At the Aurat March held across multiple cities in Pakistan last year, among the thousands of women protesting for women’s rights, there were a few with placards saying “I am Shazia’s daughter”. The Instagram agnostics in the crowd might have wondered a bit at that; is it a reference to a tragic news story? A character from a movie? But if you —like us— spend half your day browsing social media, you’d already have recognised Shazia’s daughter as the much-maligned target of the judgemental, slut-shaming ‘Lina Aunty’, one of the half-dozen or so regular characters that appear on the popular Instagram account The Swinery (@swineryy).
It all started in April 2018 when Swinery —a young Karachi-based woman in her 20s who wants to stay anonymous— put up an Animoji video of a pig wondering why it was ‘haraam’. The account was mostly so she could share the Aanimoji videos, made on a friend’s iPhone, with others in her friend group. But as the number of characters grew to include the judgemental aunty, a blue faced cleric who sings like a tenor, a foul-mouthed alien, and a constantly sniffly foren-return fuckboy (among others), so did the follower count. Today, the Swinery has over 166,000 followers and counts Fatima Bhutto and Malala Yousafzai amongst its fans. We spoke to Swinery, who is also active in the theatre and stand-up comedy scenes, about becoming one of South Asia’s most beloved comedy accounts.
What was the initial impetus behind starting The Swinery?
I actually had no plans to start a ‘comedy’ account. That wasn’t a goal of mine, and especially not with Animojis. Didn’t know what those were. I always wanted to be an actor and a stand up comic so I dabbled in both of those fields a bit. I wanted to pursue both of those properly but never had enough time or energy because of work and life. What I ended up doing instead —and in retrospect it’s clear to me that I needed to do it to be able to live with NOT doing what I actually loved— was always doing various different characters for friends at work, driving colleagues up the wall and constantly messing around and joking. Making people laugh, I really get a thrill out of that. It also happens the most when I’m going through something difficult.
I almost forgot how to talk as me, I was always playing a character with my friends around. We had a great time. I kept that kind of stuff up for like half a year before one of them showed me the Animoji feature on his phone and I randomly made the first piggy video — the ‘why m haram?’ one. They thought it was funny so I later created an account and uploaded it. At the time it was just a joke between friends but it really started to catch on.
There are just a few things that I love more than good comedy, but I was never particularly interested in even watching any Animoji content myself, let alone making it. But obviously it has totally changed my life.
Did you expect it to resonate with so many people?
I knew what was funny so I understood the people who found my jokes funny and would share my videos but yeah I definitely did not think 166000 people would be following me within a year. And there are some really amazing people on that list. I can’t believe it sometimes.
I remember when I hit 5000 followers it just blew my head off because I couldn’t imagine that many people in a room. Another moment like that was when the first Alien video hit 19,000 views and I thought okay this shit is just getting outta hand. So no, I did not expect it.
Where do you draw your inspiration from for your characters?
I think it is based on having observed people throughout my life so far and not even consciously… just being around people and being interested in how different people can be from one another and the things they say and the views they have and the way they express them and then just having fun with it. I really think I’ve always done this, even when I was a child.
Do you have elaborate little back-stories for the characters?
I do! There are all these running plots in my head for my characters. It didn’t start out that way, but slowly I’ve carved their life stories in my mind. I don’t force it to be out there though, I think little bits of their lives show themselves through their words here and there. I also don’t want to put them in a box. I like that not everything about their lives is out there because it’s not what we’re focusing on and it reveals itself slowly. Also, I feel like more people can relate this way.
How do you feel about the way some of your characters have resonated with people in this very real way? Like the signs at the Aurat March.
Honestly, it is surreal. It is amazing and surreal and so crazy for me. I’m glad there are people who understood, even right at the beginning, the broader meaning or the story and what the characters are saying and showing beyond just the jokes that are on the surface. I am an Aurat March supporter and a feminist and I’ll always be super proud of my characters having an impact like that.
You’re also a stand-up comic, but you’ve kept the account anonymous. Why the anonymity?
Stand up comedy is my first love, although I often give myself a hard time for not writing more and not performing more. The decision to not out myself was easy because my standup comedy material is very different from the humour that you see on Swineryy. It is less silly… no impersonations. The anonymity where Swineryy is concerned keeps me safe, I have the freedom of expression, there is a focus on my work alone and my jokes and perspectives. I imagine not being anonymous would take away from that a little bit. I feel okay being in the background of my own work. I think not having my face be a part of the work is also a unique thing in the arts and it’s not easy to find a way to do that so I think I’m gonna hold on to it for a while. Plus it just adds a bit of mystery hehe.
Do you have a full time job outside of comedy? What sort of potential do you see in monetising The Swinery?
People often assume I just don’t work, or that Swineryy is my work, but I haven’t truly monetised it yet. I always had a full time job before last year and have been working on different things since!
I have worked with a couple of brands on Swineryy – those who gave me the freedom and time to create what I like. So I’m open to monetising as long as brands don’t intervene too much in the content. I’ve also finally now set up a Patreon account for some generous and loving supporters who wish to see more content than there is on my Instagram and can also request videos etc. Also I have some merchy thangs.
Will we get to see The Swinery universe expand in the future, maybe into other formats?
For sure I think that’s bound to happen. I don’t like to force it though. So far thankfully none of my work has felt forced to me, even when it comes to sponsored content. That’s also why I don’t have an uploading schedule. I don’t want to push a new character until it just comes out from inside me like it did with the others. I feel like that’s also when it’s the funniest. Apart from that, I would love to and have been thinking of a little animated web series starring the alien (the others too, but he’s the main guy). Lets see what happens with that.
Finally, how are you and the characters dealing with the pandemic?
I am more lazy, more productive, more moody, but happier, more stressed but also more relaxed than ever since this pandemic struck. It just depends on the day. But not all of ‘us’ are managing well haha. They’ve got a billion complaints and theories, which I am slowly rolling out in videos.