Sexual assault is a recurring theme in Pakistan’s drama serials these days; has been since documented crimes have been on a rise in the country. But the reason, it seems, is not the abuse of power or perversion and lawlessness. It’s because, wait for it, men aren’t robots.
Nasim Zehra, barely 18, who’s had a burning passion to play cricket on a national level since she was a little girl, faces a bleak future. She’s engaged to be married to the sexagenarian cleric, Naeem Sherwani, the very man who brainwashed her father into believing that even Cinderella was corrupt, wicked to the core. “Look at her dress, Astagfirullah,” he exclaims, encouraging Qazi sa’ab, father of three girls, to burn the story books, take the girls out of school and ‘tauba’, stop them from playing cricket. He preaches all this while keeping a lustful eye on Nasim Zehra as she grows through adolescence and finally, to her misfortune, unavoidable adulthood. Pedophile or pervert, he could be either of the two, but to Qazi sa’ab, all too eager to pawn his daughters off to the first suitor, he’s the best man for the job.
The only thing standing between Naeem Sherwani and his child bride is Nasim Zehra’s wise and supportive mother, who helps her follow her dream online. Najma has never owned a mobile phone but she doesn’t bat an eyelid in secretly financing a tablet so Nasim can connect with the world online. The ambitious young girl manages to find a link to an organization that is recruiting girls to train and play cricket professionally. Nasim sells her gold bangles to pay for a passport, visa and signing up fee, but she is being set up for failure. What exactly happens to her will unfold in the next few episodes of chilling social drama Dil Na Umeed Toh Nahin (DNUTN), but one sees the evil of human trafficking (central theme of the drama) kicking into Nasim Zehra’s track, much to our dismay.
Written by Amna Mufti and sensitively directed by the award winning Kashif Nisar, DNUTN is a Kashf Foundation production and a drama made with the sole purpose of throwing light on human/sex trafficking in Pakistan. According to statistics provided by the producers, 1400 humans were trafficked in Pakistan in 2020, out of which 1200 were female. The girls and even boys woven into this story are all ill-fated, used and abused by men in power. The only thing giving the men access to unlimited crime and corruption is power, and the security that they will never be held accountable for their misdemeanors.
This is just one drama serial, out of the countless many that reflect upon the rising cases of violence against women and children in the Land of the Pure.
Fajar, not quite 20, is another victim in ongoing drama serial Akhir Kab Tak. The younger of two sisters, while the older sister Noor is strong and independent, Fajar has always struggled with her cousin Bissam’s slimy advances. Living in a joint family with a violent, patriarchal father and manipulative grandmother, she has nowhere to run to and no one to complain to as Bissam continues to harass her with his ‘accidental’ touch and feels. She grows up with a stammer and zero self-confidence; she can barely string a sentence together and becomes an easy target for the lecherous Sir Zafar who teaches chemistry at the tuition centre. He rapes her and films the incident, keeping the footage as evidence to safeguard himself. It’s very clearly a powerful dynamic of dominance that allows him to. Fajar is just one of his many victims.
In another drama serial Phaans, Zeba, the housemaid’s young daughter, is raped as festivities are underway in the house. She accuses the employer’s son of the heinous crime but no one believes her as Saahil is a young man who’s struggled with mental disabilities all his life. It’s only when he begins to prey on another young housemaid that his cover is blown.
The stories are endless, whether they tell harrowing tales of child abuse as in Udaari (step father), Meri Guriya (neighbour) and Haiwan (best friend’s father) or whether they narrate the plight of a young doctor as she tries to put her life and love back after being gang raped in Ruswai. If not going to the extent of rape, almost every second drama does incorporate some form of abuse in its narrative; that abuse could be sexual, physical or emotional. It happens to children, girls within the safe confines of their homes and just as frequently to those who step out. Who’s to blame and what message is going out?
Most of the characters that suffer as victims or fight as survivors, in our dramas, are epitomes of how society needs to perceive a woman in order to be convinced of her innocence. The ‘perfect victim’ must dress modestly, have no ‘bad habits’ that could condemn her as being immoral and hence a temptation for her ill-fate. None of these women dress revealingly, for example, in attire that could remotely be considered immodest or enticing and yet they become prey to men who cannot resist the urge to give in to their darkest desires. Herein lies the problem with how we’re thinking as a society and what’s projected on television.
This isn’t just about the Prime Minister’s interview. The way women dress has been the focal point of all conversation around crimes against women, ever. Clerics like Maulana Tariq Jameel, a popular figure in the entertainment industry, has wept while giving sermons of how a woman’s immodesty will eventually lead mankind to hell. Predictably, there has never been a squeak or tear over the children assaulted in madrassahs. These conversations easily categorize women as seductresses, sirens, easy targets especially if and when they – intentionally or inadvertently - flaunt themselves as bait. These conversations are problematic on so many levels but they begin with an uneven distribution of power, the perception of which is the root of the cause, and which has been decided by men in a grossly patriarchal society.
William Golding’s sordid view of mankind’s core darkness may be disputed today but it also makes sense. He wrote Lord of the Flies in 1954, when the world was dealing with the atrocities of the second world war. Lord of the Flies revolved around a group of six British schoolboys, shipwrecked, who make disastrous attempts to govern themselves. We tend to see mankind with a little more hope today but the fact is that left ungoverned, mankind can and does have the tendency to go rogue. Rapes happen when men feel they can get away with their actions, when they know no one will ever find out, let alone hold them accountable. It’s always lawlessness that allows crimes to rise. And rape is a crime, no one in their right mind would refute that.
Studies and statistics reveal that the psyche of rapists differs from person to person but come of the common characteristics include a lack of empathy, narcissism and feelings of hostility towards women. In a nutshell, toxic masculinity.
Television, though trying its best to hold a mirror to the misery and misfortune that befalls the average victim of sexual assault, isn’t exactly helping. Most drama serials create the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who society and the average person can easily sympathize with. These are mostly women who sleep with their dupattas safely by their side, women who’d choose honour over happiness any day, and who are model citizens. It’s a pernicious narrative to spin because it sets the real victims up for failure. Is only the perfect victim allowed sympathy? Is a woman who wears jeans, and perhaps smokes, ‘asking’ for it? That is what the moral brigade would have you believe because men will be men and they cannot resist temptation.
Credit then must be given, once again to drama serial Dil Na Umeed Toh Nahin that allows pathos for the protagonists, Sumbul and her ally Sawera, both sex workers. Amna Mufti doesn’t judge the girls rather allows them sympathy for being part of a system that has failed them. It tracks their back stories, from the time they were married off as child brides only to be sold to the highest bidder, to the time they spent entertaining rich and powerful men in their bedrooms. It’s a brave drama, one that PEMRA has already raised an eyebrow to. Eventually, and thankfully, it got clearance to air.
One can only hope that a more inclusive approach to the subject, as narrated in standout drama serial DNUTN, can also be made part of a wider TV landscape; a landscape where women are expected to be individual humans – in weakness and strengths – and decent men are expected to be just as human. We need to see them as citizens of a civilized society, not inanimate robots.