Women without agency

February 28, 2021

There’s an overwhelming surplus of female characters who could be full of gumption but are reduced to damsels in distress on-screen

Amar Khan as sacrificial goat Samra in drama serial Qayamat.

The pathetic portrayal of suffering women in Urdu dramas: #WhyWomenWeep #SpitefulSchemingSisters #StopSaintlySpinsters

The Main Bechari Main Dukhyaari syndrome prevalent in TV dramas today is crippling the very minimal agency that women have in the not-so-empowering scripts being written for Pakistani television today. Here’s a glimpse into why there seems to be an overwhelming surplus of miserable maidens played by women who could plausibly be full of gumption but are reduced to weeping willows or spiteful vixens on-screen.

Amal (played by Sumbul Iqbal) in Dulhan chose to wait till the 11th hour to reveal and raise hue and cry over the secret nikkah that she had with Mikaal right when he was about to get married to another woman. Neither does she create a fuss over the fact that she was thrown before a potential rapist (who was actually Mikaal’s own cousin and his brother-in-law to be), nor does she say that she lost her father because of this no-less-than-criminal act that Mikaal endorsed and executed. He first faked feelings for her and also deceived Amal and her family in ways more than one. Amal’s perpetual shocked face, large gaping eyeballs, perfectly partitioned hair locks and meekness, all while weeping at her kismet, is insufferable. Not only does she choose not to go to the police but she also continues to be oppressed by her step-mother despite being the primary breadwinner in the household. We just want Amal to drop the look of perpetual bewilderment and pick up some strength.

If there was ever an Oscars for self-sacrificial goats, our beloved Samra (Amar Khan) in Qayamat would win it hands down. Slapped, hit, abused and humiliated by her husband for being forthright and asking for some scraps of loyalty to be thrown her way, Samra’s character is pathetically one dimensional and regressive. One can understand the need to give up her own love to marry her awful cousin Rashid, given the circumstances, but then pining after Rashid just took the cake. Subservient to a cruel mother-in-law, Samra is the best example of the worst kind of demeanor adopted by married women who perpetually feel they have no voice of their own in any matter whatsoever. They believe they are doing the world a favour by remaining silent and continue to tirelessly please every single person around them, come what may or until death do them part, which in Samra’s case it did.

Sumbul Iqbal as the perpetually lost and bewildered ‘Dulhan’.

While Saraab is a mildly laudable effort in the direction of spreading mental health awareness around schizophrenia, we are simply sick and tired of the petty and spiteful supporting women characters spread throughout the entire plot which diverts attention from the actual story. The supporting women characters in Saraab, specifically Namal and Warda are examples of the worst kind of scheming sisters, epitomizing sister rivalry and perpetuating awful stereotypes instead of fostering the sentiment of sisterhood. They do not possess even an iota of empathy for their sister Hoor (Sonya Hussyn) who is struggling with her mental health and has a well diagnosed medical condition. Warda creates unnecessary drama and plays petty politics while Namal has set the bar high for deplorable tactics. We wish the drama would conclude and simply stick to the narrative of the protagonists: the story about Hoor and Asfandyaar who both deserve a well thought out closure.

Though done and dusted, the portrayal of Misha’s (Areeba Habib) character in Jalan was nothing less than a tragedy for womanhood and motherhood as an entity on television, not to mention a disgrace to all the roles being written for women on national primetime television. We expect so much more from a beautiful, educated woman with a relatively stable and affluent family background who also happens to be representing the average upper middle class woman in Pakistan. For her to suddenly become a helpless, weeping willow is quite appalling. Misha begs her husband to accept her and her newborn child after he shamelessly has an affair with her very own sister under the same roof. As if this was not tragic enough, the makers of this television drama chose to set Misha ablaze on primetime television and had her commit suicide. As shocking as this sounds, this raises an alarm bell around the serious issue of problematic representation of women and the breadth of poorly written roles left for women.

Even the women in Faryaad have absolutely no agency or gumption whatsoever. Mahnoor (Aiza Awan) has left no stone unturned in claiming that she is the perpetual damsel-in-distress who remains torn by her fate, even though that is not exactly the case. Women can almost always make a tough choice to leave with dignity. She gets physically assaulted by her own husband as a result of which she incurs a miscarriage. But even then she keeps weeping that this misfortune is her destiny and she will return to the hell-hole which is her sasural. It is so disturbing to watch her continuously refuse the small but significant window of opportunity that her cousin Haroon offers her to escape this on-going and impending torture.

On the other end of the spectrum is our dear modern, liberal, young, independent, educated, and classy working divorcee Anum who is willing to blindly marry her real-estate agent without any background investigation whatsoever and is happily being swindled by him. It is devastating to watch the pitiful women in Faryaad who unfortunately have no commendable qualities worth mentioning.

Let down in love, Meesha (Areeba Habib) sets herself to fire in Jalan.

This begs the question: When will we see women take charge of their own lives? Fiction is a controlled medium which bestows immense powers in the hands of writers, directors, producers and channel owners who get to decide the fate of women as characters and their representation on screen for masses. This can either go down south and take us back to the medieval ages when women actually had no agency or the very same omnipotence that content creators have can give birth meaningful stories which create strong, fearless, independent and progressive fictional women characters who will inevitably become role models for society and youth at large.

– Afreen is a theatre and cinema enthusiast with special interest in Urdu literature and pop culture. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Women without agency