hailing from across the world. Paris, France, to Senegal, to India. Many worked at Queen’s University, or at CFB Kingston, or the royal military college. These consisted of married and single women, conservative and liberal Muslims; many practicing and some just culturally Muslim.
When I stood up to Emcee, I looked out over a sea of women, all had heads covered, most wearing the Hijab. Just like there is no one kind of Muslim, nor is there one kind of hijab. There were black hijabs that framed the face. Hijabs with brightly coloured designs- fashion pieces that at the break instead of saying, I love your shirt, I was saying, I love your hijab. Some wore thier hijab with basic street clothes. Others a Hijab with the full Burka. One lady wore a burqa with a Niqab covering the entire face with only a small screen in front of the eyes. I immediately wanted to give her my confession.
Walking into this situation, I realized I had many preconceived ideas about what I thought these coverings symbolized. Repression. Modesty. Or for a person like me who had psoriasis, the best beach cover ever invented.
But my job was not to make judgements but to make them laugh. I learned early on you need to find something in common to break the ice. Something in your story to compare to their own life. For instance, when I was growing up Catholic, women couldn’t go into church without a head covering. If we forgot our hats, we would cut a Kleenex into a snowflake shape and use bobby pins to fasten it on our heads. Was that the same thing? Or something completely different?
I played it safe and kicked off the day by admitting my limitations. This is a trick I heard Larry King from CNN used: “Be honest with the audience. Tell them upfront what you don’t know.”
I walked up to the front of the room, and said, “Let me get this off my chest. I just went to the bathroom. I don’t know what the watering cans are for. Am I supposed to do some gardening while I am in there?”
Laughter erupted. Even the woman in the Niqab was laughing. Well, I assume she was as her shoulders were moving up and down. They yelled out that watering cans were a rudimentary bidet of sorts. (In much more eloquent terms, you swish some water in the under regions of your lady parts: for hygienic reasons.) When people begin yelling out suggestions you know you are going to be okay.
After 15 minutes, they took a coffee break and refilled the cheese trays and rolled out the chocolate fountain, It was 9:45 a.m. I couldn’t start eating chocolate at 9:45 in the morning, or I’d be in a diabetic coma, by lunchtime, so I went to the bathroom and took the watering can to wake up myself up. Some comics tie their shoes up tight to keep them sharp I splashed water on my vagina. When I came out, I looked like I had wet my pants. The comedy just writes itself. As I pointed to the wet spot on my skirt, I asked, “ What does the chocolate fountain symbolize?” The woman in the Niqab stood up and said, “It symbolizes that we like chocolate.” More laughter.
“Maybe you’d like to be up here?” I asked and she feigned getting up to join me.
Before lunch, a woman from the city presented some of the community’s services offered to new immigrants to Canada. The Imam’s wife (Iman is the minister, and this was the minister’s wife) then spoke, and she had a confusing message.
Mohammad said they need to honour their husbands but not take abuse from anyone. Then it was lunchtime- again—curries, samosa, and paneer with spinach over saffron rice. If we want to end prejudice, we should just serve people lunch. How can you criticize a woman’s burqa if you have tased her curry? This could be the solution to world peace. Have the leaders of the G8 summit be in a food court in a neutral country like Switzerland and have a recipe exchange. “I’ll give you back some of the West Bank if you tell me your falafel recipe.
The main course was skewer of chicken and lamb with honey cake and more chocolate for dessert.
I was having to undo my top button of my jacket.
After lunch, a local physician got up and spoke of women’s reproductive systems. This doctor was a brilliantly skilled communicator who conveyed the information so that all women in the room could receive it without embarrassment. There were no dirty asides or innuendoes. It was just the medical facts. I have to admit, I learned a thing or two about my reproductive organs. Points that would have prevented me from having two kids nine months apart. One after another, women got up and asked about their daughter’s bodies in a way that made me realize the information was not for their daughters. “Now, if my daughter went into menopause, what medicine might she take?” There seemed to be a rudimentary lack of knowledge about the body.
Was this a fundamental lack of information? Or the result of coming from parts of the world where a woman’s body (and rights) have been at the mercy of men for centuries.
I looked at the woman from the community services for an answer, and she rolled her eyes and mouthed the words, “They know nothing.” She said it in a way like the two of us were co-conspirators. I immediately hated her and moved away from her, praying not to waterboard her in the chocolate fountain.
The Dr had to walk a fine line of giving information in a straightforward way to women from all over the world, with very different backgrounds and varying degrees of comfort around talking about their bodies and at the same time make sure she offended no one. On top of that women had to agree to ask questions. They had to be vulnerable enough to ask these questions in front of their community. To admit what they didn’t know.
The questions kept on coming and the doctor went well over time, and when she finished, the chocolate fountain was replenished once more to keep them going for the last hour which was me. Muslims prayed five times a day. I didn’t realize that they ate that many times as well. Catholicism could take a chapter from their book in terms of food.
All morning I had made my usual jokes about a woman balancing a career and home life; my standard schtick. I could do it in my sleep. They laughed in the right places, but I felt I had a duty to talk about our history as women. On the one hand, a former Catholic woman born in Canada might have very little in common with these women. On the other hand, if you look back a couple of generations to see where my female relatives came from, you’d see how they had struggled for agency over their lives.
“As we sit here on International Women’s Day, “I said, “We need to look back to the moments before this one? Back to the women in our lives and where they came from. Can you imagine your moms and grandmothers having the things you have today?” Heads began nodding. “My grandmothers had Kimmett and Brady, very different lives. See, they were rural women. Always home, always sitting on their couches. It was like they sat there just waiting for us to visit. We’d drop by and then stand in the doorway for ten minutes telling them all the reasons we couldn’t stay. There was Grandma Brady, who was wearing her wig in a darkened living room. The drapes were always closed because the furniture and her face would fade should they’d be exposed to light. She lit up a smoke. She’d give me one.” One woman in the back shook her head disapprovingly. “I was the only eight-year-old I knew with smoker’s fingers.” The woman in the back now smiled. “Grandma Kimmett sat in the sunroom on her green vinyl couch on her Princess phone. Ordering cheap stuff from the Sears catalogue. And ordering Grandpa around. “Vernie, get the kids a piece of pie.” We never knew when she baked because she never got off that couch, but there were always 3 kinds. Grandma Kimmett was a big woman. Big is all right for a man. But not for a woman, you can’t be big without explaining to people, you’re about to get small, very soon. She was big and ate “like a bird.”
My other Grandma Brady was small and smoked Belvedere cigarettes and ate “like a horse.” The priest would ask her, “How’s it going, Mary? And she’d say, “I have ten kids- It’s going all the time, Father.’ Grandma Kimmett didn’t talk sass like that. She just sat there delivering a long stream of consciousness about long-dead people from generations we never lived in. Grandpa sat at the end of the couch. She was heavier than him, so he was just a little bit higher. And one time, while Grandma Kimmett was talking, Grandpa fell off the couch, which left Grandma sitting on a bit of a slant. She looked like she was sitting on an ironing board. There he was lying on the floor, and she kept on talking. We watched him struggle to his feet and we just sat there, doing nothing. She had us in a trance.”
“When he finally got up, Grandma, without missing a beat, said, “You had a nap did you, ‘Vernie?’
“If Grandma Brady’s husband had fallen on the floor, she’d have taken her cigarette and flicked her ashes on him and said, “Have you been into the rye, old man?” We can laugh at our grandmothers, but if your grandmothers are like mine, they had little schooling, no agency over their bodies, and no opportunity to pursue their dreams. Yet they laid the foundation on which we built our lives.”
I spoke about my Mom. “As a young girl, my mom was happy: there are pictures to prove it. There is a black and white picture of her as a fat baby in a big bowl sitting in the sun. Pictures of her as a teenager kicking her legs up in her bathing suit. There are stories about her dancing on the table when her mother and dad went to town. But by the time I was born, all poetry had been sucked from the bones. All her memories were painted over with blood and gristle. Maybe it was the harshness of the time, one that all children of the Great Depression faced. From a young age, you were expected if it didn’t involve sweat and working like a dog. It trained her to be frugal – so much so she would put her gum in a spot inside the kitchen cupboard so she could chew it later. She’d take one stick of Wrigley’s and divide it between the six kids. She re-heated her meatballs and her chicken. And as she aged, she became obsessed with how little she could eat. She’d point at a small piece of chicken and say, “See that chicken breast, I’ve managed to have that last 3 meals.” As she got old, she was no longer poor -nor was she was uncharitable with her gifts but, she remembered that kind of humble beginning follows you. She was recycling before it became fashionable. My mother was obsessively fair. She gave to each of us kids equally. But she’d slap away compliments like you’d slap away a man with a stray hand. You had to earn everything, even grace. “It’s called an unmerited gift for a reason,” she’d say. She assumed a gift of kindness would be followed by another shoe dropping. ”
“People tell you today that you need to listen to what is going on in your body. But this is a relatively modern concept. An entitled idea for my parent’s absolute survival was about pushing past all the signals the body had for rest. Self-care wasn’t part of the vernacular. Sleeping was when you took care of yourself. A good night’s sleep. It will all look better in the morning. God help you if you woke up, mother before morning, but Dad was like me; he roamed the halls many nights, making bacon and eggs and reading a good book.”
Despite their love for each other, my Catholic grandparents didn’t approve of my parent’s marriage. Not at first. He was a Protestant, and she was a Catholic. Two religions coming together had people taking sides. But, eventually, the family got on board with it and by the end of his life, my father was grandpa’s favourite son-in-law.
My mother, as a woman, always made sacrifices. When she got married, she gave up her career. It’s just the way it is. She didn’t use birth control because that was what the Church demanded. She had six kids. She always said that’s how many she wanted. But did she? See what choice she had when she lived in a day when that was what laid out for her? As much as she loved us, she also wanted something else her mom didn’t have. She wanted a career. And after the sixth child was born, my brother Paul, went back to school and took 9 years of night courses to earn a B.A. She graduated from Queen’s University at the same time I graduated from a community college.”
This is where clapping erupted. Normally I would stop at this point. But I moved into my long circuitous journey with God and Mom -I could not talk about one without mentioning the other.
“My life had more opportunities than my mother and grandmothers. I’ve been able to experiment and explore my options. For years, I tried to honour what the women in my family did to move the needle forward. I have tried to understand where she came from in hopes that she would understand me one day. But that hasn’t happened. I hoped there would be a softening. But she still holds onto her beliefs with a tight fist. While I admire her resilience, that toughness cuts me to the quick. It seems to make no room for me or my choices.”
I stuck in a breath that makes a strange whistle that embarrasses me. It’s like when you spit when you’re talking. there is no pretending you didn’t make the sound. I looked over at Iman’s wife and she was kind and smiling. And, but my body was betraying me. Tears were forming on the edge of the outer eyes> I was going to cry in front of this group. I pulled back from the edge and made some smart-ass comment about leaking all over the place, and a, we -are women -hear us roar platitude and sat down.
So much for a big finish. Crickets—complete silence.
Maybe honesty isn’t always the best policy.
After what seemed like a whole minute, the woman in the Niqab stood up and hooted and hollered, and fifty women followed suit.
Afterwards, women came up to me, while giving me hold-on-for-dear-life bear hugs, and one after another they whispered fragments of the stories of their “moment before” in my ears, I was overwhelmed.
At the end of the line was a woman who stood and smiled. Finally, she moved forward. Dressed in a beautiful bright batik Dhaka around her head with a knot tied to the side. She looked majestic and had a smooth, bourbon voice. Her eyes were filled with tears. Her moment before was a circuitous route from Africa to Paris to Kingston -letting go of locations that she knew as home. When she left Africa for Paris, she stood up to her father by insisting on education for herself. That decision, which I would have made easily living in Canada, came with a high price for her. It meant that her father would never speak to her again.
In Paris, she was introduced to the man who her mother arranged for her to marry a man who she didn’t like at all. “I looked at him and said yuck and he looked at her and said yuck, ” She stood up to her mother and said she would marry who she wanted. Her mother hadn’t spoken to her since. She then moved to Canada to a small community and also battled inherent prejudice. Of being Muslim in 2001. Of wearing a burqa. To make matters worse, the man she’d rejected (and he, her) had his pride hurt so he commissioned his brothers in Canada to kill her. Their attempt was aborted somehow because she was here standing before me telling her story.
“I am sorry you had to go through that,” I said but she shook her head, “No. no, I am fine. I am safe.” No one that has overcome this kind of trial wants your pity. “I lost a family, and now I gained a degree. Now the only thing I need to defend is my thesis for my Ph.D.”
Larry King’s advice needs to be amended. We need to find something in common, but our experiences are not equal. Identifying is terrific, but to put my privileged experience in the same pot as hers is reductive. She was pushing past not just familial beliefs but the beliefs of her culture.
There we were standing before each other holding each other’s stories: Me with the wisdom scarf and tribal coat I bought from a small twee shop in Northern Ontario. She, with her bare neck adorned with silver with her batik scarf tied like a regal coronet.
“I know this Allah wants all the good for us, yes?” I nodded and she said it again.“Yes. Yes. Allah loves you. And I love you, so what’s wrong with that?” she said.
“Nothing. And I love you, too,” I said as an afterthought that would have made Ned Flanders cringe.
As we hugged again, I realized I’d walked into the room that day, with the belief I had risked a lot to be me but by comparison these women had risked their lives to lead an authentic life. I had moved from Toronto to Napanee and Regina and back. These women moved across the world and back to find a home where they could blossom. Many had earned multiple degrees and learned several languages while pushing up against racism and bigotry from the outside world. And strict codes within their families. Sometimes the moves they made were something they reached for and other times it was something they did for survival.
As we let go of our hug, the woman in the Niqab passed by and hip-checked me,
“Maybe I should be a comedienne, eh?”
In a voice far too perky, I replied, “You should, you really, really should.”
UPCOMING SHOWS AND WRITING WORKSHOPS
Need a laugh with your mom or daughter May 1st comedy Show Overnight Sensation!May 1st and