Controversies around Pakistan’s screens
Recently, two media-related incidents have taken place in Pakistan and generated intense debate. First, a Pakistani movie, Zindagi Tamasha, winner of an international award at the Busan International Film Festival was restricted from making its debut in Pakistan.
This is due to a hard-line religious party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) which believes the film’s contents may ‘lead people to deviate from Islam.’
The government has buckled under the pressure of the religious lobby and requested that the twice national censor board approved film be reviewed again, this time with TLP members present during the review. The welcome news so far in this has been that the Council of Islamic Ideology — to whom the film for some unfathomable reason was sent for review- has declined from doing so, stating that such a review was not within the Council’s ambit.
The second incident is around Pakistan’s television screens. A TV drama, titled Mere Paas Tum Ho, shows a hardworking and devoted husband – a love-struck Romeo of sorts – being outwitted by a femme fatale of a wife. The drama, which enforces dangerous social stereotypes, has had a huge audience.
The real uproar, however, has been after the director of the drama, Khalil-ul-Rehman Qamar, took to the airwaves with his flawed but confident monologues on feminism, the order of society that makes men ‘more equal’ (which in many words translates into superior) to women, with the underlying theme of the innocence and naivety of men who are taken advantage of by the gender who the director deems inferior.
Qamar, declaring himself to be Pakistan’s biggest feminist, has even gone as far as saying that he decides which women, are in fact, women. This analysis weighs the good and bad, moral and immoral character, before he concludes who in his eyes is a “real woman.”
He has engaged audiences in this argument for longer than necessary and received limelight for his substandard and misogynist views. The only positive thing that has come out of his public monologues has been the re-enforcement of the camaraderie among women and others who oppose his views and the mindset that accompanies it. The discussion on such a mediocre piece of entertainment should really stop there.
Their argument that the film would lead people to deviate from Islam does not demonstrate a genuine risk in a conservative Muslim majority country where religion and its practice run too deep to be disturbed by the showing of a mere film.
Both the film and the drama are topics that have taken over the debate of real issues that poor, ordinary Pakistanis face – price hikes, 14 percent inflation, a shortage of basic essentials. But here is why the discussion on Khoosat’s film, Zindagi Tamasha, should continue and why we should all work toward ensuring its release for Pakistanis to view.
The loudest and brashest is the camp that argues that the film’s contents should be curtailed because certain religious groups’ sensibilities may be offended.
This religious group has been known to hijack both social and political space too often with views that are counter-productive and dangerous. Their very orthodox and dangerous mindset has held us all hostage including, unfortunately, successive governments.
One recent example of their activities was the 2017 sit-in in Islamabad that used both religion and political rhetoric to create havoc — blocking roads for days, using filthy language in speeches and destroying public and private property. Eventually, a government minister was made to resign before the protest was called off. This group’s influence and power has created fear and alarm in both political and public circles. And therefore the argument that religious sentiments will be hurt do not stand any ground when looking at the foundation of, or the precedents set, by the TLP.
We must remember that curtailment and censorship in the absence of a clear danger to the rights and safety of others is impingement in itself. In this case, it would be safe to argue that there is no genuine, real or present risk to this religious group. Their argument that the film would lead people to deviate from Islam does not demonstrate a genuine risk in a conservative Muslim majority country where religion and its practice run too deep to be disturbed by the showing of a mere film.
Secondly, is the release and public showing of the film illegal? The simple answer is no. There are no constitutional, national or provincial laws that prohibit the showing of a movie about an ordinary person that may be deemed to be religious. Those that have watched the film have said that no religious sentiments are trampled upon and nor is any other sensitive material shown in the movie.
In our society, there will never be agreement on this or similar subjects. A polarized society where arguments for exclusivity and inclusivity are as stark as day and night — and where forming our opinions is done by such limited information — there will never be any easy answers. The most vital thing is that the discussion continues and alternatives are allowed to be presented. What one sees as offensive, another may find artistic and necessary.
The film seems to show a multi-layered and real picture of our times with no infringement on any group or sentiment, or the breaking of any law. In light of this, people should be allowed to make their conclusions for themselves.
*Benazir Jatoi is a barrister, working in Islamabad, whose work focuses on women and minority rights. She is a regular contributor to the op-ed pages in various Pakistani newspapers.