Guardian – Zeynab Mousavi has found fame in country where standup comedy is relatively new and where being a female performer is frowned upon
Zeynab Mousavi: ‘The most difficult thing is to go on stage and tell viewers that I’m not [performing as] a woman, nor an Iranian, nor a Muslim, I’m not even pretty, nothing,. I’m just a comedian, just watch my comedy.’ Photograph: Mahsa Jafari
Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent
As a 28-year-old woman born and raised in the holy city of Qom – the Vatican of Iran’s Shia Islam – Zeynab Mousavi is breaking numerous barriers to become the country’s first female standup comic to find fame, and notoriety, on a national scale.
Mousavi has found legions of young fans, but has also touched a nerve in a country where standup comedy is relatively new, and being a female performer remains taboo for many.
“Being a female standup comedian in Iran is like competing in a swimming competition whilst you are three metres behind the starting line and your hands and legs are tied,” she told the Guardian, referring to a comparison one of her fellow comics has made.
“Considering Iranian cultural and social norms, doing standup here is by itself really difficult, and doing it as a female comedian is even harder,” she added.
Mousavi was the anonymous woman behind the Instagram character of Empress Kuzcooo, an internet sensation who wears an exaggerated hijab showing only her nose to deliver video sermons in front of an open wardrobe.
Her real identity – she is a recent computer software graduate – was a mystery until Iranian state television asked viewers to send videos of themselves to enter a standup competition. Mousavi sent one of her own, was selected to perform on national TV, and instantly became a hit among Iran’s internet-savvy youth, but notorious among its hardliners.
Iran’s restrictive political atmosphere has long given satire a function beyond simple entertainment. Standup comedy, however, is a genre only introduced recently thanks to a popular state TV programme called Khandevaneh, which gives comedians like Mousavi a platform.
“The reaction was incredible,” said Mousavi of her performance on Khandevaneh. “People were first talking about seeing the face of Empress Kuzcooo… [and] my first performance created a wave of comments that women can also be successful comedians.”
State television, where censorship is rife, is pushing boundaries to appeal to dwindling viewers who have increasingly turned to illegal satellite channels. And Mousavi has not shied away from controversial subjects.
In one of her performances, Mousavi jokes that “people are naming their kids after all sorts of things, and in a few years it’s not strange to name your kid after Barjam”, referring to the Persian acronym for the landmark nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the west in 2015.
“But [it’s ironic because] Barjam means Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. How can you name a child Barjam, when the child is the result of join comprehensive efforts without any plan for action.”
For Iranian television, erotic jokes – even subtle ones – are unprecedented.
Its for material like this that Mousavi has received threats. She recently complained in a video interview aired on Aparat, Iran’s version of YouTube, that “these are bitter times for me, because I get threats to be attacked by acid, or they want to run me over , or do harm to me, I get sworn at… I’m under pressure.”
But she insists she will carry on making her fans laugh. The latest Empress Kuzcooo video is about the recent Fifa world cup draw, in which Iran was drawn in a group with football giants Spain and Portugal. She decries it as an “American conspiracy”, spearheaded by Cafu, the famous former Brazilian player who picked Iran in the group.
“This was American’s work. Saudi Arabia is in an easy group,” the empress says.
Mousavi has since has performed as herself in Milad tower, one of Tehran’s most glamorous venues, and is due to tour Iranian provinces from next month.
“The most difficult thing is to go on stage and tell viewers that I’m not [performing as] a woman, nor an Iranian, nor a Muslim, I’m not even pretty, nothing. I’m just a comedian, just watch my comedy,” she said.
“I believe in something, that there’s no pride in being oppressed. I won’t hide myself behind the fact that things are difficult for us [women] and that we can’t do a lot of things. Still you can do a lot – you can even be spectacular.”