Take any Pakistani television show from the past few years, and you’ll see one underlying element present in all of them. There are no thrillers, murder mysteries, courtroom dramas and the like to be seen.
Instead, every show is based around one sole template – some variation of an abusive relationship, throwing the leading lady into the role of the victim, and putting her through inconsequential disputes throughout the show. Women are reduced to nothing more than their relationships with men, and a fair amount of the time, those relationships are depicted as physically and emotionally abusive.
Not only are the more obvious portrayals of domestic abuse televised, but women are shown to be destitute damsels in distress, waiting for the wealthy, self-assured man to show up in his car and make all their problems go away.
In the West, there are several shows centered around relationships as well, so it is not an issue exclusive to Pakistan. But with the turn of the century, these shows progressed to show stronger female roles, incorporating female-led casts and centering the plotline around issues beyond marital (and extramarital) conflict. Women were shown to be at the center of science fiction shows, shown in the roles of doctors, lawyers, journalists, and politicians, given the parts of superheroes and assorted supernatural creatures – and most importantly, given motives surpassing marriage and bearing children.
The Western entertainment industry remains far from perfect; there is still rampant misogyny and sexism to be seen on the small screen, and a large majority of these shows do not pass the Bechdel test (a test to determine female representation in television and cinema), but it has become increasingly clear that a genuine effort is being made to portray more fleshed-out female characters.
However, Pakistan’s entertainment industry still seems to struggle with this.
In recent times, attempts have been made to break away from these tired narratives. Shows have been released that relate stories of sexual abuse, pedophilia, transgender people – the list goes on. Unfortunately, these failed to make a lasting impression on the public, and ratings dropped, hence most creatives tend to revert back to the same overused plotlines, sprinkling in some misogynistic humor for variety.
There’s no doubt that the society and culture in the country is extremely patriarchal, along with the majority of mindsets. Misogyny is internalized, and the general population seems to be enamored with the glorification of abuse and violence we see on our screens regularly – so much that it seems the ill treatment of women is now the solitary selling point of these shows, and the only thing that will rake in money.
This problem may have been somewhat less grave, if it weren’t for the fact that almost 70% of Pakistani women have faced domestic abuse in some form at least once in their lives. Women and men have pre-appointed roles in society, and the disparity between these roles is the root cause of most domestic violence – a cause that is nothing if not amplified by the glamorization of this very disparity in the entertainment industry. For a country that is facing this issue on such an immense scale, it is extremely disturbing that abuse continues to be so widely represented.
Alas, whenever a show presents a stronger, more determined and spirited woman at the core of the plot, one who fights back against any type of abuse, one who refuses to be submissive, the public is swift to dismiss her as a ‘characterless’, and disparage her morals. Obviously, when the people of the nation look down upon these shows, there is less money to be made off televising them.
Fortunately, there is hope nevertheless. With a new, more aware generation consuming more media than ever, viewer ratings seem to be dropping in importance due to the rise of streaming. As Pakistani teenagers and young adults become increasingly informed about the political and social climate of the world, they lean towards shows with plots, characters, and elements that are in line with what is politically correct. One can only hold out hope that this particular demographic takes over, and a more positive shift in media and content is achieved.