We need to widen the canvas of cultural narratives and constantly engage in critical feminist appraisals of productions.
The debates around the popular drama serial, Meray Paas Tum Ho (MPTH) reflect the unresolved place of art, film and culture in Pakistan, especially on the themes of gender roles, sexuality, piety and modesty.
The defensive argument that a cultural text (book, art, film, fashion) is neutral and should be consumed as simple fiction or benign entertainment is flawed. Every cultural text is produced for a specific audience and the author’s/artist’s motivations and politics drive the contents. Cultural forms are very influential on the body politic which is why states, governments and in our case, the ISPR, sponsor propaganda via cultural usage. They do so either through patronage or covertly, to engineer national sentiment. The influence of art also explains censorship when it comes to films like Zindagi Tamasha because it’s not just about controlling the national narrative — it’s about deciding what is legitimate and permissible as ‘our culture’ and, what is not.
In the modern period, with its emphasis on individuality, the cultural emphasis has shifted to the genre of self-improvement and self-help literature. However, nearly every society carries a history of some puritanical reform or advice literature that has attempted to cultivate its citizens by teaching them appropriate social behaviour. This literature has primarily targetted women in order to socialise them into cultural bearers of domestic duty, pious righteousness and for maintaining social-sexual order.
For 20th century Indian Muslims, the most influential primers on gender roles were part of the larger male reformist project aimed at creating a Muslim asharafia (privileged classes). Such a project is evident in the journals of the time of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan; in Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s magnum opus, Bahishti Zewar and; in post partition times, Abu Ala Maududi’s writings. These were mostly interactive engagements with writers responding to letters from advice-seeking readers. In the case of Bahishti Zewar, it became a cult text on marital advice presented to the newly wedded bride and continues to be part of the madrassah curriculum in Pakistan for girls only.
The contribution of women members of the Jamaat-e-Islami to the gender discourse through its women’s magazine (Batool) makes for fascinating textual analysis. Critical engagement is sometimes set up through fictionalised narratives and circumstances to which members of the Jamaat respond. Shahbaz Ahmad Cheema notes that this is not “carried out by women of the Jamaat-e-Islami for the purpose of acquiring more freedom in the sense it is understood in liberal philosophy (Saba Mahmood, 2005). Rather, the entire exercise has been undertaken for the purpose of thorough internalisation and embodiment of coercion [of the male discourse] itself” (Cheema 2013:86). This is important because not only is the purpose of piety to create and discipline a moral Muslim community, but since the aim is not to produce a liberal autonomous female subject then, of course, the project can only be invested in promoting Muslim male-defined pious subjectivity.
The rise of Al Huda under Farhat Hashmi has signaled the entry of female clerical voices seeking authority over the reformist project. They are committed to instructing women to raise pious children and families and build more Islamically aligned nations — an orthopraxy aimed to stabilise the male patriarchal and nationalist order.
With the advent of the more popular fiction and digest writings by women in the 1970s in Pakistan, the subject of moral righteousness came to be told and written through women’s authorial voices. The digest writings of the early years (1973 onwards) focussed predominantly on the theme of marriage and romance as the defining feature of women’s experience. Women tended to be portrayed as passive, fatalistic or irrational (Thanawi’s most pressing concern) and their characters driven by their relationship with men.
Oppression in the name of religion during the Zia years was unrestrained by political correctness. The uber conservatives, such as Dr Israr Ahmed, reigned over the social narrative that was channeled through his tele-evangelism. He preached the importance of confining women to the char divari, domesticity and piety.
In recent years, Pakistani TV channels have regularly recruited (mostly women) digest authors for televised drama scripts. The choice of topic is mostly intimate private issues such as, marital issues, gender relations and domestic hardships. Sometimes, unconventional topics are addressed, such as, child abuse, sexual transgressions and some stories carry dissenting women protagonists too.
The pietist turn in Pakistani pulp fiction-turned-drama serials in the last 20 years is quite distinct from their ascetic bent of the 1980s. But the turn is not towards some feminist challenging of the unjust male dominant societal system. Instead, the current trope of these popular women-authored scripts urge that injustices can be overcome through Muslim women’s religious agency, education, pietist practice and eventually, by forgiveness for those who have been unjust to the unwitting woman.
In many cases, the female protagonist is devoid of religious knowledge and it is only after she aspires for pious self-excellence which leads her to the path of religious knowledge and, where salat or supplication become her priority, that resolution is possible. In the process, she must lose her elite privilege and refute her outward beauty which have not been able to triumph or gain her the fidelity of her husband. Her salvation lies in aspiring to Mahmood’s (2005) description of pietist women as those who must cultivate virtuous selves. The lesson is that a woman remains submissive and subservient in a male dominated society like Pakistan but her religious knowledge can make her gain some kind of alter-parity over the male gender.
While Pakistani women authors of this genre of pietist Urdu serials have avoided publicity and refrained from unpacking their authorial voices, in contrast, the male writer of MPTH, Khalil ur Rehman Qamar has been far more public about the motivation behind his popular serial. Reportedly he is said to have been inspired by “the infidelity within women and the state of men” and sympathised with how, “A man leaves all his honour, his self-esteem with his wife when he goes out to earn a living. And I curse those women who violate that trust. That was the concept behind Meray Paas Tum Ho and so I’m fighting for the 'good women'. It would be unfair to these [good] women to be classified along with those who aren’t loyal”. Qamar has reportedly firewalled his play from criticism saying, “I’m only narrating this story in your [women’s] favour. Like it or not, I don’t call every woman a woman. To me, the only beautiful trait a woman can possess is her loyalty and her haya (modesty). If a woman isn’t loyal then she is not a woman. Register an FIR against me for if you don’t subscribe to my point of view but I won’t budge”.
Other than portraying the disloyal woman in the play as the 'do takay ki aurat', Qamar has on record reduced women to a biological entity by arguing that 'women are by nature loyal and the ones who are disloyal are by nature, not women'. It makes sense for Qamar to lash out at feminists who challenge his stereotypical preoccupation with women’s moralities and biological reductionism. Female 'respectability' is the base formula of these drama serials. 'Bad women' are those who militate against these male defined standards or defy male-prescribed gender roles. This is why women Tik Tok videographers or Aurat Marchers and their demands for freedoms from male sexual privilege and harassment and for sexual autonomy are seen as threats to the gendered order — which they are.
Some of the feminist responses to the sexist backlash from conservative quarters have been defensive. These have attempted to dilute the definition of feminism as simply humanism and equal rights for women. This is an apologetic definition of what is essentially a radical philosophy that seeks to subvert patriarchal relations, dismantle capitalism and its exploitation of labour, redistribute wealth and, which demands the restructuring of societies that are built on racist slavery. Why are Pakistani feminists increasingly looking to accommodate sexist content, negotiate and be sensitive to patriarchal religious sentiment, or feel compelled to explain how Pakistani feminism is not a western, man-hating, family-breaking project?
Clarification should not err on the side of apologia. How can feminism be determined to reclaim equal rights for women, minorities and working classes and to transform state and society and, at the same time, insist on negotiating with the very sources or tools of patriarchal practices? Why does feminism want to suddenly become agreeable and polite?
It is no coincidence that piety and modesty are construed as female characteristics and the expectations and burden of moral compasses and sexual regulation of the nation fall squarely on women’s bodies. Any transgression from an order that benefits men and privileged classes is seen as betrayal — of the family, community or nation. In this cultural imaginary, men are sexually vulnerable while women are sexually fickle and must be controlled and tamed, instead of being allowed equal sexual autonomy and freedoms.
There is considerable pseudo-sociology out there, such as, the matchmaking Mrs Khan who opined on TV that divorce rates were spiking because Pakistani women refused to adequately conduct their domestic duties or curb their sharp tongues. She wasn’t just echoing Thanawi’s century-old disapproval — even PM Khan has recently sermonised on how according to him, divorce is an epidemic and Pakistani society has been corrupted by Hollywood and Bollywood movies and that the family structure is destroyed by watching “vulgarity”.
These are not just inaccurate, simplistic, unverified claims — these views reinforce the false notion that the family structure guarantees the well-being of all members equally. Feminists understand that the family is a patriarchal unit which offers economic and social protection in return for women’s reproductive and domestic labour. The PM will not mention that, in the total failure of the state to provide any basic services, domestic violence in families is rampant and that it is the burden and precarity of running households and providing unpaid care, private tuitions and other services to its members - and not Hollywood films - that cause tremendous stress and very often, the end of marriages.
Historically, the debate around the role of cultural and literary products and their portrayal of women, sex and religion has focused on the good or harm they can cause to society at large. There will never be an end to conservative commentary. Orya Jan Maqbool dedicated an entire programme to castigating the Aurat March for its supposed obscenity. For days and weeks, the women organisers of the March were trolled, abused and even threatened with violence for daring to demand sexual freedoms. It is not just clerics but male celebrities, such as, Shaan and Hamza Ali Abbasi who sermonise on women’s propriety.
Rather than resorting to cancel cultures and legal recourse, it would be more beneficial to critique and challenge sexist content in a more political but unapologetic manner. Cultures are not changed by punitive sanctions only, but by exposing the fallacies of single dimensional flat characters and challenging patriarchal cultural production. Audiences are not dupes or undiscerning, and many readers/consumers challenge contrived messaging (MPTH has inspired several online parodies and satirical commentary mocking its contrite gender formula).
Instead of trying to make feminism into some philosophy of respectability and objecting to the stereotypical portrayal of women as some legal offense, we need to widen the canvas of cultural narratives and constantly engage in critical feminist appraisals of cultural production.
Dr Afiya Shehrbano Zia is a feminist scholar, activist and author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? (2018)
She can be reached at email@example.com.
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