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Changing Minds, One Joke At A Time: Can Comedy Bring Social Change?

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Standing against a red brick backdrop, holding a mike in his hand, stand up comedian Daniel Fernandes, begins performing his piece in front of a young audience. “If you have been reading the news lately, you’d know that Syria has a small problem. And the reason why I say ‘small problem’,” he continues sarcastically, “is because other countries have ‘real issues’. Like 3G not working, or flights not taking off as per Indigo standard time or the serious stuff, like an entire country spending its time to define a single world – ‘tolerance‘. Compared to that, Syria has an inconsequential problem of a small civil war… that’s leading to 4 million people fleeing the country.”

And just like that, he has not only made people laugh, but also made them think about an important issue. The 31-year-old Indian stand-up comic has in fact acquired a reputation for raising hard-hitting social issues like marital rape, student suicides and terrorism through his acts (he says he prefers to use the term ‘issues’ than the phrase ‘social issues’ to define them, though).

“I choose topics that are in the news and something that you wouldn’t normally find as part of a comic routine. To clarify, I’m not a social activist. I am not involved with any of these issues beyond a certain point. I see myself as a social commentator. Like most comedians in this space, I bring some sort of perspective to what’s happening in the world today and that’s it,” he says in an interview.

Fernandes isn’t the only comedian doing this. Aman Ali, a stand-up comic is trying to do the same thing, highlighting the many challenges faced by Muslims in America on his YouTube channel. “It’s been so frustrating. It’s time for Muslims to start telling their own stories,” he said during an interview.

At a time when critiquing issues can invite heavy backlash or create controversy, an increasing number of comedians are, in fact, choosing to layer their acts with social commentaries, in order to raise difficult questions or highlight uncomfortable truths. Touchy topics like religion and politics, or issues that are usually brushed under the carpet in most Indian households (read: alternate sexuality, student suicide, marital rape), in fact, invite laughter and agreement on stage. Humour does the job of sugar coating the bitter medicine.  It takes away the sting.

The Evolution Of The Indian Comedy Scene

Comedy is arguably the oldest, most universal and basic form of humorous expression. From actors like Mehmood Ali, Kishore Kumar, Kader Khan and Johnny Lever to newer ones like Kenny Sebastian, Vir Das and Sorab Pant, comedians have always been big on the Indian pop culture scene. That said, the country has also seen a dramatic shift in the way comedy is done in the last decade. A decade ago, most on-stage comedy was slapstick or, at most, poked fun at public figures through mimicry. Then, a new brigade of comedians like Shekhar Suman and Ahsaan Qureshi found their spot in shows like “Movers And Shakers” or TV shows like the raucous “Indian Laughter Challenge”. The rise of the Internet revolution, as well as a  growing pub culture, especially in cosmopolitan cities, has in the latest wave, made standup comedy extremely popular.

But the question remains, can stand-up comedy also open a path to social change? And if yes, how?

Deconstructing A Stand-Up Act

Stand-up comedy acts generally involve performers narrating personal tales to the audience. Huffington Post,  in fact, analysed the set pattern followed by most comedians. The first step involves establishing a common ground by asking the audience a few questions, and then making them a little uncomfortable, perhaps by stating something unexpected. This is followed by again establishing common ground, narrating an incident that has a connect with the audience. As the act continues, the performer may make the audience more uncomfortable and then conclude his piece by establishing new ground through an alternative perspective.

But Can Stand-Up Comedy Change Perspectives?

Just like successful social awareness campaigns, good comedy can change perspectives by holding up a mirror to society, forcing it to confront realities that it often ignores. The process gets interesting the moment a comedian gives a pause for the audience to reflect upon a topic. Making someone uncomfortable — guilty, confused, offended — is the first thing to changing minds and consequently behaviours. Why?

Because it seems that making people uncomfortable forces them to think. Once the thought process starts, the chance to establish a new perspective can begin.

Papa CJ, a leading comedian who taps into issues faced by Indian college students, says, “People have limited attention spans now. Humour is a powerful way to get people to listen while subconsciously educating as well.”

The Risk Of Taking The Joke Too Far: Can Comedy Bring About Change?

It surely has the potential. But with humour also comes an added risk – that of trivialising a problem or an issue. The distinction between creative license and sensitivity is a fine line to be walked upon. Here, the importance of treating content properly becomes paramount.

“I think that stand-up can bring about social change because, at the end of the day, it is a conversation. And all conversation can spark change. But don’t think it can bring about a change in isolation, that’s entirely too much pressure to put on a form of creative expression. That been said, if and when it is used that way, it can be used as one tool in a series of many to bring out change,” says Rohan Joshi of AIB fame.

Sure, talking about social issues and not being preachy is a difficult line to toe. A comedian’s first concern is to be funny. It’s their primary job after all. But stand-up acts can spark interest in a topic, they can enlighten, build awareness and empathy.

The trick, however, is to get the right balance, to use humour constructively for the cause of social change. Humour writer Mary Hirsch said it best: “Humour is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.”

Aman Ali is performing at the American Center in Delhi on Feb 27 at 5:30 p.m. Do attend and take the conversation on comedy for social change ahead!

Yashasvini Mathur is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the February-March 2017 batch.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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