Why do Pakistani dramas make strong women characters look bad?
It’s the year 2022, the world is struggling to survive in a pandemic, Elon Musk is on a mission to colonize Mars and ensure freedom of speech on Twitter, climate change is melting glaciers, and people can now live virtually in Metaverse, but in every Pakistani drama, a woman simply cannot have a life that does not revolve around the existence of a male.
A typical timeline of a primetime soap goes like this; a girl is born (despite the snarky comments of other women), she spends all her life being critiqued and oppressed by the society, and she fulfils the purpose of her life by getting married, but her husband is either interested in her sister or a progressive and opinionated colleague, girl parades through hoops of fire to prove she is worthy of his “ownership” as he comes to his senses, the end.
Whether it is Khirad of Humsafar or Mannu of Mann Mayal, the characters are so similarly written that they could just be different faces wearing the same brand of ‘bechari’. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how popular the show is or how brilliantly the actors performed, the execution and production only sell the boring storyline, almost always about a couple surviving in this harsh world of scrutiny to save their marriage, with a few tweaks here and there.
Although the media industry is well aware of its influence as the enforcer of values and social norms, it doesn’t assess the disastrous impact of imposing these toxic gender roles on our society. The majority of our population, including male viewers, only have access to TV dramas to rely on for entertainment but they are also one of the major sources of education for the masses, to provide an understanding of the world and for intellectual development.
The depiction of women only in roles as a wife, mother, daughter or daughter-in-law, creates this idea that a woman does not have an individual identity and can only be seen with someone, on top of that, she must suffer constantly, facing one challenge after another to prove her worthiness of being respectable.
Even though, the earliest Urdu dramas were each a masterpiece, with unique and outstanding characters, such as Zara and Saniya from Tanhaiyan, Shahnaz from Alpha Bravo Charlie, and Dr Zoya Ali Khan from Dhoop Kinaray, where they acted as beacons of hope for a more liberal and progressive future for females. However, the industry has since regressed and the current culture of reducing women to cattle in a market of marriage, married to one brother but wanted by another, is toxic and harmful. Can we consider the current leading women on the screens fit to be role models for our future?
Why must a strong independent female character only have to be a representative of the army as a doctor or soldier? Are there no other occupations that can depict a strong and brave woman? Must a woman endure the harshest exertions of life to be considered strong enough and respected as a person or must she always prove her loyalty to a man and his family to receive shelter and comfort?
A life of leisure and accomplishments is rarely mentioned in a story for a female character, or any examples of personal growth, focus on career goals, or even the instances of true friendships among women, none of such personal characteristics are given the spotlight, however, every other story puts one woman against another over a man who is incapable of making up his mind.
Moreover, the acceptance of infidelity in men and the continuous attempts to entrap a married man is portrayed and accepted as a normal practice, especially shown happening at workplaces or between cousins. Mehmat from Fitoor makes repeated attempts at getting together with a married man while being married herself, Mariam from Mere Apne wanted to marry her married cousin. Even Hira Mani’s latest drama Yeh Na Thi Humari Qismat which even got some attention from across the border, once again played the same story of jealousy among two sisters, or some cousin wanting to break a marriage to get the unemployed guy, and the worst thing is that these shows are being watched by a huge proportion of the public.
The media is responsible for creating impressions in the minds of the masses and with such representations and depictions of poorly written female characters they are robbing the entire population of women of their identity. They are restricting the voices of real women who face much more diverse experiences in a society that have so much more meaning in life rather than their honour and marital status.
Nonetheless, a few notable dramas have been able to stand out with slightly different characters than the usual such as Dr Zubia from Yakeen Ka Safar, Farida from Digest Writer played by Saba Qamar who also acted in the Qandeel Baloch biopic Baaghi, and all the female characters from Udaari made an impression and highlighted a taboo social issue of child sexual abuse, Kiran from Kankar fights for her self-respect after her rich husband slaps her, Hajra from Inkaar, but we are a long way from making an impressionable change.
While some would consider Kashaf from Zindagi Gulzar Hai as a strong female lead, however, it is the work of internal misogyny that makes us believe that characters like hers ended up marrying the biggest misogynist loser from her university, are true representations of decent and hardworking women. Whereas, in reality, the story undermined all her hard work to achieve her dreams, and settles for a man who triggers her insecurities. Similarly, Noori from Ranjha Ranjha was popular for her character’s development and showed personal growth, yet once again it was a story about a woman suffering from a saviour complex, trying to always “fix” her man or settling for his flaws.
Another example of sexism that is deeply rooted in the way we think about gender roles in our society is accurately narrated in the drama Durr e Shehwar. Sanam Baloch plays a younger version of Samina Pirzada, enduring all the oppression by her in-laws and the polite neglect of her husband, eventually leading to a peaceful marriage, that ends up being the envy of her daughter played by Nadia Jamil, who is seen as a loud and aggressive woman simply because she does not settle for anything less. The moral of the story, as presented in the show, was that only submissive and complying women can have serenity in marriage. However, the real message was that society expects women to suffer in silence, and when women demand respect and basic decency, they are painted as evil.
In addition, violence against women is highly normalised on TV to such an extent that incidents of rape, honour killings, domestic abuse, acid attacks, and human trafficking are all a part of the entertainment. Our media industry has romanticised abusive husbands facing no consequences of slapping their wives, no apprehensions of domestic violence, any signs of showing emotional understanding or being able to communicate effectively. It is rather impossible to imagine them picking up a glass and putting it back in the kitchen.
Moreover, the continuous depiction of women as “Gold Diggers” or liars makes it easy to villainise them. One of the highest rating dramas on TV Mere Pass Tum Ho starring Ayeza Khan and Humayun Saeed not only made it acceptable to accept violence against women but, also used language that shouldn’t be allowed against such a marginalised community of women who are already struggling to survive in this country. Moreover, Ayeza Khan also mocked the issue of sexual abuse against women by acting in a scene from Geeti where she falsely accuses a man of harassing her to gain views on TikTok.
The deception in the portrayal of women on screen is also a reason why the Pakistani audience is so obsessed with shaming celebrities on social media. But can we blame them? They have been indoctrinated to believe that girls like Sara from Humsafar or Asmara from Zindagi Gulzar Hai are villains for simply wearing jeans. The incessant negative image of strong, financially independent girls, driving cars or studying in a university, is considered shameful and vulgar, and against our cultural values and religion. When Pakistani men throw a fit over their beloved Esra Bilgic from Ertugurl wearing a crop top in real life and shames Minal Khan and Saboor Aly for making the mistake of showing affection to their spouses on their wedding day, then we must question this practice of hypocrisy.
Undoubtedly, it is a shame that a superstar like Mahira Khan continues to pick roles that maintain her “girl next door” look, such as her sorry character of Mehreen from Hum Kahan Kay Sachay Thay, who lets her husband belittle her but accepts it as her fate, even though her position in the industry right now demands much more remarkable performances from her.
The need of the hour is to work on exciting and real stories about the real women of Pakistan, women who are making a mark in history and fighting against all odds to represent our country globally. From our artists to athletes, there are plenty of real-life tales waiting to be played on screen featuring the talented and creative women of our country. Our dramas need to represent women who are winning at life while building a pathway for the younger generation of girls, instead of repeating the same old tales of obedient daughters-in-law winning the approval of everyone else but themselves.