It was an evening dedicated to glamour, art and a lot of artificial splendor. The celebs were dressed to the nines, sporting accessories from the most expensive and well known designers and everyone had probably practised their speeches, poses and selfie pouts to perfection before arriving at the 16th edition of the annual Lux Style Awards 2017.
But then the evening commenced and we were immediately introduced to a skit, written by Osman Khalid Butt, featuring the Balu Mahi star himself alongside two quirky actors who immediately changed the narrative.
The segment, called LSA guidelines, was in complete contrast to what we’re used to seeing at the coveted event. These actors were making us laugh by being ridiculous, were not taking help from overdone makeup or fancy clothes, and didn’t seem too concerned with the fact that they weren’t looking ‘pretty’ or ‘glamorous’. Their job was to make people laugh and that’s what they did. The audience broke out into fits of laughter and the actors who helped in achieving this feat were Faiza Saleem and Mariam Saleem.
Later, a video emerged of famous women like Shehla Chatoor and Sanam Saeed condescendingly talking about the word ‘feminist’ on the LSA red carpet and the same actor was seen giving one of the most well-informed answers. Everyone suddenly had their eyes on Faiza and wondered why they didn’t see more of her.
For those of us familiar with Faiza know that she has been around since before the LSA. She introduced Auratnaak, an all female standup lineup and Khawatoons, Pakistan’s first all women improvisational comedy troupe. She’s a regular face in Mooroo’s Facebook videos, not to mention that Faiza’s own social media account is up to date with hilarious homemade videos that make people laugh and question a lot of things being done in this country. Her primary occupation now is that of a comedian and an actor but Faiza was originally a lawyer by profession before making the switch.
“Comedy was helping me do more than I could accomplish being a lawyer,” shared Faiza thoughtfully when we spoke over the phone late at night, as she had just landed back in Karachi. “I had to become part of the system as a lawyer and that was frustrating at times. With comedy, I could make my own system. I love making people laugh and I think that when two people share a laugh together, that moment is so genuine. Even if two people hate each other, a laugh can bring them together.”
This is not to say that Faiza hasn’t seen her share of problems in the world of comedy. Even though she can make some of her own rules now, comedy at large is still a male dominated field in Pakistan and that doesn’t make things easy for her. For instance, Faiza and her comrades are faced with one major problem: being an all female troupe means that they travel all over the country for shows alone, without being accompanied by men. “Often times I have had to think about where we’re doing our shows and whether there is security or not because there is always the threat of being heckled or stalked or attacked, god forbid. Shows in Karachi are easier to do but when we travel to other cities, I worry about our safety.”
Thankfully, Faiza’s gang refuses to cave in to these pressures. They still tour the country without the help of men. “We have even done shows in Rahimyar Khan on our own. We look out for each other. So far so good.”
Perhaps the real threat is a theoretical one because while Faiza can physically protect herself and her troupe, she has trouble changing the regressive mindsets of men, and women, in Pakistan.
“I find that men are generally not welcoming when it comes to comedy. They have an attitude towards women. Other times men will try to teach me how to do comedy, as if being a man already makes him better at this than me,” she laughed. But Faiza believes that the stereotypes which surround women are what make people think that women can’t be funny. “I see so many women who say things like ‘I have more fun with boys, and girls are not fun and they only gossip,’ and that makes me really mad because that is such an unfair generalization. Women themselves believe that women aren’t fun or funny.”
But more than this, Faiza finds that women have a lot of restrictions placed on them. “We’re already very limited because we know that we can’t joke about religion and politics. Then, being a woman, we can’t use abusive language or talk about sex while it’s okay for men to do so. That makes it very difficult for us to do comedy. If a man cracks a sexually explicit joke, people will laugh but if the same joke is cracked by a woman, she will be greeted with a chorus of haw-haye instead.”
This sense of double standard exists in our society and that was made evident by the aforementioned LSA red carpet video. “I feel that maybe some leeway should be given to the celebs because not everyone can confidently answer a question on feminism.”
But when women themselves can’t answer the question, it indeed raises some concerns for where we’re headed. “Yes, I agree. And I think the fear or inability to talk about the new F word is because people don’t know what feminism is and what it has done for them. All those women who answered that question were there because of feminism,” she lamented.
Comedy is not binary for Faiza. She likes to do mindless comedy for the sole purpose of making people laugh but is also aware of how this medium can change things. “We need the feminist narrative in popular culture because it’s a good way of changing mindsets, and the change is coming. People are becoming smarter and more vocal. They don’t want to see weepy women in entertainment anymore, they want to see women being empowered and treated with respect.”
Whether Faiza Saleem is shedding light on the treatment of women with her saas bahu videos or she’s dressed in her dadi character trying to seduce Fawad Khan, the comedian knows what she’s doing and it’s about time the rest of us knew it too.
This article was originally published in Instep on Tuesday, May 23rd.