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This is not a joke

  • Published at 05:41 pm October 28th, 2018
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Commodifying an entire gender is not funny

A long time back I read these lines above in a Readers’ Digest issue. I thought it was pretty insightful until I started noticing the characteristics of good jokes in Bangladesh. 

Most of the time, a joke will unfailingly succeed in humoring others if it demeans a, be it a class, a profession, a race, and last but not the least, women. 

Now, this sex filter is the ultimate insurance -- no matter what the joke is about, if it can demean either sex at the hands of the others -- it is funny. 

So, we hear of the husband who kills the cat on the wedding night, and we hear of the wife who “bows down” to drag her husband under the bed. The gender dynamics gives us such a sense of humorous relief.

And then, of course, we cannot forget about the songs. Be it a get-together, a picnic, or a study tour, when we are together, we must sing. Every road trip I have taken with students, colleagues and often friends, I have always ended up listening to these two songs: “Tikatuli’r Meye” and “Chumki Cholechhe.” 

For those who enjoy the bliss of never having heard these, the former piece describes how an innocent man falls prey to a beautiful (and hence, cunning) lady pick-pocket, and the latter piece encourages the admirer to stalk a girl named Chumki who is walking alone.  

There has never been a time when these two songs did not create a flutter of excited uproar from the audience, both male and female. 

One cannot help but wonder, why the female audiences absolve this criminally inciting song, for I know none of them would approve a stalker following them. 

But that is what patriarchy does to us. It matters not whether you are a man or a woman, patriarchy will tell you to approve anything male, and you will discipline everything female. 

With the recent hullabaloo of the famed beauty pageant question-answer rounds, which was a joke in itself, social media was flooded with memes. 

It was as if by participating in a platform, the participant women have offered themselves up as bullseye targets. 

They joked about their looks, their wit, their worth. Not once were the male questioners made fun of. What gives those men the authority to ask irrelevant theoretical questions, on chemistry and astronomy, at a beauty pageant? 

And what trumped all was a commercial of a cookie company, claiming that being beautiful is not enough if you don’t have brains. 

I wonder where this apparently-biblical description of “beauty without brains” came from.  

What is concerning is the level of acceptability. Society requires no licence to “joke” about women. So please, go and make a video that vilifies a woman sitting in a public park, smoking. 

Go and make TVCs for a chocolate company where a small boy sitting in a park looks at small girls playing, and then say: “Duniyata ki rongin.”  Nobody finds a small boy uttering such sensual dialogue obscene, or a man bashing a woman immoral.  

The iron-hard cybersecurity laws suddenly become redundant because nobody is aggrieved or emotionally outraged when women are attacked. Yes, with the level of discrimination and deep-rooted patriarchy in Bangladesh, such jokes will exist. 

But is it not offending to find students and faculty members sitting at graduation ceremony is laughing at such sexual jokes? 

Jokes that analogize poor wives to public property, jokes that objectify women, vilify strong female personalities? 

How can they, many of them my colleagues, my students, approve of them? 

I have seen lawyers who take sessions on gender-based violence and end up singing “O Tunir Ma” for the sake of amusement; I have heard judiciary officers commenting about a TVC, that a model wearing trousers will surely be raped. 

So many of us preach what we do not practice. We forget that these jokes amount to violence against women. 

That under our Penal Code 1860, anything that disrespects a woman is a punishable crime, that these are offences even under the ICT Act 2006. Not only that -- these are against the spirit of article 27 and article 28 of our Constitution.

So, I return to where I started: I cannot laugh at jokes and songs that sexualize women. Don’t tell me I have no sense of humour. For when it objectifies women, it is no more humorous.  Sexualizing women is not funny. Making memes about beauty is not funny. Commodifying gender is not funny.

Patriarchy is not a joke. 

Arpeeta Shams Mizan teaches at the University of Dhaka and facilitates iProbono (UK) as the Legal Analyst (Bangladesh). She can be reached at [email protected]