In a hushed Oslo nightclub, a woman takes the stage in a black burqa, the all-enveloping garment conservative Muslim women wear in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The woman's arms and hips begin to sway to the sound of a Norwegian folk song. It's a strange spectacle: a vision of conservative Islam in front of a liberal Western audience. "Personally," says a voice from behind the veil, "I think it's a drag to wear a burqa because I always get chased by kids for an autograph. They think I'm Darth Vader."
To loud applause, Shabana Rehman shakes off the burqa to reveal a skimpy red cocktail dress underneath. She promises to tell the audience "the dirtiest joke you ever heard," and then proceeds to do so in Urdu. The crowd loves it. Rehman, one of Norway's best-known comedians, has made a career out of poking fun and provoking outrage at the predicament of conservative Muslim immigrants in socially and sexually permissive Scandinavia. She makes jokes about everything from the facial hair of fundamentalists to the operations some engaged Muslim women in Norway undergo to make it appear they're still virgins. She also satirizes the Norwegians themselves, with their "booze-and-pork" culture and "progressive" family structures in which a single child can have multiple sets of parents. "I talk about sexuality and pornography, about desire and our bodies," Rehman says.
Her tart social commentary tackles head-on the culture clash between Islam and the West. In July the Oslo daily Dagbladet listed Rehman and her Norwegian husband, author Dagfinn NorbÝ, among the country's most influential opinion shapers, saying the comedienne "has become one of the most important voices in our social debate."
Rehman, 28, was born in Pakistan, but came to Norway when she was 1 year old after her father found a job as a cook in a restaurant. Norway, which has a population of 4.5 million, is home to about 76,000 Muslims. Rehman grew up in the multi-ethnic Oslo neighborhood of Holmlia, where her conservative parents took her to the mosque "but the lessons didn't really stick," she recalls. In 1999, Rehman performed her first stand-up comedy routine at an Oslo sports bar. She got lots of laughs, but her family only dropped their objections when it became clear Rehman could make a successful career out of her [an error occurred while processing this directive] oddball humor. She reflects on the Norwegian climate, joking that her family "ran around in the snow with sandals on." She pillories cross-cultural dating, dispensing sardonic tips on "how to pick up a Pakistani chick," and addresses her girlhood fear that the light mustache that appeared on her upper lip would scare off potential suitors. She was reassured by the fact that her mom had found a husband despite similar wisps of down, "but that was before I knew that Dad had been forced to marry her."
Not everyone is amused. In an August 2002 article in the Aftenposten daily, anthropologist Marianne Gullestad accused Rehman of reinforcing stereotypes about Muslims, and making Norwegians think it's O.K. to discriminate against immigrants. Rehman rejects the criticism. "I'm not out to stimulate dialogue but to satirize people's attitudes," she says. "That's why I make fun of religion, nationalism and Norwegian smugness." Rehman is not content to let her humor do the talking, though. In 2000, she posed nude on the cover of the tabloid Dagbladet, her body painted with the colors of the Norwegian flag. "I'm a free woman," she says. "I take my clothes off to provoke the authoritarians in order to expose them." It's a far cry from life in Pakistan, which she has visited once, when she was 15: "I couldn't wait to get back to Norway, where people stop at red lights."
Rehman's most controversial stunt came during a television appearance in April with Mullah Krekar, founder of the Kurdish militant group Ansar al-Islam, which has been accused of links with al-Qaeda. Rehman asked if Krekar would submit to a "fundamentalist test." When he agreed, she lifted him off the ground. Krekar was outraged, grabbed a microphone and sputtered: "She is showing contempt for me." Rehman merely observed that "a man who can be carried by a woman can't be a fundamentalist." Krekar filed a complaint with police, but no charges were brought against Rehman.
"The best thing about the mullah- lifting was that it clarified for Norwegians what their freedoms really are, what values they have," Rehman says. She's keenly aware of the threat she represents to conservative Islam, in Norway and throughout Europe. "Yes, I am dangerous," she admits. "I'm a witch, but I'm a nice witch."