What is it about women laughing that makes men so angry?
Members of Parliament have been known to react loudly to the speeches delivered by their counterparts during session. Even Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's Budget speech saw plenty of supportive table thumping and shouts of protest. So, when Rajya Sabha MP and Congress leader Renuka Chowdhury's laughter was heard during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech over a claim about Aadhaar, a rebuke from the Rajya Sabha Speaker, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu was one thing but Modi's own snarky jibe a whole other.
Comparing her laughter to that of a character from the Ramayana (which one? More on this later), he joked not about the situation but personally about Chowdhury herself.
When I watched the video of Modi's comments, I was reminded of the backbencher war that occurred in every class in my high school in Indore.
Usually, there'd be two groups of boisterous teenagers, throwing sarcastic remarks at each other, while a pissed-off, stern teacher would admonish them with strict warnings or punishments. The two groups would reluctantly listen to the teacher and quiet down while happily soaking in the sycophantic applause from their supporters in the class.
That India's most prominent Parliamentarians lends themselves to a group of 16-year-olds, reflects rather badly.
In the video, the prime minister is seen talking about Congress and then about Aadhaar. As he mentions Aadhaar, piercing laughter is heard from the other side of the room. On hearing Chowdhury chortle, Naidu sternly reprimands her for her unruly behaviour. To this, the prime minister responds by saying "Meri aapse vinti hai, Renuka ji ko kuch mat kahiye. Ramayan serial ke baad aisi hansi sunne ka saubhagya aaj jaake mila hai" (I request you to not say anything to Renuka ji. After the TV serial Ramayana, it is the first time that we have had the privilege to hear such kind of laughter again).
The room erupts in loud laughter and the men seated behind the prime minister are seen thunderously slapping their desks to stress just how witty they find this take to be. It bears mentioning that Naidu doesn't reprimand this unruly behaviour.
The irony is evident when this incident is juxtaposed against the BJP's claims over the past months to introduce the controversial Women's Reservation Bill in Parliament. The Bill, which proposes 33 percent reservation of women in legislative bodies, was introduced in 1996 but lapsed after the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2014. But there's been little forward movement despite the lip service. Add to this Modi's statement in the year's first Mann Ki Baat, where he insists that "it is in our culture to respect women", and one wonders whether his respect is only for the silent kind of women.
In his essay The Laughter of Women, writer Devdutt Pattanaik tells a story from The Mahabharata in which the feisty Draupadi laughs at Duryodhana when he falls into a pool. Duryodhana, known for his vengeful persona, is unable to bear this humiliation and vows to humiliate the queen back. And the rest, after that, is history, or at least mythology. Pattanaik wonderfully writes that "The idea of a woman laughing at a man is seen as the most humiliating act, enough for justifying her abuse in public. Women can laugh, but not at men".
What is it about women's laughter than irks men? In popular culture, men have been known to become jealous when a female partner is seen laughing at another's man's joke. This ends up being romanticised. If a man is jealous when you laugh at another man's joke, they say, then he cares for you deeply. Hasee toh phasee. But it isn't love that's the trigger here. It's ego. It's a sense of entitlement that men possess where the laughter of a woman, like the woman herself, is a possession in their belonging so must be utilised in their favour. Not against them.
Chowdhury's laughter may well have been outside the required decorum of Parliament but then so is several men banging their desks and cheering on a statement that is obviously a personal insult. Comparing her to a character of The Ramayana was Modi's dismissal of a senior MP as unimportant. What happened to hate the game, not the player or, in this case, taking issue with the opinion, not with the person herself?
Union Minister of State for Home Affairs and BJP member Kiren Rijiju later posted a video of a laughing Surpanakha, Raavan's demon sister from The Ramayana. But while this interpretation has a woman character, we seem to remember Raavan's own laughter as the loudest. Even in attempts to humiliate, Chowdhury gets a supporting character instead of the villainous lead because of her gender. Perhaps the idea of Chowdhury being in charge scares the male MPs even more than her laughter?