Even in Pakistan, where a wave of piety has enveloped the country since the days of General Ziaul Haq, companies know that the best way to push a product is through advertising campaigns featuring beautiful women. A group, claiming that it is financed by donations, has launched a billboard campaign across Karachi, aiming to root out what it sees as the vulgarity of advertising in the country. Of course, this is not to say that advertising in Pakistan, like in other parts of the world does not use women gratuitously in roles that tend to stereotype them. The solution to that, though, lies in educating the masses about gender sensitivity, not through billboards that preach and hint towards operating within the strictures of Islam.
Although such moral policing might begin with seemingly innocent and lawful advertising campaigns, they can quickly morph into something far more dangerous. We saw this happen in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa after the election of the MMA coalition in 2002. A campaign against the depiction of women on billboards soon turned violent and with explicit state patronage, vigilantes started tearing down billboards and attacking stores selling CDs. As a result, all advertising, indeed all arts and culture, came to a grinding halt in the province and even now, it is yet to recover from this orthodoxy.
This campaign, when placed in conjunction with the type of advertising we have, shows a public that is confused and unsure of itself. We want both the thrill of risqué advertising while reserving the right to indulge in piety about the state of advertising. That, in essence, is what moral policing is all about and it grows out of a fear that other people may be enjoying themselves in a manner that some may not approve of. Furthermore, and perhaps even more important, is the issue that no one has anointed such groups as the guardians of morality and the nation’s values. That responsibility is left to individuals, who are the best judges of what they would like to view and consume, within the bounds of the law.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2012.
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