THE other night, I watched a Pakistani television drama in which a young protagonist called Scheherzade sat on a couch with her mother. Scheherzade’s beautiful face was illuminated by skilful lighting that managed to show her as weary yet radiant. She looked into the distance with a pained expression and talked in a low, halting voice about the husband who had betrayed her by marrying another woman in secret. Her mother, also beautiful, said to her in choked tones, “But you should have stopped him!”
“Do you think,” responded Scherezade, resplendent in her martyrdom, “that he would have not gone ahead and done it even if I had tried to stop him? What could I do? Nothing.” Etc. etc.
Then she collapsed weeping on her mother’s shoulder. Meanwhile, I had been shouting at the television screen for 10 minutes until I’d finally had enough, turned the television off, and was left fuming at a blank screen. Yet another drama on Pakistani television where a woman was crying that her husband went off with another woman, but what choice did she have but to let him do it? Several words came to mind, some of them four-letter ones. Unimaginative, predictable, frustrating and stereotypical were the ones that are printable.
Why are our TV writers hell-bent on portraying women as perpetual victims? The success of the television drama Humsafar back in 2012, which pitted the good daughter-in-law Khirad against a scheming mother-in-law and a jealous, suicidal rival, set the tone for this decade’s repetition of the same hackneyed plot. This plot endlessly repeats the same message: good women suffer. In our society, we have fetishised women’s pain. We believe it serves a higher purpose, perhaps a spiritual lesson to be learned and practised in our own lives. If women in real life dare to fight back, they are aberrant and wrong — this is what these television shows teach us and our daughters.
Women’s pain is used for commercial gain.
But in 2019, while Pakistani women still find themselves in difficult marital situations, there are brave women out there fighting for freedom and dignity. I know one of them personally: trapped in a long, emotionally abusive marriage, she separated from her husband, started divorce proceedings, then contested him in court for custody of their three daughters. She won custody, but he continuously violated the court orders and kidnapped them from her again and again. Meanwhile, the court would not grant her the final divorce certificate; her ex-husband produced a forged nikah document that purported to show she had signed away her right to divorce. She never gave up. Finally, after numerous appeals to the courts, she received her irrevocable divorce papers last month, after three years of this nightmare. Where is the television drama about her battle?
The public isn’t interested in those stories, the television writers and channel owners murmur. Family dramas that follow the same suffocating formula are what sells. And that’s the key phrase: women’s pain as portrayed in these dramas is not just turned into entertainment, it is also used for commercial gain: drawing in lucrative advertising and profits for the television channels. Patriarchy and capitalism go hand in hand, and when we are glued to the screen for these dramas, big companies make money while we continue to perpetuate the stereotype of women as helpless victims.
In their research paper Contested Images of Perfect Women in Pakistani Television Dramas, authors Ayesha Ashfaq and Zubair Shafiq observe that television dramas play a significant role in shaping societal beliefs and attitudes. In a patriarchal society like Pakistan, women are divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Pakistani television dramas go further to outline the ‘perfect woman’. They paint a portrait of a woman who is: “younger, ultra-slim, extraordinarily beautiful, wearing national simple dresses with ‘dupatta’, less educated, mostly belonging to middle class, humble, homebound and submissive”. What a depressing description of the epitome of Pakistani womanhood: hapless, passive, without agency.
There are some dramas trying to portray women in a different light — Cheekh, Inkaar and Khaas to name a few. But they still revolve around the central paradigm of women as victims, either of marital infidelity or of sexual violence. We’re starting to tell Pakistani girls they can do anything, but those girls need to see women doing anything on screen: fighting crime, winning a competition, travelling the world, and not just waiting to be married, cheated on, or raped.
Today’s Pakistani woman thrills to a story like Motorcycle Girl, last year’s film which shows a young woman chasing a dream that has nothing to do with perfection — physical or marital. If Pakistani women don’t want to be portrayed as victims, we as consumers of both entertainment and products will have to demand positive representations of women onscreen, or turn off the television until we get better stories than the ones we’re being fed.
The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2019