“Jis ne barbaad kya hai, wohi abaad kare,” goes the OST of Muqabil, a new Pakistani drama serial on ARY. Like several Pakistanis back home and in diaspora, I love watching Pakistani dramas. The love began when Dhoop Kinare was aired back in the 1980s. I didn’t understand “grown up stories” back then, but the excitement with which my family watched it would compel me to try and make sense of the array of characters and stories . By now I feel like I have watched so many drama serials that I can actually categorise them into particular themes. Today, I want to focus on the rape theme.
You might ask, what can she say that has not been said before. Fair and fairly true, and yet what also holds true is that these critiques need to be repeated because these serials too repeatedly keep working along and reproducing a particular narrative of rape that is misogynist even in their portrayal of the survivors and their actions. When Muqabil began airing, I was hopeful that it would portray child rape with the sensitivity shown in Hum TV’s Udaari. Ten year old Parisa is raped one day by her socialite mother’s assistant. Unable to confide into anybody about it, she grows into an introvert uninterested in anything except for her flowers and her maid’s young daughter; in both she sees her lost ‘innocence’ reflected. So far, so good, even if equating children with flowers is a problematic analogy since the former have agency and resist, albeit within the structures of oppression they live within. However, when Parisa decides to marry her rapist’s son, the meaning of “jis ne barbaad kiya hai wohi abaad kare” unfortunately became very clear. The narrative of marrying your rapist to protect your honour, or even to restore one’s sense of self, is not unknown to us. It is violence against women and works under the whole “izzat” or honour logic. While Parisa does not frame her decision as a matter of restoring her honour, what are we supposed to make of the tagline, “one who broke/destroyed me must redeem me” logic? I do not know how this serial will end, nor does it matter here. The fact that it is grounded in this twisted (read hetero-patriarchal) logic is sufficient to make this serial everything I was hoping it wouldn’t become.
Then there is Ary’s Bay Khudi. In Dec 2016, Sadaf Haider discussed the narrative of “romantic rapist” which seems to be everywhere in Pakistani dramas nowadays. Men cousins raping their women cousins (Bay Khudi, Gul-e-Rana), brothers-in-law raping their sisters-in-law (Chup Raho), childhood friends raping (Sangat) is rampant in today’s Pakistani serials. And not to forget the perennial, “Tum meri biwi ho aur mera tum par haq hai” [“You are my wife and hence, I have rights over you”]. Marital rape, people. It is rape when a man exercises his so-called rights by engaging in ‘sex’ with his wife without her consent. While the women are always asked to be quiet, and/or to prove that it was rape and not a consensual sexual encounter, the rapist is mostly portrayed as repentant and all you have to do is either show him crying while curled up in a corner, or constantly have “nadaanio mai jo hum se hua, maaf karey Mowla” screeching into your ears every time he comes on screen. Are we asked to believe that rape is a naadaani? A mistake? A crime of passion and hence romantic? Bringing Mowla/God into the equation is equally unhelpful for the more urgent question is not whether or not Allah should roast you in fire, but one of justice because rape is a crime punishable by law of the country. The violence done in the name of law (which is never in favour of women anyways) is another story but well-documented by Pakistani feminists.
What happens when along with survivors of rape, their rapists are made into characters we are supposed to identify with, and sympathize with? As much as I appreciate the fact that these serials show that the rapist is not some unknown person or a two-horned monster, but among us, one who lives and looks like the men in our families, how the narrative is treated needs urgent attention for the message it conveys. What are we teaching young men and women about love, about relationships and about equity in partnerships such as that of marriage? Are we teaching young men that it is alright to rape if it is done out of love? Are we teaching young women that when your uncle rapes you, you marry his son, or when the boy next door or a cousin rapes you, you marry them and restore your ‘honour’ or a sense of self-worth?
How many women get raped in Pakistan every day? Which religion, class and caste do they belong to? What avenues do they have for fighting for justice? While there have been some solid examples such as Udaari and Rehaai and others I might be missing here, these examples of feminist, women-centered examinations of violence against girls and women are too far and few among these other problematic serials. I want to clarify one thing: I am not claiming that Pakistani dramas are more misogynist than those of other Asian or Western media. I am equally critical of Law and Order: SVU and its voyeuristic depictions of rape, so I am not claiming this is exceptional. But I want accountability! The dramas I have mentioned here, or the ones you can think of adding here, are all examples of violence against women and these characters, actors, writers, directors and producers are all complicit in strengthening ongoing violence against women. It is time we Pakistanis hold them accountable to us.