Jordanian comic Tima Shomali has been called “The Tina Fey of the Arab World.” She became the first female comedian in Jordan to gain a following when she launched her own web series on YouTube three years ago. Now that series, FemaleShow, has become the most popular web show in Jordan, attracting 25 million viewers and earning a reputation for broaching taboo topics like sex, dating and sexual harassment. Iraqi-American author and activist Zainab Salbi interviewed Shomali at the Women in the World Summit on Friday afternoon.
One of Shomali’s most famous routines urges Jordanian women to stand up to the verbal harassment they’re subjected to on the street. “You can’t walk in peace,” said Shomali. “There’s always someone following you, someone saying something”–the kind of “words that make you feel naked inside.” In her comedy sketch, Shomali plays a professor teaching men how to talk to girls. She asks her male students: “When you go to a woman and whistle at her, what do you expect? She will fall in love with you? She will come with you in the car?”
Normally, women are told to just ignore the men who yell at them on the street. Shomali has a different idea.
“Don’t ignore them. When you stand up to them, ask them what they are doing, complain, tell the police–they run away.”
But it’s not just activism; it’s entertainment. For Shomali, these two genres must go hand-in-hand. “If you do this in a way that’s educational,” she said, “no one will listen to you.”
When Shomali first started doing her show, she faced harsh criticism online as well as off. Internet commenters urged her to “go get married.” Some of her own relatives were ambivalent; her mother’s family was especially skeptical of Shomali’s unconventional career choice. Though her own parents have always been supportive, her mother was in “a hard position, [caught] between her relatives and her daughter,” Shomali said. She never explicitly asked Tima to stop, but “She was not happy. I could feel it,” she recalled.
Now, many of her critics–and her family–have come around to her point of view. “I didn’t do anything to disgrace the family,” Shomali said. “I’m doing stuff that is making people’s lives a little bit better, making people laugh.” The tone of the online attacks has also changed. Today, her critics are more likely to take aim at her appearance, making jabs like “I don’t like your eyebrows” or trying to goad her: “Go fix your teeth.” She sees this as an improvement.
“If I post a picture or a video and I don’t get a bad comment, I’m like, ‘I did something wrong,’” she said.
With news about trolls and online harassment, it’s easy to forget that the Internet has been a godsend for many. “Now, everyone has a voice,” said Shomali. “Good things go viral.”
“In the Arab world, we have a lot of censorship. On all TV channels, there are limitations, rules. YouTube and online, it gives you space to talk about what you want.”
Even though YouTube isn’t subject to the same censorship as Jordanian TV, social restrictions still apply. The first season of her show was all about dating and relationships. That’s not typical fare for Arab TV– or even conversation. “We do it, but our family doesn’t know,” she said, of dating. “It’s like living a double life.”
But there’s still “a culture of censorship,” she said. “I don’t want to attack. I respect my culture. I love my country.” When talking about taboo subjects like sex, she believes it’s important to be sensitive. “You can imply it, but you can’t just do it in-your-face.”
Shomali’s work doesn’t just challenge stereotypes within her home country; she also forces the rest of the world to confront their preconceived ideas about Arab women. As Salbi observed, Westerners often assume that every story about Arab women will be about oppression. Shomali wants to show another side. “We laugh,” she said. “We cry. We are humans.”