When you live in a country where the mere act of a woman doing anything out of the ordinary in public is seen as an act of rebellion, then consider Pakistan’s first all-female comedy troupe a revolution! The Khawatoons were formed in January 2016 and launched in July by founding member Faiza Saleem, as an act of rebellion against restrictive social and cultural standards often experienced by women in Pakistan.
In July that same year, news of popular social media star Qandeel Baloch being murdered by her brother in an “honor killing” act sent shockwaves through the global feminist community, reminding the world that patriarchal standards and attitudes which seek to control women and keep them silent are still very much in existence.
Qandeel often spoke about her feminist stance, and also didn’t shy away from owning her own sexuality in the middle of a very conservative culture. She was breaking new grounds for women and girls, and sadly, her own family members decided to end her life. Following her death, Pakistan passed a major Honor Killing policy which brings harsher punishments for those involved in such a heinous act.
This horrific event was unfolding as Faiza was working with the Khawatoons, getting ready to launch in front of audiences. She turned to what she knew best, her comedy, to send a message that women’s voices will not be silenced. With the absence of Qandeel, Faiza is now the most well-known Pakistani social media star.
“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. 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,” she said in an interview and profile on her comedy troupe for Ozy.com.
Writer Alex Hotz articulates exactly why the mere act of existence for a group like the Khawatoons is revolutionary.
The name of the group is mixture of the Urdu word “khawateen,” which means ladies, and “cartoons”. The format of the shows were inspired by the popular US series ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ which brings together a group of comedians who largely base their sketches on improv and audience or judges suggestions. The Khawatoons only advertise on social media as a precautionary measure, yet their popularity has ensured packed rooms for most of their performances.
They do get negative feedback online from some of their jokes, which Faiza says is normal, but they believe in their mission and aren’t about to stop their performances any time soon.
“In our society, they expect women to just stay at home. 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,” said one member of the troupe in the same profile piece, who remained anonymous for safety reasons.
Faiza knows she is responsible for the girls who are part of her troupe and is constantly concerned about their well being.
“In our society, being referred to as a fahash [vulgar] woman is not limited to just verbal abuse. 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,” she said.
While she doesn’t explicitly state that the troupe’s mission is to specifically promote feminism or gender equality, it just happens to be that the jokes the write and sketches they perform become inherently political.
“When you are a woman in Pakistan or in India, everything you do or say becomes a feminist movement. The minute you go out of the house you are considered to be endorsing some kind of movement,” she said.
A lawyer by day, Faiza recently gave a TEDx Talk in Lahore, where she used her signature wit and timing to discuss body-image and fat-shaming, as well as the pressure for girls to get married in Pakistan. It is against this social background familiar to many women in the country that the Khawatoons’ performers find common ground on, and they use this as part of their material.
“The aim of comedy is to not just make people laugh, but to change their mindsets, to bring about a change in society…Through our work, we want to promote a better image of Pakistan and of women in Pakistan. We want people to break free of their chains,” Faiza said in an interview with Catch News.
It may seem somewhat unbelievable for a group of comedians to be able to discuss serious social issues in a humorous way, but not only do the Khawatoons do it with expertise, they have entire rooms filled with women AND men laughing all the way through, as you can see in the video below, filmed at one of their performances at the Kuch Khaas Centre in Islamabad in March.
The women adopt familiar cultural characters, do improv based on audience interaction and suggestions, and enable difficult conversations about gender and culture to be played out in a less-threatening medium like comedy. While Faiza and her troupe certainly don’t want to be the only female comedians in Pakistan, they recognize they are at an important point in the evolution of Pakistan’s comedy scene.
“Women bring in their own views to comedy that men either don’t share, or portray in a patriarchal light. Initially, we didn’t have a lot of women [comedians] to draw from but now that is changing gradually. More and more women are entering comedy and kicking ass at it!” she told YouthKiAwaaz.com.
Many of the women involved aren’t necessarily trained comedians, but they knew they wanted to raise their voice, and the Khawatoons was the perfect platform for them to do so. They aren’t the only South Asian performers or women of color to use comedy as a way to share culture-specific stories and narratives. The popular Shugs & Fats Youtube series following the friendship of two Muslim women living in New York while balancing their conservative Muslim lives, is giving audiences an entirely new perspective on a demographic whose narrative is largely dominated by right-wing newsmedia and politicians in the West.
We can’t wait to see how the Khawatoons’ popularity and reach will grow, and hope their much-needed presence in Pakistan will spark a wave of female comedians rising up and raising their voices in a similar way.