Freedom of expression

Comedian gets the finger from Delhi women law students for his sexist jokes

A comedy performance at the National Law University in Delhi turned into a debate on free speech.

A comedy performance by Abish Mathew  at the National Law University in Delhi  on Sunday took a funny turn. Fifteen minutes into the act, a group of female protesters showed him the finger and walked out of the audience. Soon after, they returned with more people and a placard reading, “Get Out Sexist Pig”, ostensibly to protest against the sexist jokes that Mathew had cracked.

The controversy, which erupted on the last day of the university’s three-day long cultural festival Kairos, has sparked heated conversations on the freedom of expression and the right to protest.

Almost as soon as the performance began, Matthew "started cracking a joke on domestic violence, when two students got up and showed him the finger while walking out”, said Aarushi Mahajan, one of the protesters. “I waited for a few more minutes but the jokes wouldn’t stop. Sexist jokes continued and I decided to leave the auditorium as well.”

Mahajan added: “He made jokes about Mayawati being ugly and about her complexion which made us uncomfortable. We went out to bring placards to make him feel uncomfortable at the jokes he had been making.”

But after the event was over, the group of five women protesters were heckled, she said. “A group of men constantly booed us for what we had done in the auditorium,” Mahajan said. “We are being compared to state censors which got the AIB Roast pulled down but we are not trying to do any of it. We just want to express our dissent on the kind of content at which 200 people chose to laugh in a law school.”

An audience member said that Mathew was clearly thrown off a little. “He was confused what to do next and sought permission from them to continue,” this person said. Meanwhile, the majority of members of the audience had already taken Mathew’s side and began a verbal exchange, urging the protesters to let the show go on. “There was a lot of booing and heckling against the protesters but the girls kept on shouting to try to get Mathew to stop midway.”

Finally, Mathew acknowledged their protest, but Mahajan said that “even then he tried to make jokes about words and letters on the placard”.  He sought permission from the group to do a cricket joke before he left the stage.

However, he left the students divided, with organisers and protesters rushing to clarify their positions.

Discussion with protesters 

Even after the event, Mathew wanted to speak to the protesters. “He was insistent and finally spoke to someone and discussed the problems with his performance in a very civil manner,” said the audience member.  "Finally, he agreed and said that he’d not perform the same joke again." However, the protesters said it it wasn't easy to speak to him. “There was his personal bodyguard and a lot of people from the organising committee asking us to stop and not go in to speak to him before he finally spoke to one of us,” said Mahajan.

Many since then have expressed their opinions on the event. An open letter appeared on the independent college blog Glasnost, arguing that the mode of protest was “reprehensible” and the protesters stepped on Mathew's freedom of expression by asking him to “shut up”.

“He is a comedian making a large number of people laugh and you were in comparison faceless. But even so, to want to curb his expression was the problem," the letter  said. "It makes you no different from the self-serving people whose response to the roast was to want it banned."

Students said that more such blogs are expected to follow from different sides and teachers have let the students figure out the “contours of the student culture at a crucial moment in the history of the institution”.

Scroll.in tried to contact Abish Mathew as well as the organisers but the calls went unanswered.

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