The ad concern

June 12, 2016

Why be embarrassed by a commercial about contraceptives…

The ad concern

If you maintain a list, and I highly recommend religiously updating one, of words that others find scandalous I would assume the word "jaankari" does not feature on it. But apparently it threatens our national character, identity and everything else that can be dubbed "national".

Newspapers reported that one son asking his father if the latter had any "jaankari" about a game was a source of great mental anguish. How dare the child speak the tongue of "the other"? The culprit in chief here, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (Pemra) and parents would have us believe, are cartoons dubbed in Hindi. The move to ban cartoons dubbed in Hindi has been hailed as "positive" since the younger Pakistanis will now stay loyal to their, what’s the word, "sanskaar".

The issue may be comic but it represents a deeper malaise; where xenophobia is rife, it is convenient to blame those we deem outsiders. The so-called solutions then are as funny as the cartoons they are out to ban. Apparently it is fine if Urdu gets ignored in favour of English but not Hindi or even a regional language in present day Pakistan. It would have made perfect sense to air cartoons dubbed in Hindi as well as Urdu -- and of course the regional languages. Let the market decide. Urdu, as a language, will not be saved by this latest Pemra initiative -- nor can it make up for shoddy parenting.

Children learn a language when we speak it with them and encourage them to read/write it. Learning Hindi words while they learn Punjabi, English or Urdu should be perfectly acceptable. Hence the problem here is not just a ban -- it is a ridiculous step paraded as a solution to a problem that does not exist.

At least not in the terms that the problem has been framed.

This was not all. Children, apparently, are the latest excuse to pass all kinds of reductionist regulations. Pemra has also banned contraceptive ads since "innocent children" (apparently they are a huge market) are asking parents embarrassing questions whenever products aimed at sexual health or birth-control appear in televised ads.

These same parents, and Pemra, would be well advised to remember how they are wrong on multiple counts: firstly, this country desperately needs education with respect to birth control, reproductive health, sexually transmitted diseases and family planning -- these are immensely serious issues. No one should be allowed to scream "oh my god my child embarrassed me" to get in the way of this. You can change the channel or just be an adult.

Cultures and languages do not thrive if we pretend that any exposure to the outside world will destroy them.

Secondly, these parents and Pemra should remember that the Quran and Islam discuss and regulate relationships (including sexual relationships) between human beings. Sexual offences, punishments, reproduction etc. are all part of this discourse. If these Muslim parents can ask their kids to read and learn (even memorise) the Quran, are they going to tell their children to simply skip over part of the lesson so that they are not "embarrassed" by describing what goes on in the world?

Muslims have a rich tradition of young children learning the Quran and then distributing sweets when a child finishes his/her first reading of the entire book -- are we admitting that we celebrate keeping children ignorant about what they read?

I will go back to a point I made earlier: this problem of children embarrassing parents is not even a problem. It does not exist. It is a façade to cater to patriarchy and ignorance. Your child can find out everything there is to know about the human body on the internet -- it might be better if you explain how human health and planning a family are actually serious concerns. Thousands of children in this country, and across the world, get sexually abused and because the issue is too "embarrassing" to discuss they wallow in depression.

There can be different ways of approaching these issues of family planning, sexual health, sexual offences etc. The content of the discourse can vary but stifling discourse because grown-ups insist on being juvenile is no solution.

To make matters worse, Pemra refuses to grow up also.

The skewed versions of nationalism, religion and patriarchy that are at play in the above mentioned instances need to be countered. This is no different from the repulsive instance in Delhi a few weeks ago where Hindu nationalists belonging to the far-right stopped people from painting Urdu poetry in Delhi.

Cultures and languages do not thrive if we pretend that any exposure to the outside world will destroy them. Urdu, of all languages, has never been closed to influences. It has prided itself on reaching across so-called divisions and a mingling of the treasures that various languages represent.

The same is true for many regional languages -- which in any case suffer because the "national" language gets imposed and privileged, except that the "national" then loses out to the "official". The problem should be obvious. Why are we insisting on making it worse?

Family planning and the work of lady health workers has always faced severe resistance in this country -- people have cited cultural as well as religious norms to deny women (and men) knowledge about their rights, concomitant autonomy and a chance to plan their own future. A portion of the religious right, just like their cousins in the rest of the world, insist that using contraception violates teachings of Islam. It is this mindset that we are pandering to.

So the next time a parent is embarrassed by an ad about contraceptives, s/he should think about the millions of people who suffer because they have no education about the subject. If the choice is between changing the channel and/or being mature about things versus imperiling the health of millions, which way would you rather go? And the next time a Hindi word causes us shock, maybe we can all be mature about it. No one will love or appreciate Ghalib, Faiz or Mir any less -- if only we talk about them.

Cartoons in Hindi and contraceptive ads are not the dangers that threaten this country. If anyone thinks they do, they should stick to watching cartoons and not bother with the outside world. Happy watching.

The ad concern