Robina Athar Ahmed is challenging the patriarchy, one stand-up comedy show at a time

The civil servant performs in Punjabi and tackles issues often considered taboo, such as periods, bras, body hair and reproduction.
20 Sep, 2022

Most people think of retiring and getting comfortable when they hit 65 but most people are not Robina Athar Ahmed, who is looking ahead at a future as a brilliant stand-up comedian post retiring as the chairperson of the National Tariff Commission. A civil servant since 1983, Ahmed worked in various Federal Board of Revenue departments throughout her life, making and reviewing policies at multiple institutions, including the Ministry of Commerce.

Recently, she tried her hand at standup comedy and received a remarkable response that encouraged her to keep at it. Her sets have revolved around some of the most taboo topics pertaining to women in our society — their clothing, the compulsion to wear a bra, periods, body hair, reproduction, child birth and so on. Although she just ventured into standup, what’s most remarkable is Ahmed’s courage to tackle these taboos with comedy on stage in front of a live audience.

Ahmed was an avid theatre goer who was introduced to stand-up comedy by chance when she got an invite and went ahead to see young men perform short stand-up sets. “I checked with the organisers if they could take me and they refused because I had no experience. I want to give it a try so I went to an open mic and performed stand-up comedy there for the first time”.

A standing ovation at her first performance and seeing the audience in fits bolstered her confidence but it was when Auratnaak reached out to her to perform with them that she realised her true potential. “I realised this is what I always wanted to do and it’s never too late to start something new and pick a cause to work on it — age has never been a problem. In fact, age has worked as an advantage in my case; people tend to listen to me and even with opposing ideas, they are civilised in their feedback,” she told Images.

Ahmed is cognisant of the fact that even today, society cannot easily accept the messages in her stand-up routine but her purpose of highlighting these issues is to give a different perspective. So far, she has been performing in front of a selected audiences but she does expect negative comments when she performs for the larger community. Yet, she’s not afraid.

“The message in my comedy should should have been relayed ages ago but I am glad that I am conveying it now. I always had this guilt that our generation has not played its role in raising these issues and so I believe it is my moral and societal responsibility to compensate for that mistake.”

Her message is loud and clear against the patriarchy — from issues like why men hold women to unrealistic standards of beauty and piousness when they don’t work on themselves even a tiny bit to why women do not have the choice and autonomy to make their own life decisions. Through her work, she also explores why there is such a dearth of information about women’s biological issues including periods, child birth, and women-centric health issues like breast cancer etc.

Her stand-up routine revolves around five main characters — the mother, sister, mother-in-law, maid (Wasia) and husband, all of whom represent the patriarchy, even when four of them are women. “It is not only men who are patriarchal, even women are patriarchal and that needs to change.”

Ahmed picked these topics because of her personal experiences — she had a difficult time because she’s not a conformist. And she believes that as a society, we tend to make trivial issues important and render important issues trivial. “Periods, bras or body hair should not be a taboo. Everybody should be talking about these things openly because these issues matter — women must have control of what they think, how they look and what they want to do with their lives,” she told Images.

Ahmed admits that even though she does comedy for women, her target is men. “I want men to appreciate what a woman goes through in her life, acknowledge her contributions to their and the family’s life, support her and give her space so she can do what she wants,” she explained.

When asked why her routines are in Punjabi, she said that’s because her expression is most natural in Punjabi but also because when most people think of stand-up, they think of English or Urdu and with Punjabi, she gets to do something different and new as well.

As far as the future is concerned, Ahmed wants to extend the boundaries of her comfort zone. She’s planning a show in Lahore in December and definitely wants to come to Karachi. “I am also looking forward to doing shows outside Pakistan in Canada, England and Sweden where there are big Punjabi speaking communities,” she said.

More power to Robina! She really is one of a kind!