Reem Edan is no ordinary comedian.
Born the daughter of Iraqi parents, Reem’s stand-up comedy performances have quickly caught the attention of audiences and critics alike for her brazen viewpoints on this post 9/11 world. Twenty-six and full of gall for the state her country is in, Edan is quick to chow down on the realities of leading an American life on the edge of the aftermath of cross-cultural tension with the Middle East. She is set to take on her biggest career event in the coming week, headlining at the Asian Comedy Night in London, before coming back to the U.S to no doubt shed light on the current state of affairs in Brexit’s capital. Below she shares with SWAAY a tumult of facts about her life, the current state of American politics, and quirks of growing up a Muslim-American.
In Her Own Words:
The opening line of my first stand-up performance in summer 2016 was, “I’m Muslim. Unless Trump is elected -- in which case, I’m fu**ed.”
Obviously, I had to update that line and make it truthful for the present tense. There’s a lot I have to say about our current political climate, especially in relation to the issues it brings up with my religion, heritage, and culture. I won’t get into that here (I’ll save that for the stage) but I think now more than ever, it’s our responsibility as global citizens to speak out against unjust in the world and speak up for what we believe.
I woke up on November 9 very confused. I had been in Europe the two weeks prior (where I performed stand-up in Amsterdam) and joked there about what was going on in our country. I didn’t think Trump was going to win, and wanted to give off a good impression to those I met about Americans. “We won’t let that happen,” I joked around, “and if so, I’ll move to Amsterdam...”
The night of the election I fell asleep early, tired with jetlag. When I woke up, I had a pit feeling in my stomach and knew something was wrong. It was that day I realized -- when it truly hit home -- that I had to use my gift and my platform for the greater good.
I woke up with a renewed sense of purpose. I could speak on issues that needed to be addressed, and have those messages reach the people it needed to the most. For women, for minorities, for all of us who are confused and afraid -- but who aren't afraid to fight back. It sounds preachy, but it’s true. I’m so grateful to have been born in this time and to have had every experience, good and bad, that’s shaped me as an individual. For me, now is the time to stand up, and to stand-up. Here, I will share a few interesting facts about me, so you can understand a bit more about my comedy.
I was really overweight growing up. To take attention away from that, I put a lot of effort towards being the class clown and making others laugh. It was a way for people to like me for who I was, not the way I looked.
My parents are both from Baghdad, but they moved to the US in 1987. My two siblings and I (older sister, 28, younger brother, 23), were born in Fort Collins, Colorado, where my father was studying at Colorado State University. Though my parents initially intended to return to Baghdad post-education, the Gulf War in 1990 found them stuck in the US having to claim asylum when all Iraqi embassies shut down. Think of it as the original version of the Muslim travel ban.
Up until last year, my father had never returned to Iraq. Three out of four of my grandparents passed away before he was able to visit -- it was simply too dangerous for a man who’d lived in the US to re-enter the country. I on the other hand visited Baghdad in 2000 with my mom and sister. It was great; I went on a rollercoaster (almost died), ate an “Iraqi pizza” (almost died) and saw Saddam’s motorcade drive by (almost died). Couldn’t sh** right for a month after that.
90% of my family still lives in Iraq, amongst millions of other displaced citizens whose everyday war-torn reality is dramatically different to our first-world experience. It gives you intense perspective when you know (and have seen) how the other half lives, which lends moral purpose to my stand-up material. I draw inspiration from the fact that in the face of adversity, they’re still positive people leading happy lives. Next time you catch yourself complaining about something trivial like a barista spelling your name wrong at Starbucks, just remember to calm the f*** down. People outside the US have to worry about bigger things.
I’m so grateful to my parents for uprooting their lives to start over in a foreign country. The education, quality of life, and opportunities that I’ve been blessed with would simply not be possible in the Middle East -- especially not with my chosen career path. The rise of social media and YouTube have allowed minority viewpoints to surface, but the resources and support available to us in the US (and in Hollywood) allow for important cross-cultural and gender issues to be examined on a grandiose scale. I hope to leverage that for tangible social change.
I feel stupid when I remember that I used to be kind of embarrassed by my parent’s accents as a kid. Now I proudly celebrate their backgrounds on-stage, to the dismay of my father who keeps reminding me that he “doesn’t sound like dat.”
There was very little diversity growing up in Fort Collins, CO. I was often the first/only Muslim and/or Iraqi that people had ever met! A small Muslim community does exist, but they were more conservative. My family did participate in religious events & Friday prayers, but I always felt like an outsider.
I had a very similar upbringing to other children of Asian immigrant parents -- which is where a LOT of my stand-up commentary stems from. First-generationers can probably relate to: not getting to wear bikinis to the pool, bringing kabob (aka E.T. fingers) to school for lunch, having your parents come in for “diversity day”, missing class to observe religious holidays and explaining (every damn year) “what an E-I-D was” again, forcedly attending Arabic school when all the other kids got to go home and watch TV, no sleepovers (or summer camp), and no marshmallows. Yes, no marshmallows. My parents discovered gelatin (derived from a pig) was in those little sugary pillows of joy. I never had Lucky Charms cereal again.
I’ve always been the black sheep, caught between diametrically opposed identities. I’m an Iraqi-American, half-Sunni and half-Shiite, a mixture of Arab and Western cultures. The older I got, the more the force of those gravitational pulls impacted my identity and self-expression, which is what led me to stand-up comedy in the first place.
Comedy has always played a role in my professional success. From class presentations, to job interviews, to networking, to pitch presentations, it was always what set me apart. Sure I had the brains and track-record to back everything up, but walking away having exchanged laughs with people was what really set me apart from the rest.
I moved to the Middle East the week before 9/11. I experienced reverse racism - I was “the American” in the Middle East, and one year later, I was “the Iraqi” when it came to Iraq/American war. I had to learn how to stand-up for myself and transcend whatever labels were being forced upon me -- which I did with comedy. You can call me “the funny girl,” thanks.
What I communicated then and now is that we all have much more in common than we realize. Take airport security for example. We can all agree it sucks … even though the experience for most Americans probably sucks a lot less, we all have to take our shoes off at the end of the day.
I witnessed my father completely change a man’s world view with words. When I was 14 (during the Iraq/U.S. war) a news program was on TV while we were out in public, and an older white gentleman yelled, “F***ing Iraqis. We should nuc them all and be done with it.” I cringed and covered my face as my dad approached the guy, but when I opened my eyes, was shocked to see the two of them conversing calmly. With a smile, my dad explained that he -- and his 3 children just over there -- were Iraqi. We were kind, loving, educated human beings who wanted exactly what he did: the freedom to pursue happiness.
I watched the man experience emotions ranging from fear to embarrassment to remorse to empathy, and finally heard what sounded like...laughter? My dad made his point, but was quick to joke around and brush off any hurt feelings. To him (and now to me) humor is a universal and powerful language. It’s a dialect of love that we can use to bridge gaps and connect our world, affecting one person at a time.
In Iraq I realized one thing: the world’s watching and is greatly affected by entertainment. My cousins and I didn’t have much to discuss when I first arrived. At 10 years old, I remember the only thing we had in common was which actors we admired; the movies we’d seen; and the stories we knew. Their generation was so affected by the media, and not only had it defined their ideas about Western civilization, but about gender roles and cultural topics not often discussed in the Middle East. What we create in Hollywood truly has a global influence, and with the aid of the internet, has grown exponentially. There’s so much potential to yield that power for change, which is in the back of my mind whenever I perform and discuss taboo issues in my set.
My first open mic: I never allowed myself to believe I was good enough to do stand-up, which is crazy considering how confident I am in other aspects of my life. Humor was always a focal point for me, but I was herded onto a safer path by my parents and instructors, people who wanted to set me up for success...which led to a life with training wheels. All along I had the skills to ride the bike - I just had to believe in myself.
The final trigger I needed to start was to set a deadline for myself to try an open mic (3rd week of February 2016). I promised myself whether or not I even had anything prepared, I’d perform. The rest is history.
MY LIFE AS A STAND-UP COMEDIAN
There’s an idea that “women aren’t funny” which I think is B.S. It’s a male dominated industry yes, but the more females we have participating, the more role models we’ll have for young girls out there with something to say.
Finding my authentic self. People are born into different labels: Gender. Class. Religion. Race. But being FUNNY is something you have to earn. Stand-up has enabled me to transcend all the 3rd party labels I’ve ever had and finally define myself.
YouTube: I posted my first break-out stand-up performance on YouTube, which has since taught me A LOT about the world. I realized that people aren’t always ready for, or comfortable with change. Viewers globally - and especially in the Middle East - have seen my videos, and the comments are all over the place. I don’t take them to heart, but it’s fascinating to see the range of reactions to the subject matter. I’ve seen everything from heated religious and moral debates, to dialogue of whether or not I’m allowed to call myself Muslim, to insults and even threats. What’s kept me going in the face of harsh criticism have been the emails and messages I’ve received from fans around the world, who are moved by my stand-up. It’s touching when they reveal that they’ve had similar experiences in life (usually as a first-generation or liberal person in their country) and that this was the first time they’d been able to relate with someone in a similar circumstance. It’s a pretty badass feeling to know that you words are deeper than punchlines.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."