Sajeela Kershi

Sajeela Kershi

Sajeela Kershi has been performing stand-up since 2006; though she got her biggest break not on stage – but as the audience ‘plant’ in Brendon Burns’s 2007 if.comedy-winning show, So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now.

That year she also appeared in a three-handed Edinburgh line-up show, Pretty Dirty Things, wollowing up with a two-hander, Race/Off the following year, with the solo debut Bitch Got Owned in 2009.

She is also resident MC at her own comedy night in Redhill, Surrey, Comedy At The Cottage'

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'I'd want all racist jokes stopped'

Comedy, religion and offence discussed at Leicester festival

Telling the most offensive jokes is way the powerful exert their dominance – and should be stopped.

That’s the view of literature professor Anshuman Mondal, who was speaking at the Leicester Comedy Festival today.

The Indian-born academic from the Universtity of East Anglia argued that there  should be limits to freedom of speech, arguing: ‘As an activist, it would be hypocritical of me to protest against racist speech but to say "OK, go ahead" in the name of freedom. I’d want it stopped.’

He said that: ‘The idea someone's inferior to you comes through language’ – and that can be reinforced by jokes.

On the other hand Mondal conceded: ‘Taking offence is a symbol of being victimised.’

He was speaking at an event called Say What You Like: Comedy, Religion And Offence organised by the Centre for Comedy Studies Research.

But other panellists held different views.

Comedian Sajeela Kershi said that although she had been a victim of racism in the ‘real world’ – including having excrement left on her doorstep – she valued freedom of speech highly, saying that being born a woman in Pakistan and raised a Muslim, she is aware how many people are denied that right.

‘In the outside world racism and misogyny is not acceptable but when you are creating art, you should be free,’ she said. ‘Everyone has that right… I don't like anyone telling me what to do.’

Kershi added that ‘religion gets more respect these days than it belongs,’ and that deserved to be challenged.

‘I would love to see a Muslim Life of Brian as I've always questioned the faith I've been brought up in,’ she said. ‘It’s important to use satire and comedy to spark debate.’

Kershi, who now describes herself as an agnostic, added that if people’s religious beliefs were robust ‘the odd joke or cartoon isn’t going to make a difference’.

David Monteith, the Dean of Leicester, said that as a gay man in the public eye: ‘I know it's simply not true that sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’ – but said there should be no crime of blasphemy.

‘The places where blasphemy is enshrined in law, it's usually used as a backdoor way of picking on minorities,’ he said.

But he added: ‘Where comedy could do more is in understanding what is genuinely religious and what is religion masquerading as power.  There’s often a laziness around about trying to understand the complexity of religion. There's a need to walk in the same shoes as somebody else.’

However, the priest said that Britain’s comic traditions should be cherished.

‘We've become a lot more serious society and I'm not sure that's good,’ he said. ‘We need different modes of discourse, and comedic is one we should value very highly.  We need to guard it, and foster it in terms of public funding.’

He said that the government was struggling to describe ‘Britishness’, especially in terms of immigrants, but said: ‘I don't see "having a laugh" ever described in a government paper.’

Michael Cotter, an academic who specialises in the ethics and aesthetics of comedy, said that in terms of religious fundamentalists ‘it's not that difficult to see why reactions to ridicule are extreme.’

But he added that it was ‘not an acceptable request’ for religions not to be mocked. ‘Offence should not be a sole indicator of whether something should be said,' he stated.

Mondal said the rule of thumb was that comedians should be able to ‘mock what people do or say, not who they are’ but conceded that in practice ‘things get very complicated very quickly’.

However he said comedians had a social duty. ‘Comedy can be a social glue, binding people together, or solvent, dissolving links,’ he said. ‘Comics should ask, "What am I really hoping to achieve. Is this the right way to go about it? Is it a risk worth taking?" These are deeply ethical questions.’

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Published: 19 Feb 2017

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