Frida Deguise, Australia's hijab-wearing comedian, on stereotypes and off-limits topics

Frida Deguise, Australia's hijab-wearing comedian, on stereotypes and off-limits topics

Frida Deguise, Australia's hijab-wearing comedian, on stereotypes and off-limits topics

Updated 25 September 2017, 18:35 AEST

"I'll give you a couple of seconds to stereotype me" is how Frida Deguise opens her stand-up sets.

"No-one expects me to be funny," Frida Deguise says. "They just expect me to bomb."

That joke — a staple of the Lebanese-Australian comedian's routine — tells you a lot about Deguise's shtick.

Since taking to stand-up in the past few years, Deguise has been building a reputation as Australia's only hijab-wearing comedian, playing on audiences' preconceived notions of how a Muslim Australian woman should act.

She spoke to Lateline about stereotypes, what topics are off limits, and how she still feels like a novelty.

She lived in America pre- and post-9/11

When I got there, I never wore the scarf, I had body piercings, I had different coloured hair. And over there are a lot of conservative Lebanese. It was probably one of the best five years of my life. I ended up becoming more religious; I put the scarf on.

[But] we had to leave — it was 9/11, and the world changed on that day. You could see black from white; you could see America go from freedom to death within hours.

Where I was living was the highest Arab population in America. And everyone was scared.

I remember the building where we were living there were 20 Saudi students and within 24 hours they left.

She got into fashion before comedy

I got into fashion and I started selling fashion. I always watched comedy growing up. Even when I was in America - Comedy Central, Def Jam Comedy - and not once ever wanted to be a comedian. And so I would watch comedy day and night. That was my release.

I think after 10 years of being in clothing, I started to go through like a depression, losing my identity. I had to change so many times to fit in — into Australia, into America, into being so many things. I just felt like I was lost and I couldn't deal with it anymore.

Getting into stand-up gave her freedom

It's the freedom to say whatever you want. You can't walk down the street and [say to] some white guy, 'You're racist, man'. On stage you can. On stage, I can say whatever I want and you're there to listen. I think it's a great way to be vocal about beliefs. It's a great way to show people that you're different.

She plays on people's prejudices

My opening line is, 'I'll give you a couple of seconds to stereotype me'. One of the biggest stereotypes is like, can I laugh? 'She's Muslim, how can she be funny? Oh my gosh, she's speaking, who let her speak? She's now allowed to speak? How can she be out this late, the street lights are on?' People don't understand it. What you see on TV is what they believe. They think we're all ISIS ... they think that we're all into all these terrorists attacks. They got it all wrong.

Straight after a terrorist attack and you get out on stage ... you can feel how uncomfortable it is that you're on stage. So you have to work harder and harder to make sure you change their mind. You know they're feeling, 'Mate, what is she doing here'.

Not much is off limits, except God

I don't talk about God. I don't talk about any of my prophets or anything like that. I don't like going into religious jokes. I might say 'I'm Muslim, I'm this, I'm that', but I will not bring my religion, my beliefs into it. When an atheist goes out on stage and they make a joke about Jesus ... Even though I am a comedian and I laugh about everything I still get insulted.

Nothing else is off limits. I have some dirty jokes — three dirty jokes — but I need those jokes because those jokes are for the people that think I'm just a Muslim girl that's not allowed to speak. They're my icebreakers.

She says Australians are still getting used to her style

I think comedy is not very normal in the Arab community. I've done stand-up for a few Muslim events or women events and they don't know how to take it. They're like, "What is she doing? Is she telling a story?"

You go and perform at a gig and the bouncer is Muslim, they're all Muslim, what's the difference? He's working, I'm working. I do my job and go home. You can't please everybody. There is always someone with an opinion.

I feel like I'm a novelty and still Australia is not ready for this Muslim comedian. They love the idea of a Muslim comedian — 'she's rebelling against their people' — because that's what they think, right? I think they enjoy this. But [they think] 'Where can we put you? We can't put you in mainstream TV, we can't see you going on any of the other stations. We'll keep you there and the next terrorist attack, we'll give you a call and you can give us your opinion'.