Female comedians in India battle the dark side of standup comedy

Online threats & trolling take a toll on Indian women comedians


July 27, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

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dark side of stand up comedy

Reports against female standup comedians getting death or rape threats has increased in the last few years (Photo: Vipasha Malhotra)

Even as more women get into stand up comedy in India, they face online abuses, sexual harassment and physical threats from social media trolls almost every day.

“I started receiving abusive and hateful comments and threats of mutilating my body after I posted a comic video on the recent ban on TikTok. I don’t think it was because of my content but because I’m a woman. And people here can’t digest that I was speaking my mind. With the number of death threats that I had received, I was scared that someone might attack me inside my home. That is when I decided that I had to speak out and get the fear out of my head,” Vipasha Malhotra, a musician and comedian, tells Media India Group.

Recently, Shubham Mishra, a social media influencer from Vadodra in Gujarat, who had released a highly abusive video threatening comedian Agrima Joshua with rape and physical attack, was arrested by the police. Mishra was referring to a video by Joshua over about two years ago about a statue honouring Shivaji, a key Maratha ruler of the 17th century. Incidentally, Joshua had already taken the video down after a barrage of negative comments. She had also apologised. Yet Mishra went ahead with his video.

When his video surfaced, celebrities like Swara Bhaskar and Kunal Kamra supported Joshua and asked people to raise voice against the abuser. Women organisations and people from all across the country demanded action against Mishra as soon as the video surfaced online. This started a popular debate about how safe women feel online, especially those who speak out against popular culture and majoritarian views.

Neither Joshua nor Malhotra are isolated examples of what women standup artists have to face in India regularly. Standup comedy is a new art form in India and women artistes are even more recent. “Just about a decade back, it was a popular opinion that ‘women aren’t funny. But in the latter half of the decade; female comedians from India started gaining respect, popularity and made a name for themselves,” Malhotra says.

“Comedy is very subjective and often receives criticism from the audience. The criticism becomes problematic when it escalates from being constructive or harmless trolls to mean, offensive and abusive, very often threatening to us,” she adds.

Aditi Mittal was one of the first female standup comedians in India. She performed her first standup act in 2009. She does her standups based on her body image issues and bullying she faced at school.  Another female comedian Neeti Palta has a unique way of presenting a female’s perspective to all her subjects from Indian idiosyncrasies, to current affairs. More recent additions to this are Kaneej Surka, Sumukhi Suresh, Mallika Dua and many others who’re still struggling to make a name for themselves in the highly competitive business. However, the increase in the number of women in the comedy business is yet to reflect on the broad societal acceptance of their work and stature. Even today, the comic artistes say it is only half a battle won as comedy is still not a safe space for women. They say even today they face several threats of attack, rape and death, harassment and bullying, especially online.

“We are often reduced to being ‘just a piece of flesh’. It starts with comments on our bodies, on our weight, on the way we look and then of course come the rape threats and death threats,” adds Malhotra.

The trolls, especially those threatening rapes and violence, have become bolder due to the anonymity provided to them by social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, encouraging resort to abuse and threat. Women comedians have become an easy target for this. Almost every female standup artiste worth her salt would have received several threats of rape or death for themselves or other female members of their family.

“Trolling happens to all genders. People are intolerant. But when women speak their mind, make people laugh, society just feels all the more threatened. On stage, we can still see our audience. Online it is more difficult to filter who reacts how,” adds Malhotra.

Often, when the threats become more frequent and scary, the women artistes are pressured by their families, who stop supporting their comedy content.

Shifa Fatima, 26, an aspiring comedian from Delhi, speaks of her father being unsupportive of her work as she regularly receives abuses for her political jokes. She also talks about how she’s targeted on the basis of her religion and most of these abuses are rape threats. “Of course, my parents are scared. They say it’s better to not do comedy and stay safer than receiving abuses and staying in fear. I’m asked not to put out anything related to religion, culture, country or any political joke at all. I’m wondering what I am supposed to make jokes about,” asks Fatima.

Even though often the abusers are criminally prosecuted and arrested it has not made the internet a safe place for women. Online anonymity, a good chance to get away with it and the lack of sensitivity could be important reasons behind the increase in trolling. Atrocious name calling and use of abusive words have become common in comments and messages. The women artistes say that everyday artists, especially women, go through the unimaginable. For many people, the easiest reply to any disagreement with women is a threat to attack them.

“It is way worse for us. All abusive words here are targeted towards women and women’s bodies. Change is absolutely happening but very slow and gradual. I hope we’re able to gather support whenever needed and more importantly, as a society, become tolerant towards views that don’t match ours,” says Malhotra.

The trolls and threats are not limited to upcoming artistes or India. It seems to be a global phenomenon. On her talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show in April 2019, Ellen DeGeneres, a comedian, talk show host and philanthropist of the United States, spoke of receiving shameful comments, attack threats and threats and abuses for her family, partner and herself on Twitter.

The Indian artistes say that while the recent arrest of abusers and support received by them offer a silver lining to them, but there is a need to do more. ‘‘Social networking sites need to improve their regulation of abusive content. Cybersecurity and making the internet a safe space for women should be made a priority and quick legal action for the violators should act as a deterrence. So many women have come up with scary stories of their online harassment, their voices should be heard. Nobody deserves to suffer in silence for having an opinion and voicing it out. In the name of one’s own freedom of speech, curbing another women’s freedom of speech is not cool,’’ sums up Malhotra.



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