Every comedian has a favourite joke from their repertoire, one that always lands. Salma Hindy’s is about 9/11. It goes like this: When a lawyer tells her that her birthdate is “unfortunate,” Hindy quips, “The 9/11 or the being born part? Because my parents would agree with you more so on the being born part than 9/11.” She pauses for crowd reaction, then deadpans, “I’m just kidding, they condemn both incidents.” Joking about the deadly terrorist attack may seem risky, but it’s even bolder for Hindy, a Muslim woman who wears hijab.
“I know for sure that what I look like, and my religion grabs people’s attention,” says Hindy, a 27-year-old from Mississauga who's an engineer by day and a standup comedian by night. She’s opened for veteran comedians Maz Jobrani and Ken Jeong and has become a staple in the Toronto comedy scene. Her dream is to be the Muslim Mindy Kaling. Like Kaling, she jokes about dating, growing up with strict parents and other topics that have nothing to do with her ethnic or religious identity, like her bit about the tradition of tossing a bouquet at weddings. Hindy finds it hilarious that every bouquet toss starts with women seeming annoyed that the tradition exists then escalates to an all-out brawl. The punchline is, “Let’s rip that bitch’s scarf off!”
Hindy’s Seinfeld-style situational PG comedy is the subject of a short documentary directed and produced by Alia Youssef, as an extension of Youssef’s photography series, "The Sisters Project." The series, made up of portraits of successful Muslim women, aims to “combat negative stereotypes of Muslim women by showcasing their diverse stories” and earned Youssef a spot on Refinery29’s 29 Powerhouses list in 2018. “One of the most common stereotypes associated with being a Muslim woman is that we’re silent or that we’re oppressed,” says Youssef. “So, Salma being onstage exuding confidence and being hilarious, I think that itself breaks down the most common stereotypes.”
Hindy is a woman telling jokes. That shouldn’t be groundbreaking or political, but when you think of Quebec’s proposed (now tabled) “secularism law” that sought to ban hijabs and other religious symbols and caused instances of harassment against hijab-wearing Muslim women to spike, the significance of Hindy’s comedy becomes even more crucial. Earlier this year, a Quebec minister called the hijab a symbol of oppression. The rights of Muslim women wearing niqabs dominated headlines last federal election when the Harper government attempted to restrict women from wearing niqabs at Canadian citizenship ceremonies. Now, as we gear up for a federal election, People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier is leading more anti-hijab rhetoric. It’s clear that the discrimination of Muslim women and misconceptions surrounding hijabs are rampant in this country.
“I remember thinking that me onstage just saying something in a sassy attitude is enough to shatter like six stereotypes,” Hindy recalls in the documentary. She points out that the she judgement she faces come from both non-Muslim and Muslim audiences. “I’d love to see Muslims grow in comedy,” she says. “If you’re someone who practices the religion and also pursues [comedy], the Muslim community has a hard time reconciling the two. So, what happens is those who do get into comedy are on the margins of the community, so it doesn’t help foster that growth.”
The dichotomy between being a standup comedian and a practicing Muslim is most notable in the comments Hindy receives.
“The most comments I get are on the two ends of the spectrum: Islamophobic or the other extreme — the Islam police who are questioning how can I wear something tight or whatever. I’m always like, ‘You guys should just talk because you’re more similar than you think,’” she laughs. “I don’t care about any of those comments because they are commenting on the idea of me or what they think Islam should be. Those don’t hurt, but if someone were to say, ‘this isn’t funny,’ I would die.”
For more on Hindy’s comedy, watch the Youssef's short documentary below.