Soap operas can be purposeful interventions into the private sphere, encouraging debate and reflection
The mention of Pakistani soap operas conjures up images of stay-at-home women who have nothing better to do with their time glued to TV screens, hanging on to every word uttered by a one-dimensional female protagonist. Women’s choices for entertainment between dicing vegetables and ironing clothes and managing household duties allowing men, ideal workers under a capitalist patriarchy to go to work, are limited. The ‘better women’ magically find jobs, hobbies or things to do. If some still like unwinding with non-Netflix endeavours at the end of a work day, they look for serials where Fawwad Khan or Mahira Khan is cast in a leading role.
While the initial instinct is to direct criticism at those who voluntarily watch a particular show, it is important to engage with how shows are written. Pakistani soap operas usually try to negotiate romance/intimacy or family issues within the boundaries of conservative morality and social propriety. The role of the female protagonist is thus important as she is construed as the object of romantic interest. In how she responds to that interest, she demonstrates her worth as a ‘keeper of heritage and culture’. This ties in closely with Partha Chatterjee’s nationalist resolution of the woman question: in response to colonisation, culture was split into two spheres – ghar (spiritual) and baahir (material). The material sphere was where brown men learnt the ways of the colonial masters and fought them but remained subjugated. The spiritual sphere was represented by the women – it was where culture resided and the East was superior. Gender roles were segregated and defined clearly, and the pursuit of ‘freedom’ brought about a selective modernity.
As a sociocultural product, the Pakistani soap opera is representative of the way in which culture is depicted through an audio-visual narrative, and as an immersive product wherein a dedicated audience is so firmly attached to the medium that people can draw on their own experiences to relate to the characters, almost carve out a role for themselves and make the story their own. This raises the stakes. They can be purposeful interventions into the private sphere, encouraging debate and reflection. While the most overt and immediate purpose of these dramas is to entertain audiences, they make important contributions to women’s culture. They help as conversation starters and even in forging a sense of community.
The need for a moral imperative to include stories where female characters are humanised and written as multi-faceted and sentient beings is reaffirmed in the poorly written misogynistic serial Mere Pass Tum Ho. There were a variety of witty memes and tweets critiquing everything from the writer’s poor grip on science as the serial’s male lead is nebulised for a heart attack and delivers a long monologue after he flatlines to the misogynistic depiction that a woman’s disloyalty can ruin her family and leave her alone in the world. A noteworthy meme on social media referring to the trope of the disloyal, materialistic woman stated: jo sadiyon say aurat par guzri hay, mard pay guzri tou mar hi gaya (when a man faced what women have endured for centuries, he literally died). The audience is not an unsophisticated mass of people. They can mine gaps in the narrative and will not accept everything at face value.
Suchi Kothari in an essay From genre to zanaana: Urdu television drama serials and women’s culture in Pakistan highlights that women have been using these dramas as a way of discussing current events. She mentions the dupatta policy of 1992 enforced by the Sharif administration which brought back memories of Zia’s chaadar and chardeewari, and how no woman could appear on television without her head covered by a dupatta. She writes that during the shooting of Hasina Moin’s serial Kasak which was Sahira Kazmi’s comeback as an actor, Kazmi walked off the set protesting the dupatta policy, generating a debate on the status and agency of women. Kothari then gives another example. In Saraab (1992), a PTV-Peshawar drama, a scene involved a middle-aged woman, with a thick black dupatta around her head, getting her hair dyed by a maid who she was constantly scolding for ruining her dupatta. PTV centres received a lot of letters pointing out the laughable absurdity of this scene with one letter even saying: “Don’t we as television set owners who pay thousands in licence fees deserve realistic and sensible serials?” Kothari narrates that she asked Moin during a meeting in 1994 in Karachi why this scene wasn’t deleted to which Moin replied: “How else could we make the government look stupid? How else would people know how bizarre this tamasha (spectacle) is?” Other writers also used the dupatta as a jarring accessory in scenes where a woman was having a seizure or sleeping in the privacy of her bedroom. Eventually, the government revoked the dupatta policy in a few months.
In January last year, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority advised television channels not to air dramas containing controversial themes. The authority also advised television channels to avoid sensitive/controversial plots – divorce, infidelity, extra-marital affairs and unnecessary detailing of the events – claiming that viewers have criticised content being shown in dramas and are of the opinion that these are not depicting the true picture of the Pakistani society. The authority said that these dramas depicted a hackneyed image of women and had confined themselves to 'feminist' issues only, therefore, ignoring children, teenagers and men. The content on air was deemed too 'feminist' in spite of the fact that there has never been an overt contestation of our brand of patriarchy through TV drama, even in popular ones – the oeuvre of Hasina Moin, Fatima Suraiya Bajjiya or Noorul Huda Shah – which did “negotiate the thorny ground of women’s lives in all their complexities, trials, tribulations and pleasures” as Kothari argues.
And today, we have Umera Ahmed who writes the Khirads-Saras (Humsafar) and Kashafs-Asmaras (Zindagi Gulzar Hai) who serve as caricatures of the good woman – the ideal, acquiescent femininity as ultimately both agree to marriages that they did not initially want, and the bad – their Westernised, evil counterparts. Narratives pervade our consciousness and help us process events in our daily lives. We make sense of the world around us by telling stories. It holds that those who wield the pen in such a context have the power to order and re-order our reality. There is a moral imperative to telling a story that humanises those oppressed by structures and tropes within culture, to construct them as laughing, thinking beings with multiple facets to their personalities, and to fiercely contest any lazy caricatures that render them vulnerable.
The writer is a staff member