There was a serious tone to Aditi Mittal’s voice when I spoke with her last week. General election results had just been announced, with Narendra Modi set to become India’s next prime minister. Mittal was unhappy.
The ascent of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party poses a danger to women’s rights in India, Mittal suggested. Before the elections, one of BJP’s allies asserted that the culprits in the December 2012 fatal gang rape in Delhi will be spared and that women should be hanged for having sex.
“It's so ill-informed,” Mittal said, adding after a pause: “And so ripe for comedy.”
Mittal is a stand-up comic in India. She is considered a pioneer, as there was no industry for stand-up comics when she started in 2009. And just recently, she was featured in a documentary film by Stand Up Planet, which seeks to tell stories about life in some of the world’s most difficult places through the experiences of stand-up comics.
Mittal likes to joke about India, quipping that the country is a perfect place for a stand-up comic. Local customs such as sanitation practices make for good comedy material, she says — and for a routine which (just like the remainder of this article) includes strong language.
“Every morning, you will see at least a thousand anonymous bums gleaming in the morning sunlight and they all sit there with their backs toward you because if they can't see you, you can't see them, right?” she quipped. “You know, statistically, it struck me that out of a thousand faces you see in a day you have probably already seen the asses of at least two people.”
But one issue that is dear to her heart and has dominated her comedy routine: women’s empowerment, not just in India but in the developing world as a whole. Here’s an excerpt of my conversation with Mittal on this topic.
What's so funny about women and development?
Everyone's like, “Oh, how come the best chefs in the world are male?” I just want to point out that when women cook, they don't cook with fancy aprons. They cook because they want to feed their kids. They cook because there must be something to eat in the house. We don't talk about it that much but we get the work done. That, I think, is the best thing and the funniest thing about women right now.
You’re being hailed as a female stand-up comic in India, yet you’re not amused. Why?
I'm not pissed but I get annoyed. I'm not even the first female comic but they're like, “Oh this is India's best female comic.” And I'm like, “Oh great, you guys can have political, you guys can have satirical, you guys can have observational and I'm called vagina.” Why is everything that I have to say classified into my crotch. Why can't I talk about politics? Why can't I talk about going to the bathroom, what's wrong with that?
You talk a lot about reproductive health, a topic of concern for countless civil society leaders, not to mention the United Nations and folks from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Any advice on how they should promote the issue with women and men?
Make it OK. There is this film called “Menstrual Man” where they talk about the fact that, first of all, sanitary napkin was so expensive and women would use old sari blouses but some of them would forget to take off the hooks from the sari blouses before using them which would lead to massive infections. A lot of them would wash them and would be too embarrassed to dry them out. They would dry them in dark places and it's not drying properly, you know it.
I feel like somebody needs to be OK with it, like somebody would need to walk past a sanitary napkin and be fine with it. The moment you normalize something, it starts getting the acceptance it needs. Like I realized talking about sanitary napkins and talking about vaginal tightening cream is pretty ridiculous thing to do but I've thought to look at it extremely objectively. When you look at it it's extremely ridiculous, the way we treat sanitary napkins or even women's issues. It's the culture of “Oh my god, my shirt is stained now.” I’m like “So what? Everyone has the same thing in different shapes and sizes.” We need to calm down about that; we need to remove the shame attached to many of these things.
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