If we were to tell you that a drama is on air on Pakistani screens, showcasing a feisty, independent woman who stands up against forced marriages, is living with her single mother and uncle but never laments about not being married or plots 24/7 to entrap a man? You would say petrol is mulk mein sasta hojaye ga, but Pakistani dramas kabhi itnay achay nahi thay.
We’re sorry to tell you that there was a time when Pakistani dramas were progressive and revolved around empowered women who never waited for a man, but were powerful and independent. Despite airing decades ago, more and more Pakistani women are watching classical dramas from PTV, and expressing their shock at the kind of empowering, witty women in these shows who never tolerated abuse, or the horrifying kind of things Pakistani dramas today think that all women want.
Take ‘Ankahi’ penned by the brilliant Haseena Moin in 1982, decades ago and yet appealing to a mass audience with its main lead, Sana (played by Shehnaz Sheikh) who dreams of being rich, is clumsy yet endearing, outspoken about standing up for her rights, takes on the task to become financially independent and starts working despite the opposition she faces from her relatives.
Did we imagine that what would pave the way after the women of Haseena Moin like Sana, Sunia, and the countless women from her drama’s- would be Umera Ahmed’s Khirad? A woman who set romantic standards that despite being neglected, kicked out of her home while pregnant, you forgive the man and every thing is good in the end.
There is certain charm in the way PTV classical dramas from the minds of writers like Syed Mohammad Ahmed, Moin and Anwar Maqsood still appeal to audiences. They wrote over a variety of topics, covering a variety of issues like domestic violence (Sitara Aur Mehru Nisa), family planning (Aahat) and even light hearted rom-coms about women trying to pursue the men they love (Tum Se Kehna Tha). These dramas were upfront about bringing stories about women, and the issues they face to the spotlight, regardless of how absurd it may seem. Aahat discussed how women in Pakistan are pressurised to give birth to sons, are taunted when they have families full of girl children, and even didn’t shy away from depicting what post partum depression looks like, when the mother (played by Sania Saeed) is quickly returning home after giving birth, despite being forbidden by her doctor, and how she is made to endure the separation from her daughter because of the pressure her family puts on her. And as Moin put it herself, more rebellious women challenging the patriarchy was the onus:
“I created the bold woman character as a counterpoint to all male writers who were showing women as a miserable victim, crushed by the system, eternally self-sacrificing, nurturing, serving her husband even though he visited prostitutes. Oh, it was so degrading! I like writing rebellious characters, and I keep repeating them so that there is an impact. The only thing is, my mode is comic and my words are never harsh. During many interviews, I have been asked why I show strong women characters. It annoys me. Do they ask male writers, why they show strong male characters?”
Fast forward to the year 2023, censorship is at an all time high, and it was the implication of consensual sex that set PEMRA after ‘Tere Bin’ after a string of scenes depicted domestic violence, stalking, slapping, attempted suicide- too long of a list to get into.
A few days ago, during an appearance at Mazaak Raat, Syed Mohammad Ahmed spoke about how writer’s today are more munshi than writers. They lack the creative freedom they had in the past to write about topics of their choice, and how the fixed formulae of creating a hit drama involved women being battered and abused, rather than rebelling against the patriarchy.
Listening to this and watching as one of the currently hit dramas in Pakistan revolves around two cousins getting married, and the woman being demonised because she wanted to marry rich, there’s no way to stop the despair from hitting in. The hole left by Haseena Moin will be difficult to fill, as the entertainment industry keeps its head buried in the sand.