On Thursday 7 March, the 'Eve' of International Women's Day, my company Funny Women will explore how women across the cultural and geographical divide are positioned in today's broader society and how, if at all, they use their innate humour to communicate effectively.
Our annual celebration is taking the form of a live panel show followed by a comedy line-up featuring women representing five different continents and 10 nations all in support of the international women's human rights charity, Womankind Worldwide.
I'm interested to know how much our background and cultural influences define us as women and what role humour plays within this mix to help us communicate verbally and visually. There are great 'tribes' of women around the world with an armoury of communication skills inherent to their cultures yet the common denominator, the uniting factor, will nearly always be humour and laughter. This is the means by which we can speak as one voice.
"Humour is infectious and the sound of laughter is far more contagious than any cough, sniffle, or sneeze", explains Jackie Ballard, chief executive of Womankind Worldwide. "When laughter is shared, it binds people together and increases happiness and intimacy. The medics say that laughter triggers healthy physical changes in the body. It can strengthen your immune system, boost your energy, diminish pain, and protect you from the damaging effects of stress. Best of all, this priceless medicine is free and has no damaging side effects."
No wonder women laugh so much given what they endure in some cultures. I want to know how such women use humour to help, heal and communicate within their communities and their own immediate female groups and how this transcends into their wider community. Are there issues around how this translates? For example, is comedy seen as disrespectful or unseemly?
Comedy (next to music) is the favoured cultural currency adopted by the white western male world so it has to be worth exploring if our uniquely female humour has the power to bring down sexism and the last bastions of male chauvinism and banish the stereotypical portrayal of women as mute sex objects still so prevalent in the media.
I've explored the boundaries of female comedy before ( Can You Joke About Rape?) and still don't have the answers. Can joking about rape, paedophilia or abuse ever be acceptable? And are there societies where the funniest woman is also the sexiest woman in the village?
In today's enlightened western society sharp talking funny women don't have the allure of the half-clad, pouting 'sex goddesses' that adorn our most popular newspapers and magazines. There is still woefully little coverage about women in comedy and it's not regularly associated with attractiveness.
"It is endlessly inspiring how many of our partners and the women we help are able to find humour even in the face of terrible discrimination and danger", continues Womankind's Jackie Ballard in her exploration of the topic HERE. "Humour can be courageous, subversive, even radical. Some say that laughing, joking women don't 'know their place'. Well we believe a woman's place is everywhere."
Western women have gone a long way down the road to knowing their place and being able to have a laugh, particularly in business.
"Without humour I would be lost," says Vanessa Vallely, founder of leading women's network, WeAretheCity, and charity campaigner, who will take part in the panel discussion on 7 March. "As someone who has been stuck in the middle of protests in Paris, stranded in an airport in Africa whilst being eaten alive by mosquitos, to losing my passport on the way back from Nice - if I didn't see humour in all of these situations I don't know where I would be."
Vanessa's fellow panellists include the editor of HuffPost Comedy UK, Andrea Mann, sustainable fashion designer and ambassador for Womankind Worldwide, Amisha Ghadiali, influential award-winning Nigerian broadcaster and African business and arts advocate Princess 'Duen Adedyoin-Solarin, and American comic Lynn Ruth-Miller who took her first forays into stand-up in her 70's. The panel will be hosted by Viv Groskop, journalist, author and stand-up comedian.
"Humour plays a massive part in my life as when all else fails and you feel like it's the end of the world, it's something you turn to", continues Vanessa. "The old adage of seeing the funny side is so true. Every situation has its humorous lining, and for me that is something that helps me cope."
After the chat comes the comedy with a truly international cast including Alice Frick, from Austria, Shazia Mirza from Pakistan and Birmingham, American Lynn Ruth Miller, Ria Lina, of mixed German, Chinese and Canadian origins, Australian Tess Waters, Danish Sofie Hagen, Kenyan Njambi McGrath, British Gabby Best (winner of 2013 Funny Women Awards), Indian Sindhu V and Katerina Vrana from Greece!
The language of comedy is universal and women laugh with ease and frequency within their social groups. They are less likely than men to use 'joke-telling' to position themselves as a leader within the group and this inevitably characterises society's interpretation of women and humour.
So laughter is an important part of the mix every year on International Women's Day, which focuses on the past and present struggles of women around the world. I've produced a show to celebrate this every year since 2003 proving that while we are still dealing with very important and serious issues, there is funny side to conflict that people can easily forget. All too often humour is overlooked as a useful tool in building the next generation of women's rights.
For more details and booking information for the Funny Women International Women's Day 10 Nations Charity Gala in support of Womankind Worldwide, which takes place on the 'Eve', Thursday 7 March 2013, at the St James Theatre, Westminster, go HERE.
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