Discreet feminist resistance to Zia

Haseena Moin’s heroines defied repressive policies of the ’80s

In a memorable scene from the sixth episode of Haseena Moin’s celebrated 1987 television serial, Dhoop Kinaray, protagonist Dr Zoya Ali Khan is seen sitting in a hospital break room with her colleagues. A playful argument breaks out when a male physician suggests that women should not be working in the hospital, and should learn only the skills required to run the household. Zoya answers testily: “Tab hi tou humari quom taraqqi nahi karsaki, kyunke humaray mardon ki zehniyat aisi hi hai!

I first saw Haseena Moin’s television serials in late 2018. Born in the late 1990s, I belong to a generation that did not see the serials in their heyday: the ’80s. The 1980s were the decade of a particularly regressive shift in societal attitudes towards women engendered by the regime of General Muhammad Ziaul Haq. I grew up hearing about the ruthlessness of Zia’s regime and the importance of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy and Women’s Action Forum in the fight back. However, I never heard about how people lived through that time. What I saw in the serials in 2018 floored me. Here were television serials from what has been painted as one of the darkest periods of Pakistani history, where female protagonists were shown having male friends, walking outside without covering their heads, and being the breadwinners for their households. These were incredibly popular plays, widely seen and praised. In fact, a survey conducted by the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Karachi reported that Tanhaiyan was still the most popular serial among women in 1998, a decade after it first aired. What was going on here? What could explain the existence and remarkable popularity of these television serials in a period notorious for relegating Pakistani women to the status of second class citizens?

The 1980s saw Zia push his agenda of rolling back women’s rights and the modest reforms that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had made, empowering the male citizens of Pakistan to engage in the moral policing of women. The Zia regime shelved basic freedoms, tortured dissidents, and weaponised notions of family and community. With the state aggressively peddling a singular image of life as a Pakistani woman — predictably, that of a wife and mother — and propagating the sanctity of chaadar and chaardivari, possibilities for life seemed to be increasingly limited. Importantly, Zia was trying through his policies to dictate how Pakistani women should live, not describe the way they actually did live. This is an important, but seldom articulated distinction to be made when we consider that existing historical scholarship tends to privilege state-centric narratives that take the ‘official party line’ as evidence for how people were living, instead of acknowledging it as a method of exerting control. To be sure, even as draconian laws were promulgated, there were women in Pakistan who were making complex negotiations to make life livable.

In Zia’s Pakistan, Haseena Moin’s television serials portrayed women who seldom covered their heads (if at all), had successful careers, and roamed the streets freely — sometimes entirely alone. Moreover, Moin’s characters were subservient to no one. “Main ne larkiyon ko yeh message dene ki koshish ki hai ke aap ko himmat pakarna hai, kisi ke saamnay jhukna nahi hai,neecha nahi banna,” she told me on the phone in early 2019. They chose where they worked, who they married, and how they lived. In most cases, her casts were populated by women. With her serials, Haseena Moin constructed a world in which women seemed to find room to breathe, free of any and all constraints imposed on them by Zia’s government. When compared to the stories of the Zia era that I was told growing up, Moin’s television serials depict a strange island of freedom in an ocean of unprecedented repression. How was it possible for Moin to pull this off?

Haseena Moin mentioned to me that her shows were never censored during the 1980s. When I spoke to a friend about Moin’s work, she mentioned that no one had ever called them controversial, and there had never been any calls to ban them. Most people took her serials on face value - as stories of love and family. It was exactly this facade of frivolity that she exploited to relay her message to the women of Pakistan, telling them to be courageous and bargain with the patriarchy to achieve what they wanted from their lives, while peppering enough romance and comedy in her scripts to make the message go down easy, so to speak. By her own admission, she exploited the prevalent depoliticization of ‘women’s culture’ to get away with these serials without piquing the interest of the state and its censors.

In this way, Moin was able to slip under the radar of a regime bent on eliminating opposition, and create a realm of possibility for Pakistani women to draw comfort and may be even courage from.

Further, Moin’s television serials took seriously the priorities of the ordinary Pakistani woman, and in doing so portrayed them as something entirely outside the binary of passive victim versus bold feminist activist that is generally found in scholarship about the Zia regime.

Most Pakistani women at the time were interested in making exactly the autonomous decisions that Moin’s heroines made, about employment, education, and marriage — priorities that other scholars have dismissed as ‘symbolic dissent.’ It is this idea that prevented me from ever referring to what Moin or what the women watching her serials were doing as ‘resistance.’ Overt political resistance that engages with ideas of systemic oppression and structural changes requires interrogation of notions of family and society which were and still are central to Pakistani women’s sense of self.

Moin’s work can also help to frame larger arguments about the reductive nature of historical scholarship on Pakistan, many of which have already been made by later scholars.

First, there is a distinct absence of reflection on the lived experience of Pakistani people. As yet, the prevalent narrative on the history of Pakistan tends to exclude Pakistanis completely — instead, we argue about the same revolving cast of characters that loom large in our historical imagination. This also pushes a narrative that positions the state as the primary agent in history, robbing an already disenfranchised people of their rightful place as part of the story.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, continuous rebranding of state-centric arguments lead to a possibly unintentional affirmation of the state’s version of events, which are often prescriptive rather than descriptive. What has been obscured, in the quest for knowledge of the machinations in the topmost tiers of the Pakistani leadership, is an appreciation for the lived realities of Pakistani people — which are often divergent from and even in opposition to the state narrative. Moin’s work, dismissed as apolitical and frivolous first by the state and then by scholarship on the Zia regime, is an important example of the value of these kinds of histories in helping us complete the half-stories we’re told, especially where women’s lived realities are concerned. Thus far, Pakistani history has been telling and retelling the stories of a few, but there is room, as historian Gerda Lerner says, for a broader range of heroes and heroines than we have hitherto included.

The writer is a PhD scholar in South Asian History

Discreet feminist resistance to Zia: Haseena Moin’s heroines defied repressive policies of the ’80s