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NLU Delhi ‘sexist pig’-placard-ers vs Abhish Mathew: Protest was legitimate, reactions hostile, dialogue heartening

Abhish Mathew: Sexist pig or hand sanitiser?
Abhish Mathew: Sexist pig or hand sanitiser?

The NLU Delhi students who protested a stand-up comedy act by Abhish Mathew on campus, which attracted considerable media attention and controversy, have written a five-page open letter signed by 15 students and supporters defending their right to protest even if it disrupted the performer.

They also stated that while Mathew told them after the event that he had no idea that his jokes about domestic violence “would warrant such a strong response”, however, they said their protest provoked hostile reactions that left some feeling “personally unsafe”, after they were heckled and one protestor was physically pushed after the event.

However, they wrote that it was “heartening to see that the protest has generated dialogue, debate and introspection both within our University, and outside”:

A healthy and fruitful debate attended by large numbers took place within our campus three days after the protest. This is a small victory in pursuance of achieving our larger aim as a University, towards building a more inclusive campus where persons of all genders feel space.

We have reached out to Mathew for comment, who tweeted the day after the event: “If I made my jokes any cleaner, I'd have to sell it as hand sanitizer!”

The protestors recounted the events of 22 March in their open letter as follows:

Early in the show, Matthew cracked a joke on domestic violence, at which point, two women students who found the jokes to be extremely misogynistic, walked out, showing him the middle finger. The audience reacted with some tittering, and Abish Mathew fumbled momentarily, before resuming. The audience asked him to carry on and to ignore the protesters. In the mean time, a group of female students marched into the auditorium holding placards reading “Get Out, Sexist Pig”, and also used expletives such as ‘fuck off’. The auditorium erupted in shouts of “fuck you guys” and the protesters were booed and heckled by the audience members who demanded that the protestors either leave or move to the side. They eventually did move to the side of the auditorium, where they continued to hold their placards up and attempted to interrupt him. Abish was greeted by a standing ovation when he stated that he was an artist and recognized the right of the protesters, and subsequently when he ended his show by stating he had overstayed his welcome…

The jokes cracked pertained to domestic violence, women’s physical appearance and sexual (un)attractiveness, and reiterated traits that are traditionally ascribed to women. Domestic violence is an institutionalized, systematic form of abuse. As an issue that is seen as being  situated within the realm of the “private”, victims and survivors often find it difficult to seek redress because of its normalization. Joking about domestic violence perpetuates a culture where violence against women is the norm. Further, such jokes may act as a trigger for members of the audience who may be victims or survivors of such violence.

They wrote that he also made jokes denigrating “one of the most powerful leaders of the country”, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, by denigrating her appearance, “painted a troublesome picture of women”:

He joked how a woman, while having sex with her husband, noticed how dirty the house was, and called her domestic help as soon as her ‘sahib’ was done, so the house could be cleaned…

Some of his other jokes included women being bad drivers, as while driving, they simultaneously perform other tasks such as putting on make-up and feeding their babies.

Defending their right to free speech and form of protest, the protestors wrote in their open letter:

Now, moving on to the form that the protest took, it is important to keep in mind that it was spontaneous. While we continue to maintain that the form of protest we chose was legitimate, in hindsight we recognize that perhaps alternate feminist methods of expressing our dissent could have been explored, given the circumstances. As a community our commitment to feminism cannot be so fragile that we abandon the cause merely because of disagreement on the suitability of the form of protest.

We believe that different forms of protests are ‘suitable’ for different situations and it should be up to the protestors to choose their form keeping in mind the circumstances. A certain form of protest may be ‘unsuitable’ for a situation but nonetheless legitimate. One could imagine that a marginalized group may face a situation where they are pushed to a corner, and therefore feel the need to resort to a disruptive protest. Indeed it would be ironic for persons not part of the protest to be dictating the form of protest…

In retrospect, we do believe that there might have been a better but equally legitimate a form as we adopted. We must also realize that consequences of an alternative form of protest are up to conjecture, and there is no guarantee that they would have lead to an unprecedented engagement on the issue…

Further, our speech did not even constitute ‘heckling’. The right to free speech does not subsume the right to consequence free speech. Just as clapping, cheering and hooting in appreciation are legitimate reactions to a speech, a critical reaction, which may not be courteous or polite, is also as legitimate. Moreover, denying us our right to protest would have impinged on our right to free speech. If we deem only speech recognized as deserving of legitimate state restrictions as expression which can be legitimately protested against by non-state actors, that would spell death for free speech of dissent. […]

We must recognize that speech can effectively counter other speech if the marketplace of speech is actually free. However, in the real world different power differentials and structures do exist, and for that reason, one speaker has a position of power over the other. In this case, Abish Mathew had the mic and stage, while the protesters, carrying their posters, were asked to move aside, and to let the show continue. If we were to truly give counter speech a chance, should we not have created space for that speech? Is it enough to say that they could have countered Abish’s speech later, for instance through a blog post? Or should the organisers have given the protesters the stage for a few minutes after Abish’s speech?

An Open Letter by the Protesters 

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