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Soap operas seek to break taboos in Pakistan

January 13, 2018

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This photograph taken on Oct 18, 2017 shows performers Rubina Ashraf, Ali Abbas (right) and Imran Ashraf taking part in the filming of a scene during the shooting of drama serial Mein Maa Nahi Banna Chahti (I don’t want to become a mother) in Karachi.—AFP
This photograph taken on Oct 18, 2017 shows performers Rubina Ashraf, Ali Abbas (right) and Imran Ashraf taking part in the filming of a scene during the shooting of drama serial Mein Maa Nahi Banna Chahti (I don’t want to become a mother) in Karachi.—AFP

ISLAMABAD: In life, she chased fame, hoping to make her mark in society. In death, murdered social media starlet Qandeel Baloch may have achieved her goal.

Today she is a household name, and her tragic story has been turned into a soap opera — one of several immensely popular TV shows seeking to challenge the country’s taboos.

Baaghi, which means ‘rebel’, charts the rise of Baloch from a young girl who was exploited to an internet sensation — infamous for her provocative selfies — until her shocking murder, with her brother confessing to the killing.

The show airs on private TV channel Urdu 1 every Thursday. Viewing figures are unavailable, but its pilot episode has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on YouTube.

“That girl was a lioness. She should not have died yet,” says Shazia Khan, a writer.

Baloch’s fate polarised the country. For some, it inflamed outrage over so-called honour killings in which hundreds of predominantly women are killed each year — usually by male relatives — for bringing what they perceive as shame on their families.

But the concept of honour is deeply embedded in parts of Pakistan’s patriarchal culture, and other voices argued that Qandeel Baloch had made herself a target by her actions which were tamed by western standards but deemed provocative in the country.

New plot-lines revolve around issues from domestic violence to child abuse, forced and child marriages, misogyny and women’s rights

The decision to turn her death into one of Pakistan’s popular television soap operas has ensured the debate surrounding such murders of women endures.

Notorious for its high-profile story, Baaghi is just one of a wave of soap operas and dramas airing plot-lines that revolve around such social issues; from domestic violence to child abuse, forced and child marriages, misogyny and women’s rights.

They are devoured by the country’s 207m strong population.

Research by Pakistan’s media regulator shows that in 2016, around 65 per cent of viewers watched drama channels featuring such soap operas. Another survey by Gallup Pakistan shows 67pc of adult female viewers and 56pc of adult male viewers watch entertainment shows, mainly soaps.

Their popularity makes them a potentially powerful vehicle for progress, says lawyer Benazir Jatoi, who works for women’s rights watchdog Aurat Foundation, and has long argued that laws protecting women are not enough to effect grassroots change.

Blowback

Mujhe Jeene Do (Let Me Live), is another soap on Urdu 1, which highlights the issue of child marriages.

“If there (is) no widespread awareness, who would know that it [child marriage] is a crime?” says Angeline Malik, the show’s director.

One of the country’s biggest entertainment channels, Hum TV, is a pioneer in using social issues as soap opera fodder.

In 2016, the channel aired Udaari (flight), based on the story of a young girl who is sexually abused by her stepfather which ignited a debate about the sexual abuse of children inside home.

“Udaari took the sensitive subject ... to every household where discussion on sex is still a taboo,” says an avid fan of the show, Aabida Rani.

In Sammi, which revolves around its eponymous star character, the station highlighted honour killings, forced marriages, and denial of property inheritance to women all in one show.

Sultana Siddiqui, a producer who later set-up her own TV station, said they wanted Sammi to be a mirror of society, and an example of “how a taboo issue could be displayed in a proper manner”.

Their efforts are not without backlash, and Ms Siddiqui describes pressure from media regulators as well as a wave of vitriol on social media with people accusing her and her channel of spreading vulgarity and destroying social values.

But the show’s popularity kept it on air despite the blowback, she says.

Flawed portrayals

Even as the shows push for awareness and change, the way soap opera heroines are portrayed can cause consternation.

Sadaf Haider, a blogger at the country’s major news portal Dawn.com, wrote in October that the storyline for Baaghi followed a predictable Pakistani track relieving the heroine of autonomy — essentially portraying Baloch as a victim.

“The actual Qandeel didn’t consider herself a bechari (helpless) at all, even a cursory reading of her interviews shows she worked hard and was proud of what she had achieved,” Ms Haider wrote.

“Qandeel took full responsibility for her choices... So why has Baaghi portrayed something else entirely?” journalist Fifi Haroon wrote in an article in BBC, complaining that the portrayal of women in such shows still fits into a patriarchal narrative.

“Simpering, dewy-face heroines ... suffer in obstinate silence or misguided stoicism,” she wrote.

“Tears are plentiful. Producers now claim that if you don’t show women crying, the drama won’t garner ratings.”

Lawyer Jatoi, while praising soap operas as vehicles for change, took a cautious view. “They must ensure they are responsible enough to handle such sensitive topics and address underlying issues so as not to add to the already existing stigmas,” she said.

Ms Haroon agreed in her piece that makers of the shows must be aware of their audience.

“It is not just women,” she wrote. “Men too are observing what it takes to be a man in Pakistani society and of course, what they can expect from the women in their lives and homes.”

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2018