Religion dominates airwaves all year round in Pakistan. If it is not programmes of the religious variety, offering advice on every matter under the sun, then someone offers istekhara services to those who seek divine guidance. If it is not the theological debates, then it is programmes targeting women telling them how to be good Muslim wives and daughters, morning show hosts censoriously telling young men and women not to venture into parks and indulge in un-Islamic acts of sitting on the benches. If this is how things go all year around, the religiosity of the TV content goes up considerably during Ramazan.
Television channels with bigger budgets put up huge sets, get hoards of people to come in, and cram in everything in those few hours: real life tragedies, sob stories, hyper-religiosity, overt piety, a lot of charity, a bit of drama with a dash of emotions and tears, cooking shows, many giveaways and gifts for the audience present in the studios and at home, naats and religious sermons. And, last but not least, are the show hosts’ claims of grandiosity that they cook the best kebabs, give away most money to the needy on their show, get the best ratings and convert, or revert if you prefer that, people of other faiths to Islam — live on TV
All of that is fine because it is TV and at the end of the day, it’s a business and everyone wants to make some money. What gets my goat is that they are perpetuating a culture where people think asking others for money or begging is fine. In one example, a man who earns Rs8,000 per month came in and asked for half a million rupees to pay for his wife’s medical bills. One of his excuses was that he has four kids that he cannot afford to feed. The host’s reaction was not only to sympathise with him but to urge his viewers to donate money to him. I, on the other hand, wanted the host to ask this man why he procreated four times when he knew he was earning just Rs8,000 a month. Was he expecting a miracle or did he think his financial conditions would change all of a sudden?
By offering this man and the likes of him the money, aren’t TV channels being irresponsible and sending the message that it is fine to not plan one’s life or be responsible for one’s choices? Furthermore, they guilt others, who might be better off financially, into giving money to such people. Lines like “yeh bachi namaz parhtee hai, iskay ilaaj ke liye paisay dain” are discriminatory; if a person is regular with his or her namaz, he or she is said to deserve a greater chunk of charity than the ‘heathens’ who do not pray five times a day, no matter how grave their monetary needs are.
While financial assistance is fine, it would be better if it came with a bit of counselling on family planning and life choices. Also, instead of urging people to give money away for charity, why don’t we urge the audience to give decent wages to the people who work for them so they do not need to be supplanted with charity? If you really want to make a lasting and more dignified difference, how about vowing to pay decent wages to everyone who works for you — at work, at home and around you — and getting others around you to do the same?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2012.