Funny, feminist and furious: British-Lebanese comedian Esther Manito is unleashing her anger on stage

Esther_Manito
5 min read
21 June, 2024

For some, being a comedian is a lifelong ambition, with dreams of headline performances, sold-out shows, and standing ovations.

But for Esther Manito, comedy was just a way to get out of the house.

Taking up a six-week writing course while on maternity leave, Esther thought it would be fun to do something creative.

“I never intended to do stand-up, but I got bitten by the bug,” she remembers, leaving her teaching career to pursue comedy full-time during the pandemic.

"People can see the impact that being a woman of a certain ethnicity – who’s also a mother – has and how you have to navigate your life without certain privileges"

Her performances are funny, feminist, and furious, exploring everything from representations of Arab culture and her British-Lebanese mixed heritage to views of women and mothers in society.

“My comedy isn’t what people would call political — I just talk about my everyday experiences and things that are said to me, like getting on public transport, going to work, my kids, my husband, my dad, going on holiday," she tells The New Arab.

"I like to think that by talking about the everyday, people can see the impact that being a woman of a certain ethnicity – who’s also a mother – has and how you have to navigate your life without certain privileges,” Esther says.

“There are expectations put on you as a mother, which you don’t seem to have the right to have any human reaction to. If you do react, you’re nagging, moaning, and annoying, you’re a hysterical woman. But if you were to take the pressure of domestic life and put that on men, there would be a lot of discourse.

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“As for mothers, people think you should just die because you’re no longer fuckable in their eyes. I’ve performed in Dubai, Europe, America… there is not a woman from any background who doesn't relate,” she adds.

“I find it incredibly frustrating that you are meant to be happy-go-lucky and super cool,” Esther says, reflecting on how her stand-up is very physical and intentionally unappealing. I’m not trying to make myself sexy for any men in the audience. As women, we’re supposed to constantly appease, but I do find it liberating to not try and do that.”

"The Middle East used to be portrayed as this hedonistic Playboy mansion. At the same time in the West, it was inappropriate for women to show their legs or be seen out with their husbands"

With her latest show titled Hell Hath No Fury, it’s clear that Esther isn’t a woman to hold back. After all, why should she? Her comedy feels defiant in the face of so many stereotypes, including those about Arab culture.

“As somebody who is staunchly feminist and has always felt strongly about their Arab identity, especially with what's going on at the moment, continuously perpetuating the image of Arab men as aggressive has been pivotal in dehumanising Arabs altogether. Once people are dehumanised, you can do anything. It’s a way of keeping people down," Esther says. 

“The damage is so deep,” she adds. “The Middle East used to be portrayed as this hedonistic Playboy mansion. At the same time in the West, it was inappropriate for women to show their legs or be seen out without their husbands.

"When the sexual revolution happened here, [the Middle East] was then suddenly seen as really backwards; ‘they don’t allow sex outside of marriage, women have to be covered up...’ Whatever Western values were at the time, the opposite was projected onto the Middle East.”

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Esther is hopeful that mindset will change, but only with more Arabs in popular culture and “without continuously being seen as standing against Western ideology.”

But even with a noticeable push for diversity in the industry, there’s still a sense that it’s within safe boundaries.

“It's a comfortable representation. There’s a conflation of Arab and Muslim identity, but there’s more comfort in seeing somebody saying that they’re Muslim. I think Arab is still a very scary word. Even Arabs themselves don’t always feel comfortable saying it,” she reflects.

"In the past, I’ve talked about what’s projected on Arab women, not just from racists but from within the community about what’s acceptable to do on stage"

Esther says a huge focus of her work has been normalising the term ‘Arab,’ especially having grown up in the 80s in a small town in Essex.

“When the Gulf War was happening, I was aggressively Arab. Then when I lived in the Middle East and heard the continuous comments about English people, I felt quite defensive about being English.”

For Esther, who is of mixed heritage with a Lebanese father and a white British mother, it took until her 30s to feel comfortable in her mixed identity and proud of both cultures, using her stand-up as a way to express her multifaceted identity.

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Still, that doesn’t just mean being proud – Esther believes it’s important to be critical of any problematic attitudes too.

“In the past, I’ve talked about what’s projected on Arab women, not just from racists but from within the community about what’s acceptable to do on stage. It doesn’t mean I’m any less proud, but at the end of the day, you’re representing both cultures,” she says.

As the first female comedian invited to perform at the Dubai Opera House, Esther has already broken boundaries.

But what milestones are on her horizon? Turns out, not many.

“I never set goals. What will be will be. I don’t want to put pressure on anything, I’m not in a bad position, the kids are safe and healthy," she says.

"My next show is about how women are supposed to be dignified and I’d love to take that to the Middle East, but we’ll see. Inshallah.”

Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages

Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks