What is feminism? It does not have a proper definition up till now as everyone has their own ideas and views. However, in its true basic essence, feminism is NOT a fight for dominance between both the sexes but a fight to have equal rights which all other men have. In the light of recent events, one cannot stop but think about the role of women and feminism in the Pakistani media and drama industry.
Television has managed to play an important role in influencing our society since its introduction to our homes. What we see is what we believe and implement. Next to news, daily soaps are definitely watched regularly by our audience and these dramas are usually family centric and women always seem to play critically important roles in them but how are they exactly shown in our dramas? I believe that feminism is an excellent lens to study this.
In recent years, there has been a revolution of sorts in the Pakistani drama industry. We have come across dramas such as Udaari (2016), Yaqeen Ka Safar (2017), Digest Writer (2016), Baaghi (2017) and many others which have started questioning and highlighting the female perspective within those issues. These women range from the poor to the middle to the elite classes, yet they possess the strength to vocalize their thoughts, views, opinions to speak for themselves and stand by their decisions as feminism demands that women above all else have the right to stand up and say no.
This is one of the most controversial issues under debate since the beginning of television in Pakistan and all over the world. I think that most of the Pakistani dramas now are a strange mixture of evolution and regress at the same time. I agree some serials do carry a liberal, progressive, gender-sensitive messages and are significant in this excursion towards empowering women and liberating them as they promote strong, independent, and vocal women who utilize their voice to the best of their abilities, however, still most of them emphasize patriarchal values and blame orthodoxy in the same stride, almost as if they co-exist.
Indeed it is very confusing and difficult for the general drama watching public to understand the mix messages underpinning several stories in the modern-day daily soaps. For example, why is the woman always blamed for breakup of a marriage when the man (her husband) has openly shown his interest in her sister, straight from the day she marries his partner (Saman in Maat). Similarly, very often, working women are depicted as strong and independent, yet also negatively depicted as cunning and vampire-like (In the very famous HUM TV drama, Durr-e-Shawar the male lead, Haider, laments the fact that his wife, Shandana, is a working woman).
In addition, women are increasingly shown by men being brutal to them — slapped, beaten up, humiliated, abused through vulgar language — and, conversely, men are shown as the exclusive heads and decision-makers, who simply know how to order the women in their lives around, telling them what to do and what not to do. The thing extremely worrying and problematic about such scenes which depict male dominance and male chauvinism, is that they promote similar negative behaviour, especially among males in the normal public who are watching the drama and think that it is totally okay to do so as it has become some sort of a tradition in the society. The ordinary man or woman becomes focus to this media reinforcement of stereotypical images of women, who later in their lives, actually adapt and accept these stereotypes as normal and natural.
The portrayal of women in Pakistani drama serials is far away from reality. Whenever a man routes to adultery, the woman is blamed as the temptress. Matrimony is famed to such an extent that the ultimate goal of a girl’s life is to be married. If a girl reaches above a certain age, which is usually around 25 or 26 years, she is seen as “too old” to get married and everyone says that she will not get good “Rishtas” (proposals) now. She is expected to give birth to a child in the first year and if she does not meets the expectations of her in-laws, she is labelled as “manhoos” and is given constant threats that her husband will find a second wife otherwise. Modernism is a bane rather than a boon. These serials embed damaging stereotypes about women and portray a rather negative picture of women. In almost every drama serial, the result is that the woman is to be blamed for whatever is wrong in her own life, or even in the life of her family and people she interacts with or is related to. For example, Sajida, nicknamed as Sajjo in the very famous drama serial Udaari was called “manhoos” after she becomes a widow as if her fate is the reason for her husband’s death.
I will only highlight a few examples to support my argument that sexist attitudes and typical stereotypes remain one of the major areas of concern in Pakistani television serials. Foremost is the manner in which honour is depicted, often in highly distorted contexts. Every other drama uses the term ‘honour’ to exonerate criminals of the most heinous crimes. A brother’s or father’s reaction (even to the extent of committing murder, the so-called ‘honour killing’) when a sister/daughter is suspected of immorality, is portrayed in such a manner that the crime (the murder of the sister/daughter) is glorified and the victim condemned. Very rarely, almost never, do these serials convey the idea that ‘honour’ does not have a physical manifestation and is purely related to a person’s character and dignity. Honour can never be taken away by the use of force. If anyone’s honour is to be questioned, it should be the ‘honour’ of the perpetrator of the crime, not that of the victim (the woman). An example can be seen in the drama serial Baaghi, which was a biopic of the very famous and bold Qandeel Baloch. Her own brother murders her in the name of “honour killing” as she uploaded vulgar videos of her on social media and defamed the “izzat” of her family.
Another disturbing aspect of many dramas is the overly negative emotions attached to having a daughter. Words and phrases constantly refer to the presence of a young daughter as a burden, a load that needs to be shed as soon as possible, either by getting her married or selling her against a few rupees. In the Pakistani backdrop, poverty and education are both hindrances for women. If a woman is poor, she cannot refuse the propositions proposed to her and/or her family because she is a ‘burden’ for her parents. The expressions of relief exhibited by the entire family on getting their daughter married very strongly reinforce the age-old notion that ‘a woman’s real home is her susral (in-laws) and that a woman must have the protection of a husband to survive in this ‘cruel’ world no matter how cruel the husband is and how brutally he treats her. Furthermore, if she is educated, she is considered a ‘threat’ to the male ego because she knows better and cannot be pushed around. In all such circumstances the women do not have the right to speak for themselves. It is always the male members of their families or the society that speak for them. If the daughter decides to stand up and come back somehow, she is showered with taunts and is told to return back immediately as it is not respectable. Why is a woman told to survive no matter how hard the conditions are? Why is a woman asked to tolerate everything just because she’s as woman and it’s HER job to do so?
In addition, this patriarchal approach is connected with the issue of a divorced woman, or one in the process of getting a divorce. Getting a divorce is a big stupid thing for our society and a woman is told that her life will be ruined if she ever goes through “talaaq”. Resulting reactions include sarcasm, constant taunting the woman and downright “maatam” (mourning). The blame is placed straightly on the woman for not being able to keep her husband happy according to expectations and not tolerating enough to keep her marriage intact. A woman who asks for a divorce is portrayed as committing an unpardonable unforgivable shocking crime. A man can say talaaq three times to his wife for no reason with impunity and confidence and no one would question that. But a woman merely wanting to get out of an abusive or difficult relationship is still made to look socially unacceptable and non tolerant.
Furthermore, I also want to include that many of today’s serials where women are reduced to being mere objects and her physical or facial looks are considered their biggest asset. Then there are serials where the most unnatural scenarios are presented, even though the problem could be genuine. For example, two creepy old men are shown ogling the young maids who work in their home, in the programme Shauqeen. Their behaviour is clear-cut sexual harassment but presented as a joke, something the two maids are also shown enjoying. However, in reality, this could have gotten worse.
However, it is important to consider the fact whether it’s enough to simply criticize Pakistani daily soaps, or even condemn those aspects that negate women. No doubt these stereotypical images are a consequence of deeply embedded social practices and interpretation taking place in the society, but it is also important to focus on the entire production team of television plays and soaps that play an active role in constructing and reinforcing these stereotypical images. It is important that dialogue, healthy discussions and debates should be opened with media critics and activists to develop awareness of these issues faced regularly by females in Pakistan. I strongly believe that a constant conscious effort needs to be made to realize the power of an alternative view. Just like alternative cinema, we must also endeavor to have ‘alternative television.’ In the absence of public debate on the subject of the portrayal of women in television serials, writers, directors and producers are free–and in some cases encouraged–to portray women in stereotypical, negative ways. This mostly stems from a centuries-old belief system that is so embedded deeply in our consciousness that many think of it as normal. No, it is not normal, nor is it according to moral or ethical values or the tenets of true religious ideals, yet it is given even greater authority through these well-packaged serials. For all those women who don’t consciously agree to such negative, inferior stereotypical images of women as part of our own belief system, they find themselves targets of the television channels that bombard them with obscurantist messages about what it means to be a woman today.
There is a need for a constant eye on the media portrayal of women and there is a requirement for a specific channel through which the general public can speak their views about what they see in the media content and the policy of continued portrayal of women in age-old patriarchal and stereotypical roles shown. Given the circumstance, women genuinely deserve to be able to speak for themselves, they deserve to choose for themselves and to be able to live by the decisions that they make freely and independently without anyone judging or pointing fingers at them. We need more platforms that can promote women and their right to express their views openly, their right to consent and say no to anything they do not want to do, so that we as a community and a society can progress as a nation. We must highlight the plight of women in a positive light instead of pushing them further into the depths of suppression, misery and submissiveness.
Can we see the real Pakistan woman in our television serials, please?