The culture of consent

April 28, 2019

The culture of consent

How the concept of consent is being handled on television and reel to real, whether the Code of Conduct outlined in the Penal Code of Pakistan has been officially adapted by production houses to protect women against harassment.


The Pakistani drama has evolved in many ways over the past few years, part progressively but at the most part, quite regressively hankering on the same familial themes over and over again. One specific genre it has picked up and commendably put under the spotlight, however, is the social cause. Child abuse and pedophilia (Udaari, Meri Guriya and Haiwaan), honour killings (Baaghi), power politics (Khaani), vani (Sammi), domestic violence (Kaisa Hai Naseeban) and many more successful dramas have risen with very clear objectives of using the country’s most popular medium - television - to drive important messages to peoples’ homes.

Sexual harassment and explaining the concept of consent to a largely unaware audience is a relatively newer theme that has lately and thankfully found its way to peoples’ TV screens. It may have begun as a domino effect of the Harvey Weinstein case and its reverberations around the world but sure enough, it is trickling into Pakistan with its own cause and effects.

Drama serial Inkaar, starring Yumna Zaidi, Sami Khan and Imran Ashraf in lead roles, features the importance of consent as its central theme. The fact that a woman, albeit in a relationship with a man, can physically distance herself from him at any point is explained well. "Nahin ka matlab hai nahin," Hajra says to Rehan Chaudhry (Imran Ashraf) when he’s stalking her, confessing his undying love for her. He does manage to win her over, but she violently detaches herself when he tries to get physically intimate with her against her will. That one moment turns him from love interest to sexual predator.

Inkaar may be one of the most successful stories when it comes to explaining a woman’s right to consent. Hajra’s father is shown as a refreshingly enlightened cleric, who believes in giving his daughter all rights; the right to study and work at her will as well as the right to choose her husband. Burying girls at birth is a crime, he explains in one conversation, and forcing them in a non-consensual marriage is just as bad as burying them alive.

Unfortunately, there are still too many TV dramas that present forced marriages as norm. One understands that they are holding a mirror to society but then they aren’t doing anything to encourage change.

A couple of weeks ago, drama serial Ranjha Ranjha Kardi, immensely popular amongst the masses, presented a situation that in all likelihood was marital rape. Noor Bano, brilliantly portrayed by Iqra Aziz, is caught in a marriage of convenience to the mentally challenged Bhola. She had settled down to the idea of spending her life in a maternal sort of platonic relationship with Bhola, until riled by friends and fueled by aggressive medication, he assaults her one night. And then every following night. When she resists, her mother in law reprimands her, reminding her that it is well within her husband’s right to demand a conjugal relation with her. She is shattered and she starts planning an exit. The drama does not offer any kind of reasoning that consent is essential, even in a married relationship, but in fact portrays Noori as a rebel for reacting the way she does.

Fortunately, Iqra Aziz, in one single tweet, clarified her position on a matter that the drama was unable to.

"One of the most pressing issues today, that we don’t talk about is #maritalabuse. Through #ranjharanjhakardi we have tried to highlight this issue, how it affects women physically, mentally and emotionally. They have to fight constantly for consent. We think of marriage as a binding contract to anything and everything but marriage is based on trust and love and consent. Consent to live, to breathe, to be able to say ‘No’."

An advance by a man or woman that is not reciprocated with consent from another man or woman, equates to harassment. That could be a look or lingering gaze, an unwanted handshake, hug or invasion of personal space leading to harassment, molestation and in worst cases, sexual assault. People who need a clearer explanation on the concept of consent should watch Amitabh Bachchan’s Pink or Grey’s Anatomy Season 15, Episode 19, which very clearly explains what consent means and how victims of sexual abuse need to be handled.

Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, has mastered the art of picking up social issues and turning them into soul stirring stories on the popular series. This particular episode, titled Silent All These Years, was one of the most brilliantly told stories on a rape survivor. The way the doctors sensitively convince her on ‘rape-kit’ examination that will help her "whenever" she is ready to file charges is gutting; the way they protect her from any male gaze as she is taken for surgery reflects on the need for human sensitivity when dealing with cases of sexual abuse. Abby, the victim, is apprehensive in admitting she was raped. She doesn’t think filing charges would even matter because no one would believe her. They’d blame it on the tequila she drank or the way she was dressed. She doesn’t want to tell her husband, saying they’d had a fight and he’d think she was looking to cheat on her. Abby’s fear in this moment is heartbreakingly real and it is reflected in every woman who decides to talk about being abused or harassed.

From reel to real, the reality of harassment in Pakistan is bewildering and the entertainment industry is no exception. One has privately spoken with enough young female actors to know that sexual harassment is not only a problem; it’s an epidemic. A ‘friendly’ slap on the backside, a ‘fatherly’ hug that lingers a bit too long during a shoot, a car ride that ends in ‘accidental’ groping…it’s all happening and yet no one is talking about it because the blame, shame and unfair judgment always falls on the woman, her behavior, the way she chooses to dress, the time she opts to go out, etc.

And so these women, the young female artists especially, need to know their rights and the fact that The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act approved and implemented in 2010, does offer extensive protection to women.

Quoting the statement of objects and reason: "This Act requires all public and private organizations to adopt an internal Code of Conduct and a complain/appeals mechanism aimed at establishing a safe working environment, free of intimidation and abuse, for all working women."

We now need to see how many production houses have actually incorporated this Code of Conduct in their mandate.

- Watch this space for y

The culture of consent