Late last year, I received a scolding WhatsApp message from a distant relative. They’d taken issue with the fact that I’d retweeted a joke about dicks. It wasn’t so much about the joke, but the comedian who made it. “She can’t make a joke like that, and wear a hijab!” my relative wrote.
The joke, for what it’s worth, is mild by Sadia Azmat’s standards. A scroll through her Twitter feed isn’t just dick jokes, it’s also filled with stories — some (possibly) inspired by real events — about fucking in cheap hotels, eating pussy and cleaning off cum stains from a headscarf. Which is to say that the 38-year-old East London stand-up is providing a side of modern life that most Muslims don’t often see — that they can be unabashedly horny on main too.
Azmat is relatively new on the comedy scene, but she’s already performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and hosts the popular BBC podcast No Country for Young Women, which explores the taboos young women of color face in the U.K. Her comedy career began fairly conventionally — playing in dingy bars, clubs and pubs, where she tells me that her material had less focus on religious identity and more on her experience as a low-paid worker in a call center. “There wasn’t a lot of focus on my hijab,” Azmat explains, describing her initial set as an observation of the “weird and mundane experiences” of being among the few ethnic minorities working at such a dull and dreary place.
That changed, though, when, in 2015, the Islamic State emerged from the Syrian civil war, and with it, hundreds of Western Muslims — most from the U.K. and Europe, including dozens of young women — fled their homes to join the jihadist group. “That’s when I was being asked more Muslim things, and things about my domestic life — how I felt about my religion, and of course, my sex life,” she says.
The questions didn’t make Azmat uncomfortable, but they reinforced her belief that her comedy should “be grounded in truth,” which meant that any answers she provided be explicit in their honesty. “It’s a reflection of how I view Islam,” she explains. “Islam is about balance, and I felt that whenever our communities talk about sex, especially about women’s sexuality, there’s a lack of balance. There’s a lot of talk about obligations and duties, and a lot about shame. But there isn’t much about female sexual desire, pleasure or even sexual frustration — something that informs who I am and how I practice my religion.”
To that end, last year Azmat wrote a piece for The Metro in which she describes how to navigate horniness during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month where Muslims abstain from food, water and sexual desires from sunrise to sunset. “The ‘modesty’ part is a bit of a problem for me,” she confided. “I’ve had sex during Ramadan (after iftar, not during the fast which isn’t permitted), and it’s great. Well, it’s great all year round, but there is a heightened sense of arousal given the increased awareness of primal urges through the hunger and thirst. If I had a choice, I’d give up a sandwich over semen.”
The joke is all the more controversial given that Azmat isn’t married (any kind of premarital sex is considered to be forbidden in Islam). “I believe in sex before marriage — mainly because I believe in sex and not so much marriage,” she wrote. The problem is, she added, “The only guys left are the ones looking to ‘save’ me from some imaginary, oppressed plight they seem to have conjured me up suffering. Non-Muslim guys see dating me as a challenge, as though conquering me is akin to when the U.S. invaded Iraq. I mean, I need some dick, but I don’t need you to be one.”
Many Muslims were predictably offended — and right-wing trolls offered their usual garbage takes — but Azmat was heartened by the number of Muslim women who related to what she wrote. “It disrupted the clean and pure perceptions of South Asian Muslim women that most people like to project, but doesn’t hold much truth in reality,” she tells me.
And so, she refuses to clean up her act on Twitter, where she says she’s “still obscure enough not to cause too much trouble” anyway. That said, with Ramadan just a few days away, she might tamp things down a little. “I’m going to be respectful, of course,” she laughs. “But I’m not going to self-edit.”