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Toronto Salma Hindy defies cultural and comedic conventions on the stand-up stage

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Did you hear the one about the Muslim comedian?

Salma Hindy is building a budding comedy fan base, even if her parents don't approve

Salma Hindy poses for a portrait before performing at the Cameron House Comedy night in Toronto on Monday July 24, 2017.

When comedian Salma Hindy took the stage at downtown Toronto's Cameron House this past April, a crowd began to shout, "It's a Muslim takeover!" The rowdy group took up the entire space in front of the dimly lit stage and made it clear that they wanted to see and be seen. The performer, a visibly Muslim woman who wore a beige hijab, was unfazed by the noise. Instead, she smiled readily as she took the mic.

Half of those doing the chanting were part of the "Muslim takeover" too – a rowdy but friendly mini-mob of Ms. Hindy's friends and admirers who can often be spotted at her performances. They're tough to miss, many in hijabs, pumping their fists in the air while screaming "woo-hoo!"

"We never get this many people on Mondays!" said the host for the free event, which featured sets from about a dozen stand-up comics. Ms. Hindy, 25, took the stage after a man who joked for the most part about his dogs and a woman whose graphic remarks about her sex life drew mostly silence from the Muslim crowd. After several more ill-fated attempts at humour that involved mentions of recreational drug use, she finally let out a nervous sigh and asked them half-jokingly, "Okay, so like, what do you guys even do?"

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The Muslims clapped loudly for this burst of honesty, as did the surrounding non-Muslim audience members, most of whom had large pints of beer on their tables.

Ms. Hindy, who works as an engineer during the day, then took to the stage, entertaining the crowd with jokes about the ups and downs of living and working as a visibly Muslim woman in Toronto. She drew loud laughs from the crowd with a story about tripping over some stairs one morning as she rushed to catch the GO train to work. When she got up from her fall and limped to the entrance, she noticed expressions of exaggerated horror on the faces of her fellow commuters.

"They obviously thought I looked like some victimized Muslim woman who sustained an injury from a husband or something," she joked. "This is when I realized that, guys, being injured is clearly white privilege!

"Like, when other women sprain their ankles it's an accident, but when it happens to me it gets attributed to the men in my family? C'mon!"

Ms. Hindy’s humour includes jokes about ups and downs of living and working as a visibly Muslim woman in Toronto.

Ms. Hindy's humour often revolves around the social absurdities that are her lot as a Muslim woman in a politically charged time.

She often makes fun of the "docile Middle Eastern woman" stereotype by making sarcastic reference to not being allowed to drive – an obvious reference to Saudi Arabia, where women can't obtain a licence. Or she'll mock the "Islamic terrorist" cliché by complaining that she never got the memo to attend any of the terrorists' planning meetings, despite sharing the same religion with them.

"Am I not good enough for my own people or something?" she says, exasperated.

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Yet she's not poking fun solely at Islamophobes. One of Ms. Hindy's most common jokes involves her pointing out that the Muslim community's apparent lack of organizational skills and cohesion prove that they are, despite today's post-9/11 fears, "too unprofessional and lazy to take over the world!"

Despite the biting jokes, Ms. Hindy strikes a relatively gentle tone in most of her appearances. She always performs with a smile and, despite throwing clear jabs, has no ideological axe to grind. Though often defiant, her tone contains no bitterness.

Even though she will take the occasional jab at her parents' strict child-rearing preferences, her persona and trajectory aren't really that of someone trying to defy parental authority and religious constraints. On the contrary, she comes across as someone who's trying to balance her heritage with the parameters of modern life. Her preferred retort to her father's hesitancy to embrace her comedy is to ask, "Where do you think I got my sense of humour from?"

Many Muslim Canadians of Ms. Hindy's generation share her wish to convey the weight of their experiences in a creative fashion.

As anti-Muslim protesters have held actions every month from February to May in Nathan Phillips Square, Ms. Hindy has been busy trying to make Torontonians laugh with her jokes about growing up Muslim in a "really conservative" family.

"Growing up, we weren't allowed to go to public school or have part-time jobs," says Ms. Hindy, the youngest of five children. "I think my parents were a little paranoid or scared of what would happen if they connected with people in an unknown, foreign land and didn't want to take risks or anything."

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Ms. Hindy's parents immigrated to Canada from Egypt in the 1970s. Her father, Aly Hindy, has garnered a reputation over the years as a staunchly conservative voice in Toronto's Muslim community. Mr. Hindy was a full-time imam at Scarborough's Salaheddin Islamic Centre, a space that's in stark contrast to the beer-scented rooms of Toronto's comedy bars.

Aly and his wife, Elham, tried their best to protect their children from what they perceived to be un-Islamic influences, such as movies or even cable television.

So, for Ms. Hindy, pursuing a path in entertainment or comedy seemed totally out of reach. It also didn't help that she couldn't see many figures in the industry who shared her background or looked like her. One person who did, however, turns out to have offered the advice that finally pushed Ms. Hindy to perform her first comedy set.

Though often defiant, Ms. Hindy’s comedic tone contains no bitterness.

Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the CBC's popular sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, just so happens to be the cousin of Ms. Hindy's brother-in-law, who's married to Ms. Hindy's older sister, Nora. Ms. Nawaz was in Toronto last spring to promote her memoir and ended up having dinner with the two Hindy sisters.

"I remember how the banter between them just made me laugh," Ms. Nawaz says. "I could see that she has real talent and a really telegenic personality." She told Ms. Hindy the very next day to think about doing stand-up as a possible way to break into the comedy industry.

"I was really intimidated by the idea," Ms. Hindy says. "Not just because I wasn't familiar with it, but because even the mention of 'comedy' or 'performance' to my parents just kind of triggers them." Such trepidation meant that Ms. Hindy didn't have much to say when Ms. Nawaz asked her for an update a few months later. "I think I told her that I Googled a few things," she says.

"You know what," Ms. Nawaz replied, "You have a lot of talent but no grit."

The comment was harsh, but as Ms. Nawaz suspected, it helped push Ms. Hindy in the right direction. She began working on her stand-up material that very night. She then performed her first set a few months later, last November at the 120 Diner on Church Street.

At first, Ms. Hindy decided to hide this initial foray into comedy from everyone in her life outside a handful of close friends who she thought could relate to her decision and provide an initial boost of confidence without doling out harsh judgment.

"She hinted that she wanted to do something creative, but I had to pry it out of her," says Selma Samy Akel, one of the first people to learn of Ms. Hindy's secret plan. "She's helping humanize Muslims and comedy does that better than anything else, I think." The two ended up attending a live stand-up comedy show soon after, something that Ms. Hindy had minimal engagement with, up until that point.

"All I wanted to do growing up was acting," Ms. Hindy says. "But I feel like it's impossible for a hijabi in Hollywood because everything is oversexualized unless you already have a name for yourself." So stand-up comedy seemed like a reasonable alternative.

The audience at 120 Diner responded well to Ms. Hindy's first performance. Most had never seen a hijab-wearing comedian before, a novelty that helped attract attention from other producers who were also at the show.

At first, Ms. Hindy hid her initial foray into comedy from everyone in her life outside a handful of close friends.

"I was beyond nervous," Ms. Hindy says, "but I felt the audience liked me and I feel really lucky because I brought something new and people took notice."

This boost of encouragement led her to take a course at Toronto's Second City. The program concluded with a finale where each student had to perform in front of a live audience.

Ms. Hindy invited several of her friends and family members to the performance. Her eldest sister, Angie, decided to attend, not knowing exactly what to expect. As it turns out, she made it through her sister's set with no problem, but found the other performances so outrageously lewd that she eventually left the room. It was another sign that Ms. Hindy's mere presence in such a space challenged her own family's sensibilities as much as anything else.

One of Ms. Hindy's instructors at Second City was actor and writer Precious Chong, an experienced performer in Toronto's comedy scene. Like Ms. Nawaz, she quickly noticed Ms. Hindy's ability to tell stories in a very original way.

"She really caught my eye as someone who brought something different to the comedy scene here," Ms. Chong says. "There's too much of the same in the stand-up scene, so I felt like someone like her should have more opportunities."

Ms. Chong messaged a number of producers around the city to encourage them to have Ms. Hindy perform at their venues. Soon, as word got out, Ms. Hindy was booked in multiple shows across the city.

This was when she decided to post a list of her upcoming performances onto her Facebook page. One person who noticed her post was her father, Aly. The former imam didn't take well to what he saw.

"That's when things at home kind of blew up," Ms. Hindy says. "There were a lot of arguments, even on the family WhatsApp group." Her father argued that comedy isn't a dignified profession and that it isn't Islamic for women to pursue such a path.

The constant back-and-forth that Ms. Hindy engages in with her parents is a microcosm of her larger relationship with the wider culture, one that she’s determined to interpret and critique in her comedy.

"Traditionally, what Salma is doing is unheard of," says Nora Hindy, who strongly supports her sister's comedy. "Entertainers are usually perceived to make a living through some sort of controversial behaviour, like dancing or using your body as a means to entertain." She notes that it's difficult for her parents to assess what Ms. Hindy does outside of this preconceived framework, even if all she's doing is cracking jokes on stage.

That doesn't mean there's been no progress at all. Ms. Hindy almost convinced her mother to attend her performance at an all-women Muslim gathering, but her father intervened at the last minute.

"I definitely don't see my dad attending one of shows any time soon," Ms. Hindy says with a laugh, "but at least we're having a conversation about it."

"I would never have been able to get away with something like this 15 years ago!" Nora says. "But at this point, with Salma being the youngest child and with so many different things are going on – both of my parents are super busy – it's hard to control everything."

The constant back-and-forth that Ms. Hindy engages in with her parents is a microcosm of her larger relationship with the wider culture, one that she's determined to interpret and critique in her comedy. But driving this act of creativity is something even more fundamental – the need of a young Muslim woman who came of age in the immediate post-9/11 era to assert her own agency. It's an act that's bound to produce resistance from those who don't see things her way.

"I feel like there's nothing better than comedy to challenge people," Ms. Hindy says, "because you can try to yell and scream, but it's really much easier and more effective to just make them laugh."

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