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Books and Documents ( 2 Apr 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Fighting Feminist Wars with Humour


By Kim Arora

Apr 3, 2013

'Women's place is in the house - a good enough reason for them to be in both Houses of Parliament'. 'They demand not just copper-T, but also property'. These are among the many quips, one-liners, shaggy-dog tales and even songs that activist Kamla Bhasin has come out with in a book of feminist jokes in Hindi.

The book "Hasna to sangharshon mein bhi zaroori hai" (It is important to laugh in struggles as well) is a translation of a 2004 book called "Laughing Matters". "We believe in the right to copy, not copyright. Feminists are always original," quips Bhasin.

She believes laughter and humour are important tools of subversion. "If there's one thing patriarchy can't stand, it is laughing women. It implies that she is a brave woman. Patriarchy too uses humour to put women down. We need to make sure we don't take ourselves too seriously," says Bhasin. She started her career with Dalit and Adivasi groups in Rajasthan in the '70s and later worked with the Food and Agriculture Organisation. After moving to Delhi in 1979, she joined the Committee on the Portrayal of Women in Media, besides working on women's empowerment.

Humour is a good weapon, agrees social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. "Patriarchy is stuffy and pompous. Humour can attack it from various angles and break the one-sidedness of it. But humour must have an element of surprise. Familiarity brings boredom," he says. But can there be any space for humour when everything related to women's rights, from institutional reforms to jurisprudence, is a matter of serious debate? "Only if your struggle is going to be short, can you afford to have long faces," says 66-year-old Bhasin.

Probably this is where the feminist movement scores. Writer Urvashi Butalia says that the movement has the capacity to laugh at itself, something she thinks is missing in other political movements. "Knowing the experience of being marginalized and ridiculed, feminist women stay away from the kind of humour that belittles. Their relationship to humour is complex and multi-layered," says Butalia.

Such humour works well where there's limited liberty. Bhasin remembers watching a play by Pakistani women that poked fun at the imposition of Sharia law by then President Zia-ul-Haq. One of the laws said that the testimony of one man was equal to that of two women. "There was a hilarious skit with two policewomen. One had a gun and a cap, the other the bullets and belt. The policewomen complained that no one followed their orders unless they gave the orders together. Humour works very well in places where there is limited political space to speak," says Bhasin.