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Jhola and a joke
Who says feminists copy? Our work is seminal, original, uri. . . " Kamla Bhasin clamps a hand over her mouth in mock consternation before she completes her scatalogical punchline. She is a feminist, 67, and on stage at a Delhi theatre doing a very un-feminist thing - stand-up comedy. Actually it is "sit down comedy" because a fall has left her walking on crutches. The jokes come fast and furious: "How many feminists does it take to fix a bulb? Five. One to fix it, two to write about the process and two to make a video. " Once the jokes end, she sits down with her friends for a session Punjabi tappa and qawwali remixed.
Dour and drab. Jholas and starched tangails. Broom and belan raised in fury. Feminism everywhere, and in India, has an image problem. Attribute it to the rage of the early '70s street protests against dowry and wife beating, the passionate polemic of academic circles or the skewed depiction of women libbers as breakers of marriage and wreckers of families. Whatever the reason, the de facto image of a feminist has become that of a humourless, man-hating shrew. So much so that even women who've gained most from the freedoms the movement has won go, "Umm, I'm not sure I would call myself one" when asked if they are feminists.
Could fun feminism - some humour, a little self deprecation, and healthy doses of mockery - be the way out?
Bhasin, founder member of feminist group Jagori, admits she is worried that humour hasn't been used enough in the feminist movement. "We are portrayed as women who take themselves too seriously. But it is a myth that feminists don't laugh. And the truth is that laughter is the best way to diminish fear and fight tyranny, " says Bhasin, who recently released a motley collection of jokes and cartoons, Laughing Matters, at an event marked with a lot of hilarity. Up on the stage to release the book published by Jagori were four girls and a boy, all from Delhi colleges. "I didn't want the same old women from commissions and committees up there, " quips Bhasin.
Bhasin has seen India's feminist movement pass through many stages since the first wave in the '50s. A lot of what the "post-feminists" take for granted, she tells you, are hard-won freedoms (" I would like to see how many non-feminists will refuse to take their husband's names or fight for family property" ). Her earliest memories are of fighting to be allowed to have pockets in her salwar so she could store her marbles like the boys.
Then came the leftist, women-centric movements of the '70s. The '80s were marked by fiery morchas, streetfights and writings on labour issues, dowry deaths, domestic violence and sati by feminists groups such as Manushi, Jagori and Sakhi. Today, in this age of social media-driven Pink Chaddi and Slutwalk campaigns, it all seems like history.
It is time then, Bhasin says, to move from all-consuming anger to more subtle means. "All enemies don't deserve rage. There is a time for the danda, a time for logic, a time for humour, " she says. "Besides women who are angry all the time are very boring. "
The loudest laughter at the Delhi Jagori event came from jokes the feminists aimed at themselves, poking fun at the conference circuits, the infighting, and the disconnect between theorists and housewives. In the West, feminist lite, as the idea is often referred to, arrived some years ago. Today, the best known 'feminists' there are wild, wacky, edgy, sexy, highly individualistic and shorn of heavy ideological baggage. The F word has come to mean different things to different women. As the reigning queen of fun feminism, Caitlin Moran, puts it, "Being a feminist isn't like the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme. You can actually be quite a shallow feminist if you want. It's not just for women who've spent 30 years debating genderspecific social structuring on Newsnight. "
The Moran brand of feminism is not without its critics who say it's for a privileged audience. But there is no denying that feminism with a smiley is likely to win more friends and supporters than feminism with a frown. In fact, feminists point out, you don't have to work all that hard or even fake it to elicit the laughs. "I find it difficult not to be humourous when I write or talk on feminist issues. Look at how absurd and ridiculous the notions of patriarchy are, they defy reason. And how can you fight the lack of reason with only anger?" asks academic, author and translator J Devika, whose writings on Kerala's deep-rooted sexist mindset invariably drip with delightfully dark humour. "Besides everyone likes to hear a good joke, even non-feminists. "
Devika points out a fact few know - that Indian feminist writing in vernacular languages from way back in the late 1930s rippled with black humour. "It was so sharp that it almost felt like a whiplash, " she says of Kerala's women writers who influenced her style. Of these women, K Saraswathi Amma was one. The other contemporary feminist writers from Kerala like KR Meera and Sara Joseph liberally lace their writings with humour. As Nilanjana S Roy, a journalists who writes regularly on gender issues, says, the revolution should be fun. "You aren't fighting for a glum, dour future, " she says.
Sarah Joseph, 67, whose works are full of wit, satire and barely veiled allegories, believes that the only way to poke fun at chauvinists is to land a sharp punch loaded with humour. Her story 'Dimwittitude' is about a scientist from a conservative Kerala village who qualifies for a trip to space. The villagers raise many horrified questions: if she goes up to space, won't she need a husband who has travelled even higher? And what if she is molested there? Well, says the girl's sister, at that height when gravity is off kilter the men will have trouble groping her.
"Parihasam (ridicule) is a very strong weapon, stronger even than sarcasm and I find it excellent when I deal with female stereotypes, " says Joseph.
Given the horrors of everyday living on the streets of urban India today, this humour may seem out of place. But as Bhasin puts it, humour diminishes fear, reduces its place in our lives and stumps the enemy. Nivedita Menon, a professor at JNU and the author of Seeing Like A Feminist, says that humour does not reduce the political content of a feminist argument nor does it mean giving in to patriarchy. "Having fun with feminism is a small part of the movement and does not dilute the issue, " she says. To quote the great humorist Mark Twain, nothing in the world can stand up to the assault of laughter.
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