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So you thought feminists don't laugh?


Smile, snort, grin, giggle and guffaw. . .  the absurdity of sexism can provoke only one response.

I'm a little baffled when people say feminists have no sense of humour. I'd be less surprised if someone told me feminists laugh too much. To me feminism is not the reasoned explanation that follows after I've stopped laughing. It is the reason I'm laughing.

However, I do sympathise with male and female amateurs who are confused. You have seen women laughing in the past but you never thought they were feminists (because if they were feminists could they have been laughing?) For future reference here's a handy guide for L-Board observers of feminism. You might want to cut-and-save it, as the IIPM ads say.


This is the most common source of feminist laughter. It's what cracked me up when Saudi newspapers reported last week that women can now ride bikes and buggies. "Women are free to ride bikes in parks, seafronts, among other areas, providing that they are wearing fully modest dress and a male guardian has to be present in case of falls or accidents. " These thoughtful suggestions come after years of Saudi women agitating against the ban against driving.

Or take Sharanya who is 19 and studies in a women's college in Bangalore. In January, a student comes to the door of her class to make an announcement. The college has organised a protest rally the following day. They are to walk a kilometre to mark the death of the young Delhi gangrape victim. All students are expected to participate. All students are also expected, the announcement continued, to be 'decently' dressed. Two months later, Sharanya still has no words to express her indignation other than a spluttering and giggling.

A persistent (but perhaps apocryphal) story has it that in the year 584 a bunch of bishops met in Lyons, France and decided that women are not human and have no souls. If it did happen there was definitely a lot of this variety of laughter that day.
Note: The can't-believe-you're-for-real laugh might range from a short snort to clutching-the-walls-for-support variety. Usually, it's a short snort because we have other things to do today than hanging around.


This is how I giggled when, some years ago, I joined a tiny NGO with three men. I was hired to run their website. On Day 1 a colleague asked me to pour out the tea. My colleague meant no harm and was, genuinely, not being malicious. It was just that in his world, the act of asking the only female colleague present to handle the beverages was not an embarrassingly dated, utterly medieval clichê of the 'My Wife is The Home Minister' vintage. To him, it was perfectly appropriate. I didn't pour the tea. I giggled and went on typing. In a while, he poured all of us tea.

Many feminists and others (it's contagious ) had this fit of choking laughter recently when they saw the New York Times obituary of Yvonne Brill, a scientist who invented a propulsion system that keeps communication satellites in orbit. It began, "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom, ' her son Matthew said. " Douglas Martin, the writer, intended this embarrassing beginning to create excitement when the piece later revealed that (surprise!) the woman (surprise!) was a rocket scientist. After everyone-went-through-the-OMGyou've-never-read-anything routine, the piece had to be edited online.

I did think of the power of this variety of feminist laughter in 2009 when Renu Gora, an international prize-winning boxer was told to serve tea, refreshments and wash cups for random reporters and visiting bureaucrats at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala. Renu felt compelled to do as she was told for lots of reasons. I wished she had laughed and meaningfully stroked her gloves instead.


My friend Lucy specialises in this variety. In the bus on a sweaty afternoon she grew tired of the man standing next to her seat and leaning his crotch into her face. She looked up and uttered this warning laugh, a mere crack. He must have sensed that her broad, good-humoured face usually did not house these predatory sounds. He paused in his activity but he did not move away fast enough. A minute later, Lucy's genial, middle-aged voice rang loudly through the bus: Take your maal away from my face unless you want me to cut it off. The man got off the bus.


This is a vicious variety and one you should hope you never see unless you want to be found dead with your eyes staring in horror. This is a particularly tough one to spot because the feminist is likely to be smiling a fixed smile, soundlessly. It comes without the warning laugh (see above).

The reason why many people would like feminists to laugh is not the same reasons feminist laugh. Other people would like feminists to laugh so they are easier to like. They particularly would like women to laugh along when unfunny things are said so that they give others permission to continue being thoughtless jackasses.

Innocuous and bright as summer fruit, this laugh will fool you into continuing to do whatever obnoxious thing you are doing right now (describing a female boss as an old bitch, talking about how your maid is exploiting you, about how the maid who was allegedly raped by Shiney Ahuja should have been just paid off, why the university students who said they had been sexually harassed were definitely paid off, taking credit for work your female colleagues have done). You will have no clue the axe is dangling over your soft, silly neck.


This is a tricky one. It's fleeting and it can go all the way from a smile to an unplanned, surprised giggle. Often this is when we are thinking of our own imperfections and vanities. Sometimes it is suffused with the warmth of meeting or reading about someone who has had the same experience we've had. It's what you feel when writer Caitlin Moran talks about oh, anything. Like when she said, "To any idiot who says, "You a feminist? Do you burn your bras, then, huh? HUH? You burn your bras, you feminist, " you must reply calmly, "Fool. FOOL. Bra is my friend. My bosomest buddy. My inti-mate. Except for that balcony-cup Janet Reger one that was an inch too small and cut off the circulation to my head. Yeah. That one, I covered in gas and torched it outside the American embassy. " Or when she says, "When a woman says, 'I have nothing to wear!' what she really means is, 'There's nothing here for who I'm supposed to be today'. "


This is a cheeky, truly happy one that can run from the tiny-smile-to-the-rollicking-laugh spectrum. When we see the little girl once beaten by her vicious employers now riding a cycle to school. When your father scolds the nosy neighbour and says, "No, my daughter is not married. Everyone doesn't need to get married. "

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