[I wrote this for the feminist blog Ultra Violet, it is the first of a series on Feminism & Humor]
I GREW UP IN India, as the only child of parents who did not expect me to observe any of the socially accepted behaviors for women. My parents thought that ladylike conduct of any kind was a highly over-rated skill set that I could do without. And so I became what I am today: a loudmouth (comedian) who mines her personal and private life for laughs.
My one-woman comedy show, ‘Unladylike: The Pitfalls of Propriety’, debuted in 2010, and is an hour-long monolog about the endless double standards I was subjected to, none of which were shoved at me by my parents but by society in general, and more insidiously, by my peers. For example – good girls kept their legs crossed and their virginity intact for their husbands. The husbands, of course, were droppin’ it low and spreadin’ it wide (a phrase I learnt from Toni Braxton’s mother). None of this has ever made sense to me, and I open my show with a rant against virginity and the forces that push us to cling to it.
I also rant about other stuff like body hair, flatulence, masturbation, and sex within marriage (or is that just masturbation? Hmm…). And all of it is from the perspective of ‘If it’s OK for the boys, why isn’t it OK for us’? As a comedian, you never know what the audience will find funny. You dig deep, you bare your soul, and you hope that someone out there will relate. And so it was to my utter delight (and, let’s be honest, utter relief,) that people got the joke. Especially the women. Not surprising, I suppose, since the show is written from my perspective as a broad.
Soon after my show opened in New York, a journalist from The Huffington Post interviewed me. She had seen it and her first question was ‘Are you a feminist?’ Looking back, this must have been a rhetorical question. Based on the content of my show, I am a feminist, it’s clear as day! But here is the scariest thing in the world, I did not immediately say ‘YES! Yes, I am a feminist’.
Instead, I hemmed and hawed for what felt like an eternity, until my show’s director, Brock Savage, stepped in and informed us both that he was not just a feminist but a proud feminist, and that he could not stand women who didn’t call themselves feminists. And I see his point – women who disown feminism are like poodles who disown PETA.
Human beings always seem so eager to identify with a state or a country or a religious group. We proudly state our affiliations, ‘I am Bengali’, ‘I am Presbyterian’, ‘I am French’. Yet, here I was with a 60-minute act all about the pain and aggravation of being female and afraid to state my association with the group of humans I had the most in common with! What the hell was wrong with me?
Turns out a few things.
To begin with, I was ignorant. I didn’t have a clue about what a feminist was. Growing up in India, I don’t recall hearing the word ‘feminist’, I didn’t know of any strong, powerful, Indian women being described as feminist and to the best of my knowledge, none of them took that mantle upon themselves. Anil Kapoor was my hair role model, no one had a mullet quite like his, or like mine, for that matter, but where were my feminist role models? They were M.I.A, and so if I did call myself a feminist what exactly was I expected to do? As far as I knew, all our battles had been fought and won by 1970. We could vote, bras had been burnt and we were equal to men.
Of course, now that I see this in print, I feel even more ashamed of myself. I hail from a country rife with female infanticide, a country where child-brides are not that uncommon, and where rape cases go unsolved and the perpetrators go unpunished. How could I have thought, even for a moment, that we women were in the clear?
But even after it had dawned upon me that feminism was very much my business, I still wasn’t sure I qualified! I mean weren’t feminists all clever women with degrees in women’s studies, who eschewed pussy-fart jokes, weed, and gossip about other thinner, more toned ladies?
Turns out, feminism does not discriminate. To begin with many feminists are men (case in point, my director Brock) and so, armed with a vagina, I was already better qualified. As for my bad habits – this was feminism not puritanism, so no problem there. And yes, most feminists are highly intelligent and well-read – but I am smart enough, I went to college, and if I put my mind to it, I know I can catch up with all the ‘required’ reading, which by the way, if you have not got to, yet have no fear and start with Caitlin Moran’s ‘How To Be A Woman’– it is hilarious and meaningful and hilarious – oh I said that twice – and right there – feminists don’t have to be serious, and so I could continue to be a comedian.
So what was I still afraid of?
If I am to be completely honest, part of my hesitation came from the fear of commitment. Once it had dawned up on me that feminism was very much my business, I understood that being a feminist was a responsibility. A responsibility to set an example, to think about the things that affect our lives, and, most important of all, to act when our hard-won choices are threatened.
Oh my God! That’s a lot of work. Plus, I will have to stand by my word, and I may have to argue with a few people, and I will come off as a shrill, unattractive, man-hating shrew.
NOT TRUE! I was a shrill shrew to begin with, so no need to panic. As for man hating – Brock’s gay – he likes men and he is a feminist – so I should be okay. And yes, of course it’s a commitment that may involve some hard choices, and inspire some arguments, but it’s so worth it! Like a few months ago, when female voters in America cast their ballot in favor of President Obama in the hope that his administration would protect their right to choose. Their voices were heard and he won, thus ensuring our reproductive rights were our business for at least the next four years.
But sadly, America is just one country. The day after the election, a young woman, Savita Halappanawar, died in Ireland because she was denied a life-saving abortion. This awful tragedy could have been so easily avoided if we lived in a world where religious sentiments were considered less important than a woman’s life.
Just a month ago, on December 16th, as anyone not living under a rock knows, a woman in New Delhi was brutalized in a vicious gang rape that eventually killed her. As vile as the event was, it brought out the best in Indian women. I kept up with the aftermath from my apartment in New York and for the first time, I actually felt like women in India had had enough. It wasn’t lip service or fear that was on display, but empathy and courage.
The fact is that this awful tragedy could have been avoided if we lived in a world where women are safe and thus truly equal to men. But we don’t, and this shit has to change. And it can only change if we all band together and tell the world that none of us will tolerate it anymore.
Because we are feminists, goddammit, and that is what we do.