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The ironies of TV decorum

The vile display of misogyny on one TV channel represents everything wrong with our media content

By Faiza Shah |
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PUBLISHED July 07, 2024

What was allowed to happen on one of Pakistan’s mainstream television channels was a vile display of almost everything that is wrong with media content as well as the regressive elements in our society. In an episode of a talk show featuring controversial screenwriter Khalil Ur Rehman Qamar, guest Sahil Adeem declared 95 per cent Pakistani women to be ignorant (“jaahil”) when holding forth about women’s rights in the country. When the floor was opened for questions, a confident young woman asked Adeem to apologise for his baseless and sweeping statement that is an affront to women in the country. This confrontation made the rounds on social media, drawing condemnation for the man and simultaneously holding in suspicion the outspoken woman for trying to become viral.

As if it was not distressing enough to see a quack placed on a stage as an esteemed personality, it was excruciating to watch him verbally bulldoze and disparage a girl half his age for correctly calling him out. As a young Pakistani woman she had come to hear a discussion on women’s rights and was slammed by the panelist for raising her voice for what she considered wrong. It is equally shameful on the part of the said channel that it sensationalised this very sensitive moment that depicts a power imbalance in our male-dominated society and the channel chose it as an opportunity to cash in on. The entire debacle presents a true and woeful picture of the role that the media, including its movers and shakers, are playing in degrading society and miseducating viewers that consume 24/7 television.

Adding insult to injury, Qamar barked at the female audience member and rebuked her for her transgression, demanding that the mic be taken from her. Most grievously, he accused her of having a problem with a Quranic verse that Adeem cited in his rebuff to her.

This was not the case at all.

The girl had said no such thing to question or deny the verse but Qamar assumed this about her and alleged it to be so publicly. This is tantamount to false blasphemous charges. But nobody seems to have the nerve to call it so. This is how the blasphemy law is weaponised to stab the social and moral fabric of Pakistan. Were it not a controlled environment and recording of a third-rate TV show, who can guarantee that a mob would not have gathered and bayed for the girl’s blood? We have far too many and frequent incidents fresh in our memory where lives have been lost for less. This young girl was as lucky to escape the set unharmed as the woman in Ichhra Bazaar who was harassed for wearing clothes with calligraphy print.

Applaud the channel that invites a man derided again and again for his loathsome misogyny, crass manners and narrow-minded opinions for an hour-long show. Qamar has long been synonymous to base patriarchal exposition. Despite and due to his notoriety he has made his name as a playwright in the entertainment industry after having written several hit drama serials since the 1990s. When he is not writing popular plays, he is stirring the pot, holding forth on a woman’s rightful status in society. The media industry, with its greed for eyeballs, constantly provides him the soap box to call out who he hates, what he hates, in his delusional self-righteousness. All the major entertainment channels air his drama serials, and actors and actresses continue to make money by acting in those dramas. Some years ago, a few actors and actresses distanced themselves from Qamar after his despicable behaviour to a woman’s rights activist on TV. But the entertainment industry must be surviving in dire conditions to forget all that and celebrate a well-hated man.

Sahil Adeem claims to be a motivational speaker. On the episode of the show under discussion, Adeem showed the doomsayer side of motivational speech. He used crude language to denounce “marching” for women’s rights and placed all the blame and responsibility of abuse against women on them. You Pakistani women, said the motivational speaker, are “mentally, socially, politically docile.”

Then he ripped into a girl half his age who dared to call him out for offending Pakistani women. Yet Nadeem is gaining traction and popularity on YouTube thanks to people who make decisions like the TV channel’s producers.

Both he and Qamar sat on stage with the female host in the middle and made light of women’s suffering, blaming victims of domestic violence and abuse. What were the show producers hoping to get out of this inane discussion? Talk-show hosts always have ear pieces in their ears for cues and prompts coming from producers or behind-the-scenes associate staff. Was the crew of the TV channel so hapless or inexperienced or obtuse that they could not stop this trainwreck? Not a thought was given by the producers on-locatioin how triggering this must be for women who are stuck in such marriages and situations? No sympathy for the victims who suffer emotional and physical abuse daily at the hands of men in their lives?

This was a point to be raised by the host as a woman and as a moderator. It was really her role to put a stop to such misogynistic and insensitive comments whether a colleague instructed her or not.

Flanked by two chauvinist pigs, the host Ayesha Jehanzeb failed to give space to the girl who spoke up against the misogynistic bile Adeem was spewing. In effect, Ayesha silenced her. She told the girl to hear out Adeem’s convoluted elaboration of what makes Pakistani women jaahil. Intentional or not, silencing the young woman shows the perpetuation of traditional values that teach us not to talk back to an older person. It is considered disrespectful. What about when you need to defend yourself in front of them?

Whenever the host tried to steer the course of the discussion, Adeem shut her up. Calling her “beta”, he infantilised both her and the girl from audience who had told him to take back his words. At one point, both men provoked the female host, speaking belligerently at her, and when she got a word in to counter their myopic statements, Qamar lowered his own pitch to make it look like he is a calm person trying to get through to a woman who is needlessly flying off the handle.

Ayesha is not the only unsuccessful moderator on TV caught in the crossfire between two gasbags. Political talk show hosts seem to take secret delight when their “esteemed” and “educated” guests and “experts” quarrel among each other on live television. More and more the trend is to let the panelists have at each other because that is the kind of “action” that generates viewer interest and a rise in ratings. Do the talking heads participating in such shows, or the senior anchorpersons and journalists, ever take pause and call a meeting to analyse the quality of discussions they are airing? What does the viewer take away from such vitriolic arguments? Are these shows informing or educating their audiences in the end?

Who will set the standards for TV content or rather raise them from this low point? The media regulator Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) is all but defunct. It is as arbitrary as the Council of Islamic Ideology. Now and again it makes some noise to tilt at windmills and then returns to dormancy. In 2021 for example Pemra decreed all TV channels to not air “objectionable dramas/content based on indecent dressing, caressing, bed scenes and gestures, sensitive/controversial plots and unnecessary detailing of event(s)”, which the regulator found highly disturbing, distressing for the viewers and against the commonly accepted standards of decency.

Does Pemra care about the distress caused to half of the viewers who are women when they are subjected to the opinions of ignorant and entitled men?

The CII shows a keen interest in pronouncing new religious laws for women and young girls. Is it not disturbed by how they are mistreated publicly by grown men? Does it not care to examine such matters? (No, when the ICI has an itch to issue fatwas, they declare men can beat their wives more or approve child marriage.)

Without getting into any complex concepts of Islam such as what Adeem is apparently hailed for, power shows by insecure narrow-minded men like those who comprise the CII and those who hold forth about ignorance of women on talk shows, go against the most basic of Hadith.

A Muslim is supposed to avoid abusive language and build a respectable personality. “The best amongst you are those who have the best manners and character.” (Bukhari 3,559) Moreover, a Muslim man is taught to be especially careful with his choice of words and behaviour in the company of women in order to avoid causing them offense.

Manners and character are not the words to describe most talk shows we see on local channels. Manners and good character are certainly left at the door when Adeem and Qamar enter a room.

What was allowed to happen on the set of the show was a classic display of entitled Pakistani men dominating the women around them (the moderator and the audience member). The Muslim men who espouse Islam and its ultimate values of goodness consistently belittled and humiliated their female counterparts’ intelligence, implicitly and explicitly. (Adeem made faces at both women when they raised any point to argue with him.) Qamar engaged in verbal abuse once again by yelling at a young woman. Adeem and he both disparaged women to show their superiority. Neither could tolerate a woman challenging them. Why are viewers and show producers so willing to tolerate such men?