Abish Mathew got lucky tonight. He was paid a lot of money for a show that was mediocre at best. But now, courtesy the course of events, he will be remembered by many as a martyr of stand up comedy at National Law University Delhi. And he really doesn’t deserve that title. But neither did he deserve the censorship imposed upon him by the attack of, what I would like to call, misguided feminism.
For those of you who were lucky enough to miss it (unless of course you’re a glutton for gossip, because this will take the throne for a while now), allow me to bring you up to speed. Abish Mathew was all set to perform a one and a half hour stand up act on the third day of the second edition of our University’s cultural fest, Karios. He began with an unimpressive and unoriginal set of easy crowd pleasing regional jokes. In one such joke, after building up the premise that five minutes is a long time for Indians (because we ask for five more minutes to finish an exam paper or to sleep – coz nobody else does that?), he joked that five minutes is a long time for Mallu fathers because it grants them enough time to force their daughters to become nurses, ship them off to Dubai, go home, drink toddy, beat their wives and still have three minutes left (I’ll get back to the examination of this joke). At this point, two girls of the third year batch stood up from the central aisle and publicly stormed off showing Abish the middle finger. Abish ignored this and proceeded with his set. A series of average jokes undeserving of that amount of money followed – ranging from how Kim Jong-un allegedly fed his uncle to dogs making it the first time a dog ate a North Korean, to the arbitrariness of deciding delegates at MUNs, and to the strange sounds of Indian languages. In his defence and something he stated categorically as well, he was uncertain of the audience and was testing waters with his material. Reluctant to enter the realm of politics, he breezed over a Mayawati (I’ll get back to this one as well) and Modi (at popular request by yours truly) which I thought was his funnier stuff. He did not steer clear of sexist jokes either, making multiple done-to-death jokes of women drivers (Seriously, who makes this joke on a stand up gig?), women using Facebook at work (Was that even a joke? Who doesn’t use Facebook at work? And anyone who doesn’t use Alt+Tab just doesn’t know the shortcut), and Punjabi women becoming fat after marriage (the Swift v Swift Dzire analogy does not save you from the criticism of being unoriginal, Abish). About forty minutes into the show, the two girls who had stormed off returned to the centre of the aisle with two other girls holding placards reading “Get Out Sexist Pig”. On protest by the audience, three of the four girls moved to the side of the auditorium from where they continued to heckle him and asking him to ‘get the fuck out’. Abish, who evidently had material left considering he had not begun to play the guitar which was standing on stage (I wonder whether that would have been funny), sought permission to crack one final joke as he had ‘clearly overstayed his welcome’ and left the stage without completing his set.
Let me get my less controversial objection to this incident out of the way first – I refer, of course, to the form of protest. Protest is to be encouraged and sexism should be called out – no doubt. But I don’t think curbing his expression was the right way of going about it, and I think it would be naive to suggest that they had not curbed it through their manner of protest. If the intention were to get the message across to Abish, one of the protesters spoke to Abish, explained why she had a problem with the jokes and he responded calmly that he understood why she considered it sexist and agreed to remove it from his set. But I don’t want to get hung up on form of protest, because what is far more relevant is the substance of it.
Why do I call it misguided feminism? Because an unfortunate result of the misogynistic and sexist society we live in has been that women are projected to be the victims even when it is sometimes not the case. Was the woman the butt of the domestic violence joke that Abish made? He made fun of Mallu men who drink toddy and beat their wives. I would think that it is that Mallu man who is the butt of this joke. That the behaviour of such a man should not be accepted in civilized society. Through satire, he challenges such reprehensible actions. The joke does not celebrate such men, but ridicules them. It is also argued that making these jokes trivializes the issue of domestic violence and treats it as a non-issue. But I also think that comedy could be a great form of social commentary and a manner to bring issues to public light. Did you know that such a tendency exists in Mallu society? I didn’t and I have Mallu parents. Is it not better that the issue was brought to light in such a forum than that it remains unspoken of? I’m not here to say that Abish didn’t make sexist jokes. He did, although my immediate objection to the sexist jokes about women drivers or women multitasking at work was not that they were sexist, but that they were just such terrible jokes. Also, that Mayawati joke was funny. Why was it sexist? It was shallow, sure. But it made fun of her for the number of statues she makes. The fact that she’s ugly was just a set up.
Lastly, it’s a shame that this group who otherwise raise relevant issues on campus were the actors in this incident because it feeds fodder to those who used to discredit them without basis. The protesters presumably fear the impact that these sexist jokes would have on the people who discredit feminism as being unnecessary and overhyped, but they should equally fear the result of their actions and how it steers them further away from any discussion on the importance of being a feminist. I call myself a feminist and I don’t know why everyone does not. But I would understand why people would want to disassociate themselves with feminism if this were what feminism meant – and thus, I call it misguided.