Defining culture

Published January 14, 2019
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

POOR Pakistani culture. It has had a rough start to 2019, assailed by all manner of threats: ‘bed scenes’, feminism, Indians. The Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the ban on televised Indian content, following Pemra’s directive against drama serials focusing on women-centred themes, have been met with questions. But they highlight a serious crisis in Pakistani cultural production.

Pemra has directed entertainment channels to cease depictions of issues such as rape, divorce, extramarital affairs, and the consequences of substance abuse. The ban has been mocked for its fusty language and incorrect use of the term ‘feminist’ to refer to issues pertaining to women, rather than in an activist sense. But the directive is no laughing matter, as it proscribes on-screen feminism.

The regulator contends that drama serials are indecent and do not depict the ‘true picture of Pakistani society’. Ironically, the only indecent thing about these serials is their audacity in portraying the hidden truths of Pakistani society: taboos such as sexual abuse, ‘honour’ killing, forced marriage and discrimination.

The only way in which the shows diverge from reality is in showing women resisting or transcending their dire circumstances. The real indecency is that these issues remain endemic, and are not addressed at fora beyond the small screen. The Pemra ban may sanitise the airwaves of these uncomfortable reminders about ‘true’ Pakistani society, but it will perpetuate the problems by helping deny their existence.

People are left wondering what comprises their culture.

Separately, the Supreme Court reinstated a ban on Indian content on television, with concerns that it is “damaging our culture”. Similar bans by the state have come and gone over the years. Some have been viewed as tit-for-tat gestures in the context of diplomatic relations with India, and as indicators of the state of bilateral relations, along with border crossings and visa requirements. An October ban of Indian content was seen by some as following this pattern. But last week’s ban was perceived as more of an articulation of Pakistani culture and values in contention with India, rather than a diplomatic tactic.

It has been pointed out that — much like the Pemra directive — such moves run the risk of defining our culture in opposition. It is tragic that Pakistan’s ancient, diverse, complex and evolving cultural heritage is sometimes presented as a negation of external factors, fuelled by a militarised nationalism. It is seen as anti-India, anti-love, anti-feminism, anti-modernity. What is hardly ever said is what our culture is, rather than what it is not.

This leaves a vacuum in which people are left wondering what comprises their culture, when all the things they enjoy doing are deemed inappropriate. Cue the strident voices of the radicalised right and other segments who have an adamant opinion of what our culture should be, and are happy to impose it on everyone. And we wonder how we drifted towards extremism.

It is telling that Pemra cited ‘massive’ public complaints to justify its directive. For transparency’s sake, it should provide the number of complaints received, and then stack these against ratings figures for the offending shows. This process would likely reveal that Pemra is falling victim to a vocal right wing seeking to enforce its views while the moderate middle gets on with watching television in the evening.

This state of affairs illustrates how we operate as a country: decry foreign influences, clamp down on any sign of local vibrancy (our drama serials are the keystone of our soft power), but do nothing productive to generate an alternative. In this context, if Indian content is deemed problematic, one could ask what government grants there are to support local artists and programming?

Let’s assume our airwaves are replete with bland, state-approved (and religious right-approved) content. This will create a generation with narrow horizons, limited power to tackle alternative viewpoints, and, in relation to India, no humanising cultural reference points that help defuse the prospects of war.

And would such directives work? Reme­mber the role of the VCR under Zia? The internet will make circumventing bans that much easier. But Pakistan will still be denied the chance to have a shared public culture that fosters engagement across gender, political, ethnic and class lines, allowing people to discuss sensitive issues ranging from gendered violence to foreign relations under the safe umbrella of entertainment.

Pemra does have a point that there is insufficient television content aimed at adolescents and young children. Perhaps a better directive would have promoted such content, setting a positive tone of youth awareness and empowerment. But such productive thinking seems beyond the scope of our institutions, which often cast Pakistan as an angry reaction, rather than a cultural force in its own right. 

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2019



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