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Jokes apart

April 19, 2013

The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: “It’s a girl.” – Shirley Chisholm

In the West it’s mother-in-law jokes. And dumb blonde jokes. And women driver jokes. Funnily enough I can’t recall ever hearing a father-in-law joke. Or one about a dumb male blond and of course, everyone knows that all men are perfect drivers (even the ones who drive trucks and mow down people standing on pavements.)

No, jokes are about women (and if you’re politically incorrect, Sikhs and Memons and any other community of your choice.) But never about men per se.

In our part of the world, men joke about wives being spendthrift and fashion conscious; of being jealous, suspicious and bad cooks. About how the word is actually pronounced ‘bay-gham’.

And then there are the second-wife jokes. I recently got an extremely unpleasant dose of this brand of humour when I had the misfortune of catching one of the ubiquitous morning shows.

I thought I’d seen every example of inanity that these shows could throw at us. I had seen Nadia Khan interrupt a social worker talking about AIDS awareness to ask her if ‘Priety Zinta has had Botox.’ I had watched in disgust when a host invited members from the transgender community to discuss their problems and issues — then asked them to dance to the tune of Munni Badnam Hui. I was appalled when yet another brought a group of children abandoned (or worse still, sold into labour) by their parents who had been rescued by an NGO. The children looked happy and well cared for but were soon reduced to tears because the host kept asking them how much they missed their parents.

So you’d think things couldn’t get worse. Wrong. This morning show took the word ‘revolting’ to a whole new level; it was like watching a train wreck in progress: you couldn’t bear to watch, yet you couldn’t look away.

The host had assembled a sizable audience including a few of our so-called ‘celebrity experts.’ In front of them, lined up in a row, were seated six women.

Apparently these women had been told by the host that one of them was in for a big shock: her husband had another wife. The audience were invited to guess which woman was the ‘poor wife.’ The selected women were then asked in turn ‘do you think your husband has a second wife?’ Each bravely answered ‘no’ but one could hear the doubt in their voices.

In between, the ‘celebrity experts’ were asked for advice and each one stated, loud and clear that the aggrieved wife should ‘adjust and compromise’. (Note: Adjust. Compromise. ‘Sabar karo’. These words are reserved only for women in our society — apparently men never have needed to practise these virtues.)

Finally the host, with a dramatically lowered voice, laid her hand on one wife’s shoulder and told her that she was the one: the woman whose husband had been married to another for 27 years. The husband was brought on stage along with his ‘second wife.’ After allowing the audience to revel in the poor woman’s misery for a few minutes, the host finally delivered the punch line: it was all a big hoax. Of course your husband isn't married. We were just joking.

Well, excuse me if I don’t laugh.

Sexist jokes are nothing new; not here, not in any part of the world. But in some societies they are at least frowned upon; in some countries sexist jokes even come under the category of sexual harassment. A study undertaken by the Western Carolina University in 2007 found that exposure to sexist humour increases bias and prejudice against women. Unfortunately, in our country, many people may still need a definition as to what constitutes sexist humour. In short, any joke or comment that objectifies, stereotypes or demeans a woman (or a man, for that matter) is sexist.

Making a joke about a man’s second marriage underlines a wife’s deepest fears and insecurities; it’s a sharp reminder that her husband can turn her world upside down in a moment, leaving her humiliated, rejected and an object of pity. To turn this into a joke is bad enough; to do so on national TV is downright sadistic.

The sad thing is that sexist humour is such an ingrained part of our culture that sometimes women are the bigger culprits than the men (as proved by the above mentioned morning show) and often the victim doesn't even realise that she has a right to be offended. Well maybe it’s time to take a stand; to understand ourselves and explain to others why disrespect towards a woman — or a man — is no laughing matter. And second-wife jokes are not funny.


Shagufta Naaz is a Dawn staffer



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