/ 21 January 2016

Funny what I can’t laugh about

Call for action: People Opposing Women Abuse demand a strategic plan to combat women and child abuse.
POWA protest demonstration against abuse. Photo: Oupa Nkosi/ M&G


When in a rage, I don’t do half-measures, I go full volcano. It takes a monumental, spectacular, public combination of stupidity and hypocrisy to set me off. The threatened closure of Rape Crisis in August 2012 (yes, Women’s Month) did it, for example. The continuing total ineffectiveness of the department of women, whose brief seems mostly restricted to kow-towing to patriarchs and reinventing the wheel, keeps my lava bubbling.

But, mostly, when it comes to gender issues – the bland, tame way of saying yet another child has been raped, yet another black lesbian has been mutilated and murdered – I’m more inclined to deep sadness and despair.

I look back on my young feminist self, and shake my head at my naivety. I assumed the next generations would know far more freedom than I ever did. I expected the same kind of global technological, legislative and economic transformations that accompanied my growing up – the development of the pill, workplaces opening up to women, moves towards decriminalising abortion. I thought that, by now, we would have rape and domestic violence on the mat.

I even set a cut-off date: when my nieces were born in 1999, I decided sexual violence needed to be a historical oddity by the time they reached adulthood. Now I have hit my 15th year of researching why men rape (in two words: rape culture; in one sentence: rape culture exacerbated by hierarchical patriarchal structures, such as those inherited from apartheid, in which intimate violence was an approved mechanism of top-down social control), and there’s no end in sight.

Women’s rights worldwide hit a high point in 1995, at the Fourth World Conference for Women, with the signing of the Beijing Platform for Action by all 189 United Nation member states. Subsequent follow-up has been hampered by the real risk that some countries would formally renege on the agreements to strive for full equality for women. And it’s not just those states in which women are denied education or the right to drive or vote, where they’re at risk of stoning or flogging.

In the United States, the nation most sentimental about children, there is no mandatory paid maternity leave. Breast is best? Stay home and live on thin air. State-supported child care, as in some European countries? The very idea has half the US population screaming at the imminent summoning of Satan.

So I hereby declare that I have zero sense of humour about child abuse, partner battering, honour killings, female genital mutilation, human trafficking or sexual violence. Don’t ever expect me to laugh at a rape joke. Or a homophobic one.

But I believe in laughter. The cliché is true: genuine belly laughs with (not at) people are wonderful medicine for all kinds of ills. Think of the best, the happiest times you have had with friends and family. I’ll lay money on it that laughter was involved – lots of it. It’s free, it’s therapeutic, it’s bonding.

Of course, humour is also deeply personal. If you think racist jokes are funny, or that humour derives from mocking people, go fly a kite somewhere else. And, given the sludge storm of racist social media that started the year, we could benefit from learning the difference between criticism and derogatory insults disguised as jokes (white Saffers, I’m side-eyeing you in particular). “The prez is corrupt!” – fair enough. “The prez is a baboon!” – seriously uncool, and knock it off already.

Self-mockery is fine by me: a middle-aged Afrikaans writer I know describes how, upon meeting a famous thriller writer, she wanted to throw her broeks at him – but was afraid of smothering the poor guy.

Now that was funny. And, although sexual violence is never funny, sex often is. Sex plus self-mockery is the bomb: “For 20 years, my swimming technique was like my sexual technique: three or four frenzied strokes, then a lot of gasping and sleeping.” That’s from Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s memoir, which had tea spurting out my nostrils.

Still, you might not like what I laugh at. I think it’s funny when my cat gets into my handbag, tips it over and then walks around wearing it like a hat. You may think it’s the whitest thing you have ever heard.

But let’s agree that laughter is more than just a jolly sensation in the diaphragm.

In an era when the valuable and sustaining concept of self-care has been rounded up by consumer capitalism and equated with spa days and green tea, laughing is a form of kindness we owe ourselves and others.

Learning to laugh, with warmth, at ourselves is therapy for the soul. Making space for laughter can be the yeast that helps us to rise to fight another day.

Helen Moffett is an author, freelance editor, recovering academic and activist