In their satirical show "Det Slører Stadig", comedians Sara Al Naser and Ellie Jokar wade through the quagmire of stereotypes surrounding Arab men and women. But behind the caricatures, the duo has a desire to liberate themselves from entrenched expectations and limitations related to gender and identity as an immigrant.

Fact box

Sara Al Naser

Born in Jordan in 1992. Has three younger brothers. Lived in Denmark since 2000 with her family. Studying international business communication at The University of Southern Denmark. Has appeared as the character Latifa on the DR2 satire programme Det Slører Stadig since 2012, and speaks about prejudices and integration.

Ellie Jokar

Born in 1980 and moved to Denmark from Iran in 1984 with her family. Has one older brother. Runs her own recording and production company and works as a developer and programme planner. Also works with vulnerable and marginalised boys in Nørrebro. Has a Bachelor’s degree as a dietician from Suhrs Seminarium and has recently started training to be a primary school teacher. 

“Oh, I’m so nervous – I always get nervous right before I go on stage.”

Sarah Al Naser is sitting in a backroom of the concert hall at Copenhagen’s National Museum waiting to go on stage. She is dressed up as the character Latifah from the Danish television satire show Det Slører Stadig (a pun which can be translated to “It’s still veiled” as well at “It still blurs”). Her simple costume consists of a characteristic hooded top, hair gathered back in a slapdash ponytail, and a pair of gigantic earrings trying, but failing, to look like they are made from some form of precious metal. Key to the overall ensemble is the fact that no one would consider this outfit out of place if they passed by someone wearing it in the street. In Denmark, this type of look is sported by many a young woman.

The audience members in the hall are both participants and guests at the conference ‘Caught between Family Laws – Gender Law and Religion, Experiences from Denmark and Morocco’. This conference has been organised by Copenhagen University, ARPA (the Alliance for Rule of Law Promotion & Alternative Dispute Resolution) and KVINFO. Sarah Al Naser together with Ellie Jokar (another member of the Det Slører Stadig foursome who is now entering the hall in the guise of Dubai reporter Zara El Sheikh) have been booked as entertainment at the conference. With 15 episodes of their television series under their belts, the two satirists have been given creative licence to provide humorous skits based upon the theme of gender roles and equality in both Denmark and Morocco, or in Arabic culture in general.

The rapturous laughter during the pair’s performance confirmed that it was thoroughly enjoyed by the Danish and Arab members of the audience alike. Afterwards, we retire to a back-stage conference room. Despite a fully packed schedule, the two women are keen to speak to KVINFO about gender roles, the meeting of cultures, and how humour can be used abolish stereotypes.

There is no subject that cannot be joked about. And even under the slightly insipid subject of ‘family law’, the two comedians both agree that there are still plenty of things at which to poke fun.

“It’s a question of doing it with love and self-depreciating humour. And if you do it in that way, humour can convey messages very effectively; serous topics become more recognisable in the form of a sketch or a parody”, tells Sarah Al Naser.

Ellie Jokar nods in agreement, noting that humour – in an indirect or subconscious way – can change people’s minds and ultimately change the way people behave. Through humour, people are surprised and come face to face with the antithesis of their prejudices.

“It’s unfortunately the case that many people automatically associate immigrant girls with forced marriage and honour killings. But when people look at women with immigrant backgrounds – like ourselves – who stand up and poke fun at prejudices surrounding immigrants, they get a different picture of not only what we can do but also what we dare to do”, she explains.

 

Fighting for the freedom to choose

In today’s performance, Ellie Jokar’s character Zara El Sheikh has dealt with a wide range of issues, not least comparing Danish and Moroccan women’s conditions for having a job versus being supported by a man. She herself is not sure whether working to bring more women in the Middle East or Iran (where she herself has her roots) into the labour market is a good thing or not. And when, after some reflection upon the subject of equality and equal rights, Sara Al Naser (who is of Jordanian extraction) says that she feels duty bound to fight for the rights of others (i.e. women) because she has only got to where she is today thanks to others fighting for her, Ellie Jokar cuts in in protest.

“But how do you know that those women want what it is that you’re fighting for? I think that there are some who don’t want it. Many Iranian women do in fact have an education and could easily find a job if they wanted to, but they choose a life as a housewife because that’s what they want. Fair enough, they may wear a hijab; but on the other hand, they have a very comfortable life with time to go to the hairdresser’s and get their nails done five times a week – and nobody expects them to contribute with a monthly salary. That’s how it is for many of my aunts and female cousins in Iran. And those are the ones we’re feeling pity for?! – No, I’m the one you should be feeling pity for because I have to go out and work”, she says grinning, with tone of voice that reveals that she would nevertheless not swap places.

“But if that’s what they want then it’s up to them”, she adds.

And here the two meet in some semblance of agreement as Sara Al Naser also now agrees that nobody – neither “extreme feminists nor religious fanatics” – should dictate what women may and may not do. Consequently, the thing she is herself fighting for is something as simple – yet at the same time difficult – as the unrestricted freedom to choose for oneself.

“Some people fight through their music, others do it through their sketches and comedy, and others do it through their pencil by writing. I would say that I do it through a broad range of media by using a range of different platforms to get my message across”, explains Sara Al Naser.

 

How liberated are you?

For Sara Al Naser, there’s one question that she can never shake off – whether in Jordan or in Denmark. This question is the one that she finds hardest to answer, and it’s the question that is most telling when it comes to the substantial difference in how people regard young immigrant boys and young immigrant girls.

‘How liberated are you?’ is the question. This seemingly straightforward question, however, is in many ways a pretext for a plethora of sub-questions such as ‘Are you allowed to drink alcohol?’, ‘How provocative are the clothes you wear?’, ‘Are you allowed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend?’, and ‘Do you eat pork?’.

“For me, the answer to this question changes from day to day. And this makes it an extremely difficult question to answer. I can say with certainty that I never feel more Danish than Arab. By this I mean that I am fundamentally Muslim – I don’t eat pork, I don’t drink alcohol, and when I one day get married I want to have a Muslim ceremony. But on the other hand, I do have certain typical Danish traits within me – for example, I have a critical attitude and take an active stance towards things, and I also feel a great need to participate in and contribute to the Danish society of which I’m a part. When I’m in Jordan, people expect that I must be extremely liberated and ‘Western’, and when I’m in Denmark people expect the opposite and assume that there are loads of things that I cannot and may not do”, explains the 22-year-old Jordanian, who has lived in Denmark since the year 2000.

 

How much of a ‘perker’ are you?

Both Sara Al Naser and Ellie Jokar point out that boys and men with immigrant backgrounds have to a far lesser extent been expected to answer the ‘How liberated are you?’ question. It is taken for granted that they have a lot more freedoms and rights than do their sisters, and consequently they’re almost never asked that question.

“No, for them, the question is ‘How much of a ‘perker’ [A Danish negative slur for an immigrant] are you?’ – understood as how many girls have you had sex with”, comes the explanation.

“But this too is very limiting, and it leads to many immigrant-background boys feeling excluded and pigeonholed. They become confused about their own identities on many levels, and that’s when the problems arise”, tells Ellie Jokar, who also works with marginalised and vulnerable young men and boys in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district.

Having said that, however, she also points out that there has nevertheless been a development whereby being a ‘perker’ has become something trendy and modern – also among ethnic Danes.

“Whereas the Danish word ‘perker’ used to be a disparaging slur, it has now become a term to describe a sub-culture with a defined style, language, taste in music and identity that both boys from immigrant backgrounds and young ethnic Danes feel a part of”, she explains.

 

A silent revolt has already taken place

When it comes to mixed marriages, Ellie Jokar thinks an increase can be observed in the number of couplings between ethnic Danish men and women from immigrant backgrounds.

“Yes, I’m seeing more and more examples of ‘Aisha’ and ‘Rasmus’ walking along the street together. And even though many people may think that this must mean that these immigrant women must REALLY have fought for their rights so as to be able to marry a Danish man, I actually think that it’s a sign that the two cultures are quietly melting together. ‘Aisha’ has probably been to kindergarten with ‘Rasmus’ and grown up with him, and in some way a common culture has arisen between them. You can see another example when you go out at the weekends – when I moved to Denmark in the early 1980s there were hardly any immigrant girls in the discos, but today there are. I think there’s been a kind of revolt – a very quiet revolt. Not a revolt in the streets with big protests and demonstrations and open battles”, she explains.

Without doubt, both she and Sara Al Naser would prefer to be free from all the entrenched expectations – constantly being judged and having to explain yourself in relation to norms or stereotypes is very constraining for anyone. For the two women, the paths they have trodden in order to become able to do as they choose have been slightly different, although for both Sarah Al Naser and Ellie Jokar the process has been fairly straightforward.

“Now you’re asking another difficult question: ‘How were you brought up?’ That question opens up a whole range of issues, and the more I think about it the bigger a question it is to answer. Are you asking me whether I eat with a knife and fork, or what? Anyway, both my mother and my father have had a fairly liberal attitude towards gender roles. My mother took an education and has used it, but not without having to fight to do so. So she naturally thought that I should be allowed to do what I wanted, but without having to fight so hard for it. On the other hand, both she and my father insisted that I should fight for what I wanted and that I should have a proper education”, tells Sara Al Naser, who alongside her career in the entertainment sector is studying international business communication at The University of Southern Denmark.

 

Tongue piercings are only for porn models

Ellie Jokar grew up with her very liberal mother who came to Denmark at the age of 25 and was quickly integrated within the Danish labour market. She believes that the battles she has had to fight in the name of liberation have usually had little to do with her gender, but rather have hadN to do with the person she is.

“It’s been more about being allowed to have piercings or tattoos – my mother was dead set against tongue piercings, which se saw as being something that only porn models had.  There were no misgivings based on the fact that I was a girl. And this isn’t to say that my brother was allowed to do things that I wasn’t. I got my first tattoo when I was 18 – my brother was 34 when he got his first one”, she recounts.

Halfway through the interview, we’re interrupted by Omar, who – beyond his own expectations – has been taken aback by the duo’s performance earlier in the day as he sat among the audience. He wants to exchange contact details with the two and thank them for the show. Both he and his request are received amicably.  

The two busy women dash off to their next appointment. 

Danish-Arab Partnership Programme

KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:

 

They’ve already been booked to appear at Folkemødet 2016 – an annual popular political event held on the island of Bornholm – and Danish television viewers have been able to watch the pair appear in a number of newly recorded intro-spots being broadcast before the repeats of the satirical 2007 Christmas puppet series Yallahrup Færgeby. Here, the two debate current issues covered in the series. Serious, yet never boring. Humoristic, but not turning themselves into a laughing stock. In reality, just how they are in real life when they are being themselves – unveiled and cool.