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Pakistan's funny women in serious places

“We are late to the party, but we caught up,” says Tamkenat Mansoor

Last year during what felt like the 100th lockdown in Melbourne, my sister sent me an Instagram video by a Pakistani content creator saying it was ‘hilarious’. I reluctantly clicked on it, wary of random online content that’s so abundantly available. To my surprise and delight, it was love at first laugh. I thought, who is this sassy woman speaking her mind so brazenly, so khulay aam? My second thought was, is her family okay with this? 

She is Tamkenat Mansoor. Tamkenat means grandeur, quite apt for this budding artist who’s steadily building a cult fan base. Her Instagram account has gained thousands of followers in just a few months since I talked to her during my visit to the motherland. Given the distance between our two cities in Pakistan, with her being in Lahore and me in Peshawar, we had a nice, long chat over Whatsapp. It doesn’t get more Desi than that. 

Female comedians were rare growing up in the 80s and 90s in Pakistan. We had only one television channel, and you had to be very lucky, talented and connected - usually, all three at once, to get a break. Female comedians were reduced to tropes on screen – the quirky old lady, the overweight bubbly friend, or the annoying neighbour aunty. 

We’ve come a long way since then. Internet and social media have been key triggers for the rapid evolution of Pakistan’s comedy scene since the early days of one national television station.

“In the last ten years or so, ever since YouTube’s presence, people can freely express themselves, and there is no censor issue. You don’t have to go through the typical path of finding a producer etc. It’s very easy now,” Tamkenat tells me.

YouTube was banned in Pakistan for three years, from 2012 - 2016, due to the website's contentious ‘blasphemous’ content. Despite the ban, Pakistani artists have made up for the lost time.

“We are late to the party, but we caught up,” she says.

Comedy shows are what kept the nation going through its darkest hours during General Zia’s martial law, and it seems like we need them just as much now.

“In a place like Pakistan, you need catharsis. You need a parallel reality to make it all palatable for you. Comedy helps us distract; it’s a means of saying something without actually saying it. It’s a coping mechanism or maybe a trauma response,” Tamkenat offers insight into why comedy and humour are such an integral part of Pakistani society.

Tamkenat’s humour is sharp and clever and jabs you where it hurts in a good way. Her videos, a delightful mix of Urdu, English and Punjabi, on the gender gap, LGBTQI rights, politics, religion, the elite class of Pakistan and parodies of television tropes garner thousands of likes and comments. Her content resonates with many, and she’s not alone. There are other content creators and comics from Pakistan breaking stereotypes and publishing content that would still be deemed ‘unairable’ by most, if not all, television channels.

In Pakistan, there’s a fine line between being cheeky and getting a fatwa that one needs to be aware of, and Tamkenat knows how much to push without crossing the line. Even then, she gets criticism because, you know, it’s a woman on the internet, talking. In a deeply patriarchal and conservative society like Pakistan, artists, especially non-cis-male artists, must rise above obstacles to get their voices out. Often it’s the family that has objections to artistic endeavours, fearing judgment from society. 

So I was curious, how does Tamkenat’s family react to her art and the fact she’s a public figure?

“There is an element of denial in my parents, and it’s useful because they don’t bother you”. 

That’s a theme I’ve noticed amongst Pakistani artists, that they seldom get active encouragement from their families. The best many hope for is lack of interference. Being ignored is better than having your brother or uncle realise their honour is being challenged because you act or do comedy or have a social media account with your real face as the profile pic.

“I am mostly on the same page as my father, but if there’s an issue, he does not try to control my life. It’s because my father is the type of person that I am how I am today,” she explains further about her family’s relationship to her artistic side.

I can relate to this. My own father is also a bit on the fringes of Pakistani society when it comes to views on women’s education and right to independent thought. I owe much of my audacity to my father. A strong parental figure, the mother, father, or another relative, acts as the north star. A young person can believe they too can carve their own path, that it is allowed.

Still, there are issues with being a free-thinking artist; anything can be misconstrued. Blasphemy Law is alive and well in Pakistan, and witch hunts are not unheard of.

“Because we’re living in Pakistan, they are worried about my safety. Talking about LGBTQ rights, religions, and politics in such a volatile and violent society makes my family scared about my safety,” Tamkenat says. “People are very touchy about many things, especially when you’re challenging their beliefs and ways of living.” 

A valid concern. Just recently, the internet was full of supportive comments for the man who stabbed Salman Rushdie, saying it was deserved. 

When she’s not challenging people by bringing up topics we as a nation would rather brush under the carpet, Tamkenat’s busy being a doctor, the best thing you can be back home after having fair skin colour. She’s also happily divorced and a mother to two girls. 

It takes a certain type of courage in Pakistan to break away from the idealised trajectory of being a doctor and married with kids to owning life as a single mother and letting your inner creative truth emerge. She has been open about her divorce, sharing her thoughts and feelings about it on her Instagram stories. Again, let me emphasise just how frowned upon this is in South Asian culture, and in the light of the recent tragic case of Sania Khan, potentially dangerous. Tamkenat gets her share of trolls slut-shaming her for wearing weather-appropriate clothing and being single and attributing her divorce to these ‘flaws’. 

I asked Tamkenat how she copes with trolls and public outrage at her views.

“I appear to be fearless, but I’m easily emotionally wrecked. I can read a thousand good comments, but if I read one negative one that says something like you look shit, it completely derails me, to the point where I can’t sleep at night. I try not to engage. Now I just delete those comments,” she says.

Tamkenat started creating online content just a year before her divorce. For her, content creation was a form of catharsis. It seems a perceived loss in social currency can be a trigger point for a deeper truth to emerge, both as adults and when young. I asked Tamkenat if she was always the funny kid in her class:

“Since I was not conventionally pretty, I had to be something else. Ever since I was a kid, I developed this sense of humour.”

This seems to be another theme amongst some incredible Pakistani women I’ve talked to – not fitting the society’s idea of pretty and trying to compensate for it in other ways. 

I asked Tamkenat if she had any advice for women wanting to get into comedy:

“Firstly, you need to be really clear about what you want to achieve. People have asked me how to become a YouTuber; they think it’s easy money. It isn’t. Secondly, if you’re passionate about the art form and want to create content, then just go for it. If you have a phone, you can just start creating. Just have faith and just keep going at it. The audience will enjoy it as long as you’re enjoying it.  Don’t stress too much, and don’t compare yourself to others.”

Tamkenat is an inspiration and much more than a comedic content creator that she sometimes gets labelled as. She has branched out into acting to great acclaim and envisions writing a dark, sinister web series. While her income as a doctor means she never has to compromise on what she creates as an artist, there is still a long way to go before emerging artists are actively supported by their more established peers and the Pakistani arts industry in general. 

Despite all the bleakness, Pakistan is brimming with talent and humour. There is no doubt Tamkenat and others will keep finding ways to blaze trails - YouTube bans or not.

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About the author

Amna Bakhtiar is a writer and comedian currently based in Melbourne. She is a tribal Pashtun woman from Peshawar, Pakistan and has performed stand-ups at Darwin Fringe, Adelaide Fringe, Bellingen Winter Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. You can find her on Instagram | @amna.bee.comedy



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