In a large auditorium, there is energy and excitement as people find their seats. The lights dim down, the stage lights shine, and loud waves of applause sound through the room, giving it up for the women stand-up comedians making their way to the stage.
Bold, powerful, and undeniably funny are the women stand-up comedians dominating spaces of entertainment and comedy. They represent a new wave of unique and dynamic female comedians surfacing in Egypt, pushing boundaries and vanquishing stigmas, one show at a time.
Much like many other forms of art, stand-up comedians express themselves and their ideas to the world–only, they focus on doing so with punchy jokes .
In the journal article ‘Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation’ (1985), author Lawrence E. Mintz explains that “standup is arguably the oldest, most universal, and deeply significant form of humorous expression.” He argues that “it is the purest comic communication, performing essentially the same social and cultural roles in practically every known society—past and present.”
Comedy and Egypt go hand-in-hand, because generally, Egyptians are described as sha’b ibn nokta: “a population raised on feel-good, quick comedy.”
The emergence of the all-female comedians
In 2010, stand-up comedy was described as an ‘alien art’ that was gradually putting down its roots in Egypt. Today, over ten years later, stand-up comedy has become a beloved genre, with comedians—both men and women—taking on stages all over Cairo.
Throughout the past years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has made it easier for the audience to get their comedy fix from the comfort of homes, as many comedians in Egypt have utilized social media platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, to showcase their sets.
“After spaces started opening up in the summer of 2020, us [stand-up comedians] couldn’t miss out on any opportunity to perform on stage again,” Salma Al Najar, stand-up comedian, voice-over artist, and video presenter at Cairo Time tells Egyptian Streets.
Although stand-up comedy for some people is merely a job, for others, it is a true passion.
“Stand-up is the most important thing in my life,” Esraa El Zarea, stand-up comedian and copywriter says passionately. “For me, it is not a job. It is a hobby that introduced me to myself, and shaped my life.”
At its core, stand-up comedy provides viewers with a humorous telling of common struggles and daily experiences. But because, in the past, the majority of shows in Egypt featured only men, one essential viewpoint and set of experiences was sorely lacking: that of women.
“There used to be a lineup of shows that was only composed of men, and this was very intriguing to me,” explains Bernadette, founder of Comedy Sett.
Comedy Sett (sett meaning women in spoken Egyptian Arabic) is a comedy club “led by women, run by women, and performed by women.” The club is composed of women comedians—Noha Kato, Bernadette, Reem Nabil, and Sarah AbdelRahman—who aim to shed light on female as well as male talents on stage.
Bernadette recounts that it was infuriating for her and other women comedians to hear comments belittle women’s presence in stand-up comedy. However, they realized that it was because women were not given space or room to prove themselves.
“Comedy Sett is a safe space for girls to go on stage and perform,” she says. “It is a space to encourage each other, because ultimately, it is sometimes different being a female than a male on stage, even though I tried not to believe that for a very long time, but it is true.”
“There have always been stand-up comedians in Egypt,” notes Noha Kato, comedian and co-founder of Comedy Sett. “The only reason we see more [nowadays] is that there are far more places to perform. There are more open mics and platforms for people to explore than there were six or seven years ago.”
With an opportunity for members of the audience to ascend to the stage regardless of their level of experience, open-mic nights are among the most common ways for rising stand-up comedians to break into the scene.
Are there cultural barriers?
Despite this newly-kindled enthusiasm, and much like many other fields that are male-dominated, there are challenges women face in stand-up comedy, which men are less likely to encounter.
“We have heard countless times that ‘women aren’t humorous’ or that ‘women can’t make people laugh’ as comedians,” notes Al Najar.
These perpetuated assumptions put different expectations on women than on the men that take the stage. Nonetheless, many are not letting those preconceptions deter them from practicing their craft.
“Men do have the luxury of saying what they want without repercussions, but it really differs from person to person,” underscores Bernadette. “I say what I want, because at the end of the day, we must challenge the box we have been put in as women.”
Al Zarea adds: “Despite the assumptions and misconceptions that ultimately put pressure on women, we see many [women] encouraged to stand on stage and experiment with stand-up comedy.”
The women comedians also shared the view that maneuvering a male-dominated industry was not as arduous a journey as it could have been: they are grateful for the support they give each other, they have been able to shine and stand their ground.
It is important to understand, Bernadette says, that they must overcome any fear of rejection and judgment, because stand-up comedy requires practice and effort.
“I have hope for the rising female comedians in Egypt, and I see a wave of women stand-up comedians making strides in the industry,” says Bernadette. “It is like underground music in Egypt 10 years ago, it will boom.”
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