Abish Mathew, comedian of the AIB Roast fame, performed at NLU Delhi on the 22nd of March for our annual fest, Kairos. Early in the show, Matthew cracked a joke on domestic violence, at which point, two women students who found the jokes to be extremely misogynistic, walked out showing him the middle finger. The audience reacted with some tittering, and Abish Mathew fumbled momentarily before resuming. The audience asked him to carry on and to ignore the protesters. In the mean time, a group of female students marched into the auditorium holding placards reading “Get Out, Sexist Pig”, and also used expletives such as ‘fuck off’.
The auditorium erupted in shouts of “fuck you guys”. The protesters were booed and heckled by the audience members who demanded that the protestors either leave or move to the side. They eventually did move to the side of the auditorium, where they continued to hold their placards up and attempted to interrupt him. Abish was greeted by a standing ovation when he stated that he was an artist and recognized the right of the protesters, and subsequently, when he ended his show by stating he had overstayed his welcome.
After repeated efforts to meet with Abish Mathew, one of the protesters was allowed to speak with him. During the conversation, he said that he had no idea that jokes about these issues would warrant such a strong response. He revealed that he does not crack jokes about female foeticide, for instance, as he recognized the issue to be a grave one. But he clearly did not draw a similar link to domestic violence.
As the protesters exited the auditorium, they were met with a hostile crowd that was yelling at them. Their clothes were commented upon, and jokes were made about prior incidents of sexual harassment on campus and one of the protesters was pushed. The protest and the subsequent incidents sparked off a debate over email and social media as well, with people agreeing and disagreeing in various degrees with the form and substance of the protest.
We believe that sexism is all pervasive and even if propagated in the garb of humour, it causes greater social harm than mere insult or offence. Sexist jokes serve not only to trivialize grave issues such as domestic violence, but also render these issues invisible within larger institutional structures of oppression, thereby reifying these structures.
The jokes cracked pertained to domestic violence, women’s physical appearance and sexual (un)attractiveness. They also reiterated the traits that are traditionally ascribed to women. Domestic violence is an institutionalized and systematic form of abuse. As an issue, this is seen as being situated within the realm of the “private”; victims and survivors often find it difficult to seek redressal because of its normalization. Joking about domestic violence perpetuates a culture where violence against women is the norm. Further, such jokes may act as a trigger for members of the audience who may be victims or survivors of such violence.
Mathew also commented on the physical appearance and sexual “unattractiveness” of the ex Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh – Mayawati, who is one of the most powerful leaders of the country and is a Dalit woman. He chose to critique her appearance, completely glossing over her achievements and how she overcame several structural hurdles to occupy such a powerful position. In the world we inhabit, women are pressurized to conform to patriarchal standards of beauty. There are entire industries based on fragmenting women’s bodies and selling beauty as her most pivotal aspect. Many women, all over the world, develop eating disorders, suffer from low self esteem, and undergo emotional trauma because of their inability to conform to what is regarded as the ideal body type. In such a situation, to joke about ‘pretty Punjabi women’ ballooning from Maruti Swift to Maruti Swift Dzire after their marriage was deeply problematic.
Mathew painted a troublesome picture of women, drawing upon traditional roles assigned to them in a patriarchal society – of being predominantly someone meant to serve the men in her life. He joked how a woman, while having sex with her husband, noticed how dirty the house was, and called her domestic help as soon as her ‘sahib’ was done, so the house could be cleaned. This may also be a reflection of how women are expected to be inanimate blow-up dolls during sex, where it is solely the male partner who experiences pleasure.
Some of his other jokes included women being bad drivers, as while driving, they simultaneously perform other tasks such as putting on make-up and feeding their babies. Even if one is to accept the unproved claim that women are bad drivers, there are various sociological reasons for why women may be bad drivers, such as their being caged into homes and lack of opportunities for them to navigate public spaces without fear.
The protesters believe that abstaining from commenting adversely on marginalized communities should not be confined to only academic spaces, but should also be accommodated into our lives, because political correctness must not be treated as an instrument of appeasement. We believe that our advocacy for substantive equality must be internalized and not just serve as a charade. The burden of political correctness transcends the boundary between the public and the private and travels with a person regardless of the nature of activity being carried out. Further, the conscious enjoyment of sexist jokes is antithetical to the very tenets of feminism.
It is our view that not all speech warrants the same level of protection. For instance, there exists almost universal consensus against child pornography. Similarly, speech that perpetuates harmful stereotypes and reifies power structures that serve to oppress certain groups of people should be restricted through social shaming. Certain communities face a disparate impact of certain kinds of speech and that is to be gauged entirely from who is saying what to whom and in what conditions. The protesters are not of the view that discussion and comedy cantered on issues such as domestic violence and rape must cease. They are in full support of subversive narratives that handle these issues with sensitivity.
Now, moving on to the form that the protest took, it is important to keep in mind that it was spontaneous. While we continue to maintain that the form of protest we chose was legitimate, in hindsight, we recognize that perhaps alternate feminist methods of expressing our dissent could have been explored, given the circumstances. As a community, our commitment to feminism cannot be so fragile that we abandon the cause merely because of disagreement on the suitability of the form of protest. We believe that different forms of protests are ‘suitable’ for different situations and it should be up to the protesters to choose their form keeping in mind the circumstances. A certain form of protest may be ‘unsuitable’ for a situation but nonetheless legitimate. One could imagine that a marginalized group may face a situation where they are pushed to a corner, and therefore feel the need to resort to a disruptive protest. Indeed it would be ironic for persons not part of the protest to be dictating the form of protest.
However, given the current political climate in the country, where various forms of speech have been censored, our form of protest was perhaps disempowering to minority groups like ours. After all, the marginalized and oppressed are the easiest to put down, and our form of protest may, in that sense, contribute to our own disempowerment. In retrospect, we do believe that there might have been a better but equally legitimate form as we adopted. We must also realize that consequences of an alternative form of protest are up to conjecture, and there is no guarantee that they would have led to an unprecedented engagement on the issue.
Our protest has often been equated with a ‘heckler’s veto’, however this is a mischaracterization as the protest did not command the power to use institutionalized machinery in order to stifle speech. The protesters represented a minority both numerically and ideologically, and were protesting against a dominant and pervasive narrative. We cannot, therefore, be likened to a majoritarian group restricting the speech of minorities. Further, our speech did not even constitute ‘heckling’. The right to free speech does not subsume the right to consequence free speech. Just as clapping, cheering and hooting in appreciation are legitimate reactions to a speech, a critical reaction, which may not be courteous or polite, is also as legitimate. Moreover, denying us our right to protest would have impinged on our right to free speech. If we deem only speech recognized as deserving of legitimate state restrictions as expression which can be legitimately protested against by non-state actors – that would spell death for free speech of dissent.
We believe that protests are often disruptive, even when non-violent, and legitimately so. Some of the world’s most successful non-violent protests have been extremely disruptive. During the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, while women protested outside the White House fighting for their right to vote, the State decided to crack down on them using the charge of obstruction of traffic against the non-violent protesters. In order to achieve one’s political goals under certain circumstances, disruption becomes essential.
Many have raised the concern that if we did have a problem with the sort of jokes Abish Mathew cracked, we should have protested with the organisers long before the show; given that it is public knowledge that he is known to crack jokes that are derogatory to oppressed groups. If the organisers were aware that Abish Mathew would be cracking sexist jokes, should not the burden be on them to ensure that he didn’t do so on our campus? Within the free speech paradigm, a protest following problematic speech enjoys more legitimacy than stifling speech before it has been uttered. Pre-censorship of speech requires a far greater burden to be discharged. Further, while Abish Mathew may have the right to free speech, to our mind, he does not have the right to the platform of our University auditorium because we are trying to create a space where people belonging to all genders feel safe, and our protest was against the use of University space to perpetuate sexism through humour.
We must recognize that speech can effectively counter other speech if the marketplace of speech is actually free. However, in the real world, different power differentials and structures do exist. And for that reason, one speaker has a position of power over the other. In this case, Abish Mathew had the mic and stage, while the protesters, carrying their posters, were asked to move aside, and to let the show continue. If we were to truly give counter speech a chance, should we not have created space for that speech? Is it enough to say that they could have countered Abish’s speech later, for instance through a blog post? Or should the organisers have given the protesters the stage for a few minutes after Abish’s speech?
The reactions directed towards the protesters, both at the time of the protest and after were quite hostile, and point towards the need to introspect about the necessity to nurture space for dissent and protest. Some protesters personally felt unsafe after this incident. Feeling unsafe is a very personal experience, shaped by the lived experience of women in our society, and is not something that calls for an explanation.
Despite past events, it is heartening to see that the protest has generated dialogue, debate and introspection both within our University and outside. A healthy and fruitful debate attended by large numbers took place within our campus three days after the protest. This is a small victory in pursuance of achieving our larger aim as a University, towards building a more inclusive campus where persons of all genders feel free.
Protesters and Supporters:
Jagata Krishna Swaminathan