Disempowering narratives

April 4, 2021

Without going into the merits of the ratings game, one wonders why show runners distort the reality of the legal rights of women

The recent manipulation of videos from the Aurat March has highlighted how truth can be distorted through technology. Media, both social and mainstream, can now be used to subvert any cause. Although we can push back against and identify the damage that social media does to the movement for the empowerment of women, the electronic media, particularly TV serials, play a far more sinister role in disempowering women.

The TRPs (target rating points) are to blame for this. Meters, installed across Pakistan, calculate which dramas are watched the most and what time-slots receive the largest audience. Based on this data, the channels ostensibly decide the themes and stories that the audience can most relate to. They show miserable, pathetic and weak women, walking on eggshells, constantly in fear of losing their honour. Experienced producers have been quoted in various interviews, saying that heart-wrenching scenes of women getting the short end of the stick and ratings go hand in hand.

Without going into the merits of the ratings game, one wonders why show runners distort the reality of the legal rights of women. A majority of the audience for TV series in Pakistan are women. TV drama is infotainment for them, holding entertainment value especially for people from rural areas and small towns. These shows have a huge viewership, both rural and urban. Their consistent message is that women have hardly any legal rights in Pakistan. The repetitive themes of the triple pronouncement of talaq, and husbands sometimes openly and sometimes clandestinely engaging in polygamy, without any consequences, disempower women by making them feel vulnerable, weak and insecure.

March 2021 marks 50 years of the promulgation of the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance (MFLO) of 1961, whereby laws pertaining to family matters were codified. For the first time, procedures regarding the registration of marriages and divorces were established. The right of polygamy for men, which was hitherto absolute, was curtailed and regulated, and brought under the supervision of the legal system. This shift in Pakistan followed legal changes in a host of Muslim countries. Led by Syria, where divorce was brought into the ambit of judicial proceedings in 1953, a large number of Muslim countries, from Tunisia to Iran, brought talaq (divorce) into the jurisdiction of the courts. Triple repudiation of marriage was counted as one (unless it was the third occasion) and made revocable. Moreover, Section 7 of the MFLO clearly states that a talaq not done in the manner laid down by the law carries the penalty of imprisonment for one year, as well as a fine.

Yet, our TV dramas, especially in the past few decades, repeatedly show husbands divorcing their wives in the heat of an argument. In Meray Qatil Meray Dildar, a TV series from 2011, the husband divorces his wife in the middle of the night in their kitchen, when she asks for his protection against his brother, who tried to molest her. This scene gives a powerful subliminal message that a man does not have to control his anger. Scenes like this seriously undermine the legal rights and security of women. Besides enculturating men to behave in a certain way, the legal reality is also being distorted as a verbal talaq is not even recognised by law.

Whether it’s the recently concluded megahit, Jalan, with 7 million views or the start-studded Zebaish, the pronouncement of talaq thrice figures prominently. These shows have many scenes of family elders warning the damsel in distress to be careful because her husband can get rid of her by just verbally declaring it. The reality is that the law has prescribed a certain way in which divorces are handled. A divorce can only come into effect after three months.

The depiction of polygamy in Pakistani shows is another oft repeated theme that leaves much to be desired. The inherently unjust dynamics of a typical Pakistani polygamous situation, in which a man usually has an extramarital affair is not shown with sensitivity. Faltu Larki, a brilliant show written by Fasih Bari Khan is a rare exception. It highlights the injustice perpetrated by a disloyal husband. Most dramas tend to show the helplessness of the first wife almost as if there is no law in Pakistan that addresses polygamy.

It was shocking to see how Zebaish, written by an artist of Bushra Ansari’s calibre, dealt with the issue of polygamy. The scene in question showed the husband, who incidentally was a lawyer, secretly marrying a widow. Just before the nikah ceremony, the registrar asked if the groom was already married and, if he was, where was the written permission from his first wife? The husband produced a forged document and the nikah registrar accepted it. There is no problem in showing that men engage in marriage contracts illegally, without following the due process laid out by the MFLO. But if one is showing the legal process, one might as well be accurate.

The audience was given the misleading message that a forged document of permission from the first wife to enter into a second marriage can easily be accepted by a nikah registrar, whereas the law clearly states that the permission letter to be attached to the nikah nama is required from an arbitration council, not the first wife. The law on polygamy in Pakistan lays down clearly that any married man interested in contracting a subsequent marriage has to apply to the arbitration council of the area. He has to state the reasons for the marriage, in his application, and whether his previous wife or wives have given their consent. The applicant and the wives are then asked to nominate their representatives and the arbitration council, so constituted, may (the law clearly uses the word ‘may’) then allow the subsequent marriage, if it is satisfied that the marriage is necessary and just.

Interestingly, the legal machinery is set into motion on a complaint filed under Section 6 of the MFLO, by a woman whose husband has not followed the prescribed procedure. Such a husband can be jailed for up to one year and fined. In 2015, the Punjab increased the fine for not following the procedure to Rs 500,000. Men do get punished and land in jail for breaking this law, but that is not shown in our TV shows.

The hit show Cheekh actually showed the heroine getting locked up in a psychiatric asylum because she got confused during cross examination in a court and was unable to prove that the accused had killed her husband. This implausible plotline sends a terrifying message to anyone contemplating approaching the justice system. As a lawyer, it’s difficult for me to believe that the writer, producer and director were naive enough to believe that a person can be locked up in an asylum if they cannot withstand cross examination.

The message in all the shows is clear: the law and the system are on the side of men. The media has long been considered a subtle form of social control. From the time of Alfred Bandura’s studies on the effects of television, it has been recognised that the entertainment industry impacts the behaviour of its target audience. It is considered a powerful form of enculturation and education. It is time that the writers and producers of our dramas take their work seriously and stop distorting legal realities.

The writer is an anthropologist, lawyer and criminology consultant

Disempowering narratives