"I stand before a full-length mirror, sucking my cheeks in. I stay there for a fraction of a minute before giving up and breaking into a smile. ‘Damnit woman, you’re gorgeous,’ I say to myself and run downstairs to meet some guests. A random, slightly aged female awaits my arrival. We exchange pleasantries and I ask if she’d like to eat some chicken patties. ‘Nahin nahin. Lekin beta, tum itni moti kyun hogai ho?’
Why? Because I ate my siblings, aunty. And if you don’t quit being so intrusive, I will eat you and everyone you love, promise."
Welcome to an ordinary day in Faiza Saleem’s life in Karachi, Pakistan.
Tackling subjects like "appropriate dressing" for women, body shaming and other codes that women in Pakistan live by, Faiza Saleem and her comedy troupe, The Khawatoons, are taking on all kinds of patriarchal norms in South Asian society.
The Khawatoons, an old dream of Saleem's, are Karachi’s first all-girls comedy troupe. They have performed four shows since July 2016, and Saleem says the experience has been a first-hand course on sexism and gender stereotyping.
“We do not have a label or a type," she said. "We are currently a mix of dark, short, fat, single, engaged and married girls. We have a yogi, a banker, a college student, an advertiser and a lawyer. Women of all shapes, sizes, colour, social and economic background are welcome in my troop.”
Saleem is only 25, and has worked as the head of the legal department of a public policy think-tank in Pakistan. She says she was always restless, and felt that she wasn’t doing enough for the people of Pakistan. Her father’s death became the jolt that she needed to quit her job to pursue her dream: life as a satirist.
Most people Saleem knows are yet to accept comedy as a mainstream profession, and a woman challenging their age-old beliefs is almost too much to deal with. Friends and family members frequently chide her for leaving a well-paying, established job.
“My mother has been my pillar of strength throughout, which makes all the difference in the world," she said. "I used to feel awkward telling people that I’m a comedian. Either they’d tell me how upsetting it is that I didn’t become the great lawyer I was meant to be, or ask me questions like ‘Yeah, but what’s your proper job?’ or ‘Do you work for free?'”
Saleem's Facebook page is a little more than a year old, but she has already amassed a following of over 1.3 lakh people, and is rapidly becoming one of the faces for women's empowerment in Pakistan. The Express Tribune described her as a Facebook superstar.
“I touch upon various social issues in my work like sexism, racism, classism," Saleem said. "We have created differences based on petty things like the colour of someone’s skin or the gender they were born with. I speak against discrimination, body-shaming, hypocrisy. I think it’s important to do that because like I said, all this is so deeply embedded in our system(s) that people don’t even know what they’re doing is wrong. I realised a long time ago that I have a voice people listen to and it should be used to make other people’s lives less miserable.”
Using comedy as a platform, Saleem believes women should stand up for themselves and fight the deep-rooted unfair traditions that have dictated their lives so far. This isn't limited to Pakistan – Saleem believes most societies are riddled with hypocrisy, because women don’t question the oppressive practices they are conditioned into.
“Recently, I was asked at a show by an audience member as to why I always appear angry,” she said. "It’s funny but you have to put a front sometimes. These girls are my responsibility. Having said that, most of the times our audiences are pretty supportive and respectful.”
Saleem's punchlines are borrowed from real life: "I've tried running away from fat jokes, but I can't run – I can eat", or "Kyunke main gori hoon, logon ko lagta hai main ameer hoon. Aisa hai jaise meri shakal pe likha ho, aao mujse udhaar mango" (Because I am fair, people think I am rich. As I am asking for them to borrow from me).
Her performance have garnered standing ovations because women in the audience relate to her.
This explains the popularity of Saleem's other project, a video series called #AuntyOnThePhone, which is about an aunty who loves to gossip on the phone all day, speaking ill of her daughter-in-law, while ignoring the fact that her daughter does much of the same.
Reactions to the videos range from the awestruck, to those who accuse her of exaggeration. Her statement against body shaming in particular, struck a nerve: "Pakistan mein mota aadmi public property ki tarah hota hai, jo aaye ganda kar ke chala jaye (In Pakistan, a fat man is like public property, polluted by anyone who passes by).”
While the younger generation adores Saleem her for her honesty and the simplicity of her messages that are cloaked in humour, she has received a fair share of criticism as well. The hate is predictable: some call her an elitist living in a bubble, others attack her personal appearance. People describe the Khawatoons as a group of unhappy nagging women.
“Some people think I have no shame, and how dare a woman do comedy," she said. "They body-shame me, send me inappropriate material to offend me. However, it doesn’t make a difference because my work will always speak louder than their words.”
Of late, people have begun recognising Saleem on streets. Sometimes, when she is in the mood, she agrees to pout for a selfie with a stranger. The Pakistani press too, has been largely celebratory – The Tribune has said that Faiza Saleem "gives new meaning to celebrity-hood", while The Dawn lauded Faiza’s comedy in The Auratnaak Show for "breaking stereotypes, crossing boundaries and opening up topics for discussion".
“If something goes wrong in my life, I seriously discuss it only with a handful of friends and family I am close to," Saleem said, responding to an article which lauded her incredible openness. "Otherwise almost every tragedy becomes a funny story to tell. Don’t judge me, comedy comes from a dark place, ok?”