The humour gap: Who said women aren't funny?

Ms T investigates the humour gap and why the set up may be changing.

Sumaiya Lakhani February 03, 2014

The idea that women aren’t funny seems pretty laughable these days, especially when women are making waves in all other aspects of life. Ms T investigates the humour gap and why the set up may be changing.

I sat at the corner table at a local cafe with my two best friends Sara and Aiman, casually sipping on my afternoon tea as Sara scanned the menu in search of food that would match her diet plan. Aiman looked at her pitifully and said, “You know what diet works best? The sea-food diet! I see food and I eat it. Get it?” Needless to say, I was in a fit of laughter but Sara was not amused.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe (read: the other side of the cafe) two boys were enjoying their lunch and another came running from behind and smacked them out of the blue. I half expected them to begin fighting but the boys just foolishly laughed their guts out.

I gasped in distaste. One of the boys was crawling on the floor, collecting the bits of food he had dropped upon the attack  — laughing but evidently in pain. How was this stunt even remotely funny? No witty comment was passed and no intelligent conversation took place. It was just a display of masculine strength. But it got me thinking. I couldn’t help but wonder if men are generally funnier than women or do both genders just have a different sense of humour? Could it be that men find everything funny but women don’t? As a woman, I can safely say that it takes more than two boys beating up one another to crack me up. Could it be true that men are from Mars and women from Venus?

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“Women do have a sense of humour, of course but it is different,” says 23-year-old Ayesha Moazzam, a youngster who spends a lot of her time in the company of her husband and his friends, trying to comprehend their jokes. “It seems to me that unlike men, women don’t feel the need to pass an irrelevant comment on everyone and everything to merely appear eloquent or superior. I think men do that a lot. Most of the time, I don’t find them funny and would much rather hang out with women. At least their sense of humour isn’t disparaging towards others!”

The question arises whether women, particularly in Pakistan, are funny at all. Maimoona Zakaria, 55, sheds light on important societal issues that put a damper on the female sense of humour. “Of course women are funny. The problem is that our society doesn’t accept a woman who is humorous because she is expected to be demure and reserved and within the limits of decency. Humour often surpasses that limit.”

Kamran Zaidi, a working professional in his fourties, explains this further. “Our religious and cultural beliefs have distinctly defined the role of women who are expected to adhere no matter what. In our male-dominated society, a man who can make others laugh is considered charismatic but a woman with the same talent will be ‘amusing’ or ‘fun-loving’ at best. People may accept her humour but still expect her to be more submissive and tameezdaar because she is a woman.”

Unfortunately, it is not just the general population who feel this way. Our very own queen of comedy, the legendary Bushra Ansari agrees. “In the sub-continent, women who are more serious are given more respect,” she says. “If a woman is funny, she is labelled as ‘out’ and if she laughs too much, she is considered bewaqoof.”

According to Sana Imtiaz, 27, the nature of humour is to blame for the humour gap between men and women. “If you think about it, many of our jokes are cheap and inappropriate. Therefore, I can understand why men may be taken aback by a woman indulging in such behaviour. And older woman may be accepted for it but a young girl? No way!” Razaa-ur-Rehman, agrees. “Humour generally entails some silly, low and dirty comments for Pakistani men. If such jokes are coming from a woman, she will be tagged as besharam.”

Fortunately, despite such stringent gender roles embedded in our society, there are some who have broken free from the traditional mindsets and revel in the company of a woman who can elicit a few laughs out of them. One such individual is Rashid Thahim who says “For me, a funny woman is indicative of a charming and confident personality. It shows that a woman is comfortable in her own skin and that makes her all the more attractive.”

Anas Hakimi, 32, regards the bias against funny women as a construct of the male dominated society, the patrons of which feel threatened by a woman who is comfortable being the centre of attention and fraternizing with men candidly. “Most men prefer to keep the focus on themselves,” says Anas. “They like women who will be a silent audience for their wisecracks and one-liners as opposed to those who will give them a run for their money in the humour department.” In addition to this, the afore-mentioned stereotypes mean that people are even quicker to judge a witty woman and render her an outcast. “Personally, I think it is unfortunate that so many feel this way. If men can be praised for their humour and charm, why can’t women?” he adds.

So are women generally not as funny as men or has our patriarchal society squeezed out any humour that may have existed in the female gender?  “I think that is too rigid a generalisation to make,” says Ayesha. “There are plenty of women who have made a name for themselves by virtue of comedy, such as Hina Dilpazeer and Bushra Ansari. I am certain many people also appreciate the female sense of humour because it isn’t always directed towards one unassuming individual in the circle. Women are more sensitive as people and so are their jokes.” Add Pakistani-born Norwegian stand-up comedian Shabana Rehman Gaarder to the list and one can conclude that the state of female comedians isn’t entirely bleak in our country.

Unfortunately, Bushra Ansari expresses a different point of view. “In my experience, society may accept a female celebrity as being funny but the same acceptance is rarely extended to ordinary women.” She also confesses that in the world of show-biz, an actor who gains a footing as a comedian is rarely considered for serious roles and so, she has decided to take a back seat from comedy for a short while.

In a patriarchal society such as ours, it is difficult for women to adopt qualities associated with men, be it working in male-dominated industries like finance or technology or simply participating in open conversation with men and expressing their viewpoints. Gradually, women are starting to come forward and break the barriers entrenched so deep in our minds that they have become an inherent part of our beliefs and values. Regardless, there is a fine line between being witty and rude and care must be taken by both men and women to not cross it. After all, as English novelist George Eliot said, “A difference of taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, February 2nd, 2014.


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