Breaking new ground: Pakistani feminist comedians challenge taboos
By MAVRA BARI
WASHINGTON: Periods, sex, body shaming, harassment, misogyny, dating: These are not topics of discussion that are openly discussed in Pakistani households or amongst friends.
But packaged as comedy, the taboo themes elicit raucous laughter and cheers in packed auditoriums. Families, couples and young people all come in droves to watch female comedians perform.
While it is becoming more common, stand-up comedy, particularly for women performers, is still a novelty.
Historically, comedy is a very male-dominated field in the country, and the rare female performers were limited to television. Those doing stand-up comedy have until recently not been able to find acceptance in Pakistan, as there are several negative connotations and social stigma regarding women being on stage, alone and unaccompanied.
While singers such as Noor Jehan have long been a staple of Pakistani pop culture, female comedians do not occupy the same space. In Pakistani culture, women have typically been seen as subjects of jokes, not the ones telling them.
However, with the advent of more stand-up and improv comedians in the last decade, women, too, have now carved out a niche for themselves in comedy.
Several of these comedians say that they found the confidence and skills to do comedy publicly thanks to the safety they felt in all-women comedy troupes.
Amtul Baweja, 31, digital content creator and comedian, has been performing since 2011 when she was a university student, but she didn’t feel comfortable doing comedy until she joined South Asia’s first all-female improv-comedy group, The Khawatoons, in 2016.
“My confidence boosted performing with women. Before comedy felt very male-dominated, and automatically men would take the funnier roles or the audience would find the man funnier and make the woman feel like she was trying too hard,” Baweja told DW. “But with the troupe we had to play all the roles, even the male roles, and got so many laughs.”
The Khawatoons was started by one of Pakistan’s best-known comedians, Faiza Saleem.
She started the troupe so women could have a safe space to express themselves freely and be able “to talk about difficult things through comedy,” Saleem told DW.
Baweja and Saleem not only share being in the same troupe together, but both have launched very successful careers as comedians, leveraging the power and reach of social media as well — the former has 47,000 followers on Instagram and the latter, 178,000. Both social media and being in female troupes allows these women freedom and safety, they say.
Robina Ahmed, 64, is a retired government official who started doing stand-up comedy four years ago. She, too, found artistic refuge in another Pakistani feminist stand-up troupe, Auratnaak, after mostly performing in comedy groups with “young guys,” where she did not feel as free to explore the issues she wanted to.
Ahmed broke further barriers recently by performing an entire solo set to a sold-out hall the day after her retirement.