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Shabana Rehman

SCANDINAVIAN humour has taken an unusual turn with the emergence in Oslo of a female comedian whose routine consists of putting the boot into Islamic extremists.

There are guffaws from the audience when Shabana Rehman appears on the stage in a burqa. The garment is “useful for scaring away children”, she says, “but not very practical when you are assembling a bit of furniture from Ikea”.

The collision of Nordic social democracy with Muslim mores has seldom been a subject for debate, let alone jokes, in politically correct
Norway, whose politicians fear accusations of stirring racial hatred when broaching immigration.

But now Rehman, a 26-year-old of Pakistani origin, has sprung up. Her show has catapulted her to fame as a champion of liberal Muslim women aspiring to a Scandinavian lifestyle.

Female circumcision and the stoning of adulterous women are as much a target of her vitriolic wit as the willingness of “multiculturalists” to overlook abuse of women among Norway’s immigrant population. Rehman also jokes about suicide bombers and the amputation of thieves’ limbs.

The act has provoked the fury of conservative Muslims. Moderates, for their part, are not amused by her attacks on them for failing to speak out against “backward” practices. “I’ve received loads of hate mail,” she said last week. “They tried to frighten me. They wanted to kill me. They said I had been corrupted by western culture. They called me a whore.”

Unperturbed, Rehman posed naked in a political magazine, her body painted in the colours of the Norwegian flag. The picture has become a symbol of the integrationist fervour for which she is renowned in an increasingly heated debate about the extent to which immigrants should be obliged to tailor their customs to those of Norway.

“I wanted to make it clear that even as a Muslim woman I am free to dispose of my body as I wish,” she said. “I also wanted to demonstrate to Norwegians that you can be Scandinavian even if you were born in the Punjab.”

Rehman’s mockery of the mullahs involves stripping off the burqa to parade in a revealing red cocktail dress. The routine includes
fantasising about what the land of the Vikings would be like if subjected to the sharia code of punishment.

“There would be a lot of stone-throwing in the northern part of Norway,” she exclaims, referring to the stoning prescribed by sharia
for women who have illegitimate children. “On the other hand, girls, Crown Prince Haakon Magnus would still have been single” — a reference to the fact that the prince’s wife had an illegitimate child from a previous relationship.

Some of her most pointed barbs are reserved for “halal hippies”, Norwegian “do-gooders” whose embrace of foreign cultures extends to
ignoring their worst excesses. “If an Asian country dropped a nuclear bomb on Norway, these people would run to the nearest book store to buy a book about oriental culture,” she quips.

To her critics she is simply whipping up prejudice against an immigrant community that has grown to 7% of the population. Yet Rehman has prompted a debate about how traditional immigrants’ customs can be merged with progressive laws. “She is an important voice,” says Erna Solberg, the minister responsible for immigration. “Her humour allows her to go further than others and incite real reflection.”

Beyond her stage performances, Rehman rants in newspapers and on television about the oppression of forced Pakistani marriages. A year ago, when a young Kurdish woman was killed by her father for choosing to live with a Swedish man, Rehman led a protest. A
counter-demonstration was staged by a traditional Muslim women’s group that symbolically “excommunicated” her.

Her four brothers and three sisters are supportive, even if they are occasionally the butt of her jokes. “In our culture brothers are
supposed to be on guard so their sisters are not dishonoured,” she says on the stage. “When my sisters and I were in our teens, our brothers were two, four and six years old and you feel sort of stupid when you are walking down the street, holding hands with your boyfriend and this six-year-old comes along biting your boyfriend’s leg, saying, ‘Stay off my sister, you pig.’ ”

Last year Rehman was awarded a “freedom of expression” prize by a Norwegian foundation and, trophy in hand, parodied the conventional words of thanks offered by Oscar winners. “I would like to thank the mullahs,” she said, “without whom I would not have had a career.”