Why you should care
Because “funny” translates across gender and cultural lines.
In July 2016, Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani celebrity and social media personality, was strangled to death by her brother. According to reports, her sibling felt Baloch’s openly sexual and sassy online persona had brought such dishonor to their family that the murder was justified. The incident made headlines around the world, sparking anger and calls for an end to Pakistan’s outrageous tradition of “honor killings.”
Remarkably, in the midst of this stormy debate of what image is appropriate for a young Pakistani woman, Faiza Saleem quietly started the Khawatoons, Pakistan’s first all-female comedy troupe.
The Khawatoons (a portmanteau of “khawateen,” which means ladies in Urdu, and “cartoons”) were inspired by the American sketch television program Whose Line Is It Anyway? and their shows follow its rapid and collaborative improv format. Jokes, characters and conflicts are created live onstage, and the performers take turns playing off each other’s riffs. Their shows, which are only advertised on social media as a safety precaution, are consistently packed, and their reviews have been largely positive. This much success so early on would be heady for a group of comedians anywhere, but in Pakistan, where the simple act of a woman joking in public can be considered a transgression, it’s even more impressive.
“To be honest, Qandeel’s murder did throw me off. Whenever someone dies after being vocal about what they believe, it obviously makes me think about my own future,” says Saleem. “And I do acknowledge that there is an imminent threat — if not now, then later. It is bound to happen, and you yourself know that risk you are about to take when you are in the open.”
That said, Saleem, who happens to be a free-speech-loving attorney by day, thinks the rewards outweigh the risk.
“In Western countries, comedians have more liberty to be more open with their jokes,” Saleem explains to us at her family’s home in an upscale, suburban area of Karachi. “Over here in Pakistan, we don’t talk about religion or politics.”
To an American, the Khawatoons’ most suggestive jokes about body image or relationships would likely seem tame, yet the troupe has still attracted negative comments, mostly online. “Normally, the negative comments, I get them on Facebook, because people do not have the guts to say things to you to your face,” says Saleem. “That’s true of many comedians, but I think we’re under more scrutiny than our male counterparts.
“In our society, being referred to as a fahash [vulgar] woman is not limited to just verbal abuse,” Saleem explains. “It goes on further and becomes life-threatening in some cases. Since I have a leading role with the troupe, I will not do or say things that could be life-threatening or dangerous to us. I am responsible for these girls; I am responsible for their safety.”
To be clear, Faiza Saleem is not Qandeel Baloch. In her videos Baloch spoke frankly about female empowerment or patriarchy, and often did so in revealing clothes with a sexually suggestive pout or eye flutter. In many media reports following her death, she was dubbed the Kim Kardashian of Pakistan.
Saleem, by contrast, is more like Amy Schumer, albeit far less profane. Although her humor is often slapstick, it’s also subtle. She prefers satire and slapstick to break down stereotypes rather than outright confrontation. In her shows and viral videos, she doesn’t violate traditional dress standards, wearing a tunic and often a headscarf.
The other members of the troupe, who range widely in age, experience and background, understand this as well. “In our society, they expect women to just stay at home,” explains the youngest member of the Khawatoons, who asked to remain nameless. “It’s not that we are doing anything wrong. We are just standing up and expressing ourselves. I find that many cannot relate to our shows.”
Saleem’s greatest talent is her ability to impersonate everyday Pakistanis. During a performance she will slip in and out of characters like “Auntie on the Phone,” “Nerdy Nilofer” or “Danger Daadi” with ease while gently taking jabs at her society’s taboos. “Most of the characters are like me, or a part of me,” Saleem says. “I tend to notice a lot of small things — gestures that people do, the voices they have — and it is reflected in my comedy.” Saleem’s comedy is mostly in her native Urdu and often requires knowledge of both the language and the culture to be understood.
In interviews, Saleem makes a point of disabusing her interviewer that she has a progressive or even feminist agenda. She doesn’t set out to make jokes that criticize certain social norms. She wants to be a comedian, not a female comedian — even though what she finds funny may just so happen to deal with gender. Before each show, Saleem pumps up her team by leading a call-and-response chant:
“I am beautiful!”
“I am amazing!”
“I am funny!”
“I am funny not just because this is an all-girls troupe!”
“When you are a woman in Pakistan or in India, everything you do or say becomes a feminist movement,” she says. “The minute you go out of the house you are considered to be endorsing some kind of movement.”
Additional reporting by Misha Rezvi.