From pulp fiction to pulpy ‘soaps’

Published: November 20, 2012
The writer is the director of the Uks Research Centre, a media advocacy and monitoring organisation based in Islamabad

The writer is the director of the Uks Research Centre, a media advocacy and monitoring organisation based in Islamabad

A woman tells her husband who has just come back from work, “Please freshen up and I’ll get tea for you.” This apparently innocent remark is, in actual fact, a highly repressive, stereotypical phrase that limits the role of women to that of a mere subordinate. Unfortunately, it is heard repeatedly in today’s Pakistani television plays.

Most plays on the mini-screen centre around the position that any woman not following this domestic role, should either be punished, reprimanded or cautioned. If, heaven forbid, the woman/wife declines this role for any reason, the man/husband’s reaction is also stereotypically negative, depending in intensity on whether the woman is a homemaker — or ‘housewife’ to use the traditional term — or a working woman. The axe falls more forcefully if she is a working woman whose life does not centre around ‘serving’ her husband. And this is not the only stereotypical and repressive image depicting working women in recent TV serials/series/soaps telecast on a dozen or more entertainment channels. In “Durre Shewar”, a ‘hit’ serial that ended a few months ago, the protagonist is Haydar who is married to Shandana, a successful working woman. Haydar is portrayed as the typical macho male who revels in expressing his utter disgust and contempt for working women as, according to him, such women remain incapable of fulfilling their role as wives and mothers (and daughters-in-law) with the full commitment and dedication required.

In Pakistan especially, with most other avenues for entertainment/relaxation closed to the public, television is the focal point of almost every member of the family, at least in the evenings. Thus, television plays a major role in not simply disseminating information through news channels but in propagating social mores, healthy traditions and progressive ideals, etc. However, the manner in which women are generally portrayed in Pakistani TV plays clearly shows that there is no intellectual, even intelligent thinking whatsoever behind the scenes, on the part of writers, producers, directors, etc, on the societal repercussions that result from these negative, stereotypical depictions, including and especially gender inequality.

One does not wish to be overly critical of our TV plays. No doubt, the standard of production and acting has improved and great talent in acting and direction is clearly visible. However, this appears to be our only achievement in almost 50 years of television history.  In virtually all the plays, the storyline, the theme, the dialogue are retrogressive to the extent that one wonders where this mindset is coming from.

Almost all plays remain focused on depicting women as objects. From the content of the dialogue to the actions and reactions of the protagonists and supporting cast, all lead to a single conclusion: a woman is simply ‘a thing of beauty’, the sinf-e-nazuk, and that it is unacceptable for her to step out of the home (char dewari) to enter the employment sector or as entrepreneurs. For all single women, to fall in love, get married and remain confined to the home should be the ultimate goal in life.

One can only marvel at the writers of these regressive TV plays. Who are they? They certainly bring to mind the Urdu women’s digests that have remained popular over several decades. The cover invariably displays beautiful, coy women and the contents (printed on cheap quality paper, which is why they are known as ‘pulp’) are a barrage of romantic fiction centering on love and marriage. The stories in these digests not only pander to an unreal vision of the world and life, but portray the central role, that of ‘lovesick’ girls or women as being completely passive, with no mind of their own and totally dependent on the males of the family.

In an attempt to raise public awareness and break the negative stereotypes of women propagated through these digests, I felt compelled to write an article entitled “Pulp fiction” where I concluded: “Much of the material in these magazines is written in an intensely emotional idiom. The style may well appeal to readers thirsty for pulp entertainment but it also drives home a quintessentially conservative message. Whether deliberately or unintentionally, this literature strips women of their individual identity. They are shown to exist solely through their relationship with men, whether as wife, daughter, cook or mother … although writers do occasionally discuss topics such as domestic violence and sexual harassment, most paint pretty pictures of female fantasy.”

That was 1997. Today, in 2012, while we celebrate World Television Day, these writers of tawdry pulp fiction stories have since become some of the most sought after ‘writers’ in the country. Along with the negative stereotyping in most plays, if not all, is the increasing incidence of physical, emotional, mental and sexual abuse suffered by the women depicted in them. With the entire family, including husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, watching the plays together on a daily basis, it is the women of the household who must suffer as society reflects and replays the slaps, abuses, restrictions on mobility, movement, freedom of thought etc, endured by female characters in each story. To make matters worse, various so-called justifications for the abuse mouthed by some of the male characters in the play add insult to injury.

It is time that socially concerned citizens take cognisance of this dangerous precedence. Yes, dangerous, for it is harming the very heart of society and may well be one of the contributing causes towards the increasing levels of gender inequality, intolerance and injustice visible everywhere, whether in our homes or in public spaces.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Uqaab
    Nov 21, 2012 - 12:57AM

    Our liberals are just thinking way too much these days…take it easy guys!!!


  • F
    Nov 21, 2012 - 4:21AM

    The privileges of being a woman:

    “We got off the Titanic first.
    We can scare male bosses with mysterious gynecological disorder excuses.
    Our boyfriend’s clothes make us look elfin & gorgeous. Guys look like complete idiots in ours.
    We can cry and get off speeding fines.
    Taxis stop for us.
    Men die earlier, so we get to cash in on the life insurance.
    Free drinks, Free dinners, Free moving (you get the point).
    We don’t have to fart to amuse ourselves.
    If we forget to shave, no one has to know.
    If we’re dumb, some people will find it cute.
    Gay waiters don’t make us uncomfortable.
    We know which glass was ours by the lipstick mark.”

    And now you won’t make us a cup of tea!


  • kanwal
    Nov 21, 2012 - 7:16AM

    So true.


  • Ana
    Nov 21, 2012 - 8:42AM

    Dear F
    in case you dont realize what you said is really dumb..we dont want this things if they come with a lack of dignity and respect..

    n dear author,
    prepare for a deluge of criticism


  • Zainab
    Nov 21, 2012 - 10:04AM

    I lost count of the number of times Khirad was asked to make tea in Humsafar, Revolting.


  • Salma Khan
    Nov 21, 2012 - 10:16AM

    Pakistani dramas reflect the hihgly misogynistic mentality of our society.’good girls’ are always shown to be submissive slaves sitting at home,even those who have an education must never work because in pakistani society working women are the greatest evil.Keeping women locked up at home is the goal of the vast majority of our population.Women choosing to have careers are always demonised,while those who choose to waste their education are glorified and presented as the role models for our society.
    It’s high time our dramas stopped their promotion of patriarchy and stopped demonising working women.Recommend

  • Zahid Majeed
    Nov 21, 2012 - 10:22AM

    Women who work are the real heroes of our society.Having a career in a society like ours is extremely difficult for women.They have to face suspicions,allegations,hostility from relatives,neighbours,co-workers and to top it off the media portrays them as evil women,while the housewives are praised and presented as the model of virtue and all that’s good.
    civil society activists should engage with the drama producers and these channels to ensure this vilification campaign against working women ends.
    Our public wants women to remain as slaves to the men in their families,be it their fathers,brothers,husbands or sons.Recommend

  • Sidrah Moiz Khan
    Nov 21, 2012 - 3:30PM

    I strongly disagree with the author here. Women like her who roam around doing as they please have no right to say “Oh, how miserable women are in this man’s world”. Come on now! Oppressed women or women belonging to small towns have all the right to cry hoarse, but I think this op-ed is not only in bad taste but is just a blatant portrayal of misandry. Grow up, woman! I don’t think there’s anything wrong in asking your husband a cup of tea or serving him food when he comes back from work. A husband who pays for that tea, as a matter of fact!


  • AM
    Nov 21, 2012 - 4:46PM

    So good! I had been waiting for someone to write such an article. It is time we pushed our television dramas to promote progressive values for women. Anyone who thinks that women in urban centers have the option to make tea is extremely naive. Also, the ‘tea’ factor is just a symbol for the regressive traditional role that women in our society occupy. This should not be a liberal agenda but an agenda for everyone who respects and values women.

    The lesson should be, yes, it is okay for women to make tea but it is also okay if men make tea.


  • Khalid Khan
    Nov 21, 2012 - 5:04PM

    sick of women stuff on tribune.


  • AM
    Nov 21, 2012 - 6:47PM

    it would have been better and more useful if you had written this for an urdu digest or newspaper where the readers are the people who are most likely to be affected by these issues. here you are preaching to the converted or free choice women like me, who despite an education, talents and job prospects, opt to get married and stay at home to look after the children and spend hubby’s money:p


  • Khalq e Khuda
    Nov 21, 2012 - 8:25PM

    Are you kidding me?

    The next part of the opening scene is the fact that when I reach home I along with most men are forced to watch these drama serials whereby men are unanimously shown as ignorant fools if not monsters outright.


  • kfjf
    Nov 21, 2012 - 11:01PM

    @Sidrah Moiz Khan:
    I would suggest reading the article again and then maybe commenting on what it is really about i.e. how women AND MEN are portrayed in stereotypical and regressive roles on our TVs.

    Are there no men out there who encourage their wives to work? Who prefer to cook or help in the kitchen? There are many. So why do they not feature in a Pakistani soap for a change? Why are men always portrayed as cave-men. And why are women portrayed only as the relatives of men?

    This article was the exact opposite of misandric because for a change it also comments on how the portrayal of men is also stereotypical.


  • Khalid Khan
    Nov 21, 2012 - 11:47PM

    “We” belong to planet Hollywood or some other la-la land, I assume.


  • civilsociety
    Nov 22, 2012 - 8:52AM

    To categorise “Durre Shehwar” as pulp is grossly, patently, irresponsible.
    The central character of the play (a woman) emerges with such classical dignity………it is owing to the woman that the family is held together and disaster is averted, whereas males are shown to be irascible, impetuous, and bent upon destruction (and very poor learners). I think the male species has more to complain in this instance on the portrayal of their frailties. As a recent returnee to Pakistani television serials, I find that the majority of the plays are advocating women-empowerment and exposing crimes against them…… I find the entire line of argument and tone of the article disagreeable and unnecessarily aggressive.


  • Mj
    Nov 22, 2012 - 5:04PM

    The misogynistic mindset is alive and kicking. You need only to look at the hideous comment posted by @F.


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