The Multifaceted Men & Women of a Pakistani Blockbuster

Disclaimer: Below is an *unedited* research paper I wrote in Dec. 2019 for my high school Women’s Studies class, dissecting the role of gender in hit-Pakistani television serial Humsafar. I am by no means an expert on either gender roles or the Pakistani entertainment industry. All views expressed are my own.

Abstract

In Pakistan, with the presence of a theocratic governing body, gender roles are distinctly assigned on the basis of culture and religion. Pakistani media reflects these standards, and over time television heroines evolved into the “ideal” woman. The 2011 drama serial Humsafar, credited with reviving the struggling television industry, is revered nationwide for its passionate yet unadulterated romance. However, some critics bash the show for romanticizing a weak heroine and her chauvinistic hero, and its reliance on age-old tropes that fuel toxic cultural attitudes. I will conduct research on the history of television in Pakistan and utilize critical journals and essays on both archetypes in Humsafar and Pakistani dramas to unravel the complexities in the representation of both the men and women in the series. I will be exploring issues such as lack of female solidarity, disparate depictions of motherhood and fatherhood, romanticism of marriage, the binary portrayal of the female villain, and the multidimensional characterizations of both male and female protagonists. After reading this paper, the reader will be exposed to the progress that has been made, and the distance we have yet to go with respect to Pakistani television.

Credit: HUM TV

The average American audience switches on the television, spotting a brown-skinned, bearded barbarian balancing a large rifle on his back against a desert backdrop. Scarf-clad women, surprisingly present, are mute victims– props to benefit the Caucasian cause. The audience remembers a Western news outlet painting a similar picture. It is reconditioned to believe that there is only one type of Muslim: a malicious Middle Eastern man.

While the disparity in gender representation in media is apparent, there is even greater disproportionality in American depictions of populations of color. The people of the Middle East and South Asia are both represented minimally, sadistically, and uniformly, despite distinct regional identities and customs. For example, Pakistani men are pigeonholed into the roles of bomb-planting radicals. Women are one-dimensional if present at all. Pakistani-Americans are stuck with entertainment that marginally relates to their own experiences.

Fortunately, within Pakistan, television prospers over film and is accessible to all. Character-based, 30-episode weekly drama serials reign over the desired 8 o’clock slot. While family dramas and social issues dominate ratings, Sarmad Khoosat’s 2011 Hum TV series Humsafar marked the undisputed revival of the romantic melodrama. It follows the journey of a forced marriage between a poor girl and her wealthy cousin, their eventual love for one another torn apart by external forces. Humsafar serves as evidence that viewers enjoy the glorification of female struggle and marriage on a man’s terms, while it redeems a man through the explicit demolition of his masculinity.

Although American media dominates television globally, on-screen Pakistani heroines also evolved. The establishment of Pakistan Television (PTV), a government-funded, all-encompassing channel, introduced television to Pakistan in 1964. It instantly became a primary form of entertainment for all Pakistanis, depicting diverse themes from family troubles and love stories to satirical commentaries on social issues. In 1977 the rise and ultimate eleven-year reign of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq regressed the entertainment industry. Despite a decline in culture and an emphasis on religion, writers subtly shed light on “societal anxieties” and “lack of public tolerance” during Zia’s governmental “Islamization” (The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, 2012). President Pervez Musharraf liberalized Pakistani media in 2002, authorizing the launch of private television channels. Today, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Association (PEMRA) promotes Islamic values, ensuring that social issues like sexual assault are portrayed with caution, no sexuality shown whatsoever. Editors blur the slightest cleavage even on scarved women, censor words like “rape,” and provide written disclaimers condemning scenes with smoking and alcohol.

While the female protagonists of the 1980s and 1990s were bound to Islamic values of the times, insistence on physical modesty did not deter them from being spunky and strong-willed. Contrastingly, current heroines headlining Pakistani television screens are homogeneous compared to the end-of-century “Golden Age.” Today, they motivate female viewers to subsist as good daughters, wives, and daughters-in-law, as damsels-in-distress mistreated by evil mothers-in-law and rescued by unaware husbands, enlightened in the heat of the climax. This is the exact plot of Humsafar, complete with a chaste heroine, dull hero, life-ruining mother-in-law, and hysterical homewrecker.

In the later 2000s, a mass production of dramas undermined their quality, unlike the PTV classics. A “race for ratings” inspired hard-hitting dramatized social causes, presented for shock value rather than awareness (Taha, 2011). Khoosat believes he “got lucky” with Humsafar– a simple script adapted from a Farhat Ishtiaq-novel, a lead pair of actors with palpable chemistry, and most significantly, a popular romance spawned alongside the rise of social media, allowing for the creation of celebrity culture in Pakistan. In an age where dramas portrayed flamboyant and vulgar themes, Humsafar’s chastity generated a common cultural reference–“empty streets in a bustling Karachi every Saturday at 8 pm.

Although critics categorized Khirad Ehsan as a regressive character, Humsafar provided a complex portrayal of its female protagonist: a strong woman who became a victim of circumstance. She was prideful, self-sufficient, clever, and stubborn, yet stripped of all defenses and left vulnerable to fate. While Khirad was desperate to remain independent, her finances thwarted this power. She had the resolve to direct her own destiny, but her situation made it impossible to culminate her agency. Sabahat Zakariya, host of Feminustani, an open dialogue to critique representation in Pakistani media, claimed that “suffering women in particular seem to be placed on a pedestal; by men because they are the ultimate romantic symbols of womanly sacrifice, by women because it is nice to be validated on screen for life choices that have them personally unfulfilled but socially approved” (Zakariya, 2012). Both the audience and her husband, Ashar Hussain, commended Khirad’s hardships. They were what led her to becoming the victor in her story. However, they promoted the standard that a woman’s happiness is synonymous with sacrifice.

Khirad’s potential prevailed in her attempts of piloting her own narrative. Her first victory resulted from her courage to be honest with an elder, encouraging women to communicate personal unfulfillment: “My pride, my ego… they’re all shattered thinking that no one needs me here. I never wanted a rich and mighty husband. I just wanted respect” (Episode 5). When her mother-in-law smeared her character, she actively tried to reclaim the situation without faltering in her defense and apologizing for crimes she did not commit. Khirad’s self-regard rendered her Humsafar’s devalued hero, not succumbing to pressure, signifying the value of self-confidence.

Like every human being, Khirad had weaknesses. She allowed Sarah to taunt her about her status and appearance, requiring Ashar’s validation. She nearly surrendered when faced with the possibility of raising her daughter as an illegitimate. “I want to die…” she uttered, pregnant and alone, permanently labeled a cheater (Episode 13). However, she did not have the privilege of emotional resignation like Ashar and persisted for her daughter and dignity. Her silence was a weapon, not a form of submission, representative of her disinterest and rigidness. Later, rising above Ashar’s abandonment, she told her mother-in-law that she did not even consider him “worth speaking to” (Episode 18). Khirad’s flaws are reminiscent of the Femme Fatale, an Old Hollywood archetype, which allowed women to fit in more than one mold. She is pure but prideful, driven but doubtful of herself; above all, she is human.

While Khirad spent the entirety of the first half of the series ashamed of her social status in comparison to Ashar’s, she disowned him when he abandoned her, finally having faith in her motherhood to raise their daughter alone: “Until I forgive you, Ashar, my God will not forgive you either… I swear upon my daughter’s life that I will not forgive you” (Episode 14). Circumstance brought Ashar into Khirad’s life four years after this powerful proclamation. She remained true to this promise and emotionally distant, even when he felt entitled to her love. Khirad’s victory is bittersweet– her honor was returned with her pride intact, but her misfortune was the driving force of the plot.

While Khirad represented society’s ideal woman, Sarah Ajmal and Farida Hussain represented the opposite– the wealthy, the working, and the wicked. Humsafar “disempowered women with active, bold, and decisive roles” (Ashfaq, 2018). Within minutes of Episode 1, there was an immediate juxtaposition between the female protagonist and antagonist: innocence versus ambition. Sarah was Khirad’s foil: spoilt, successful, modern, and career-oriented, while obsessively in love with Ashar. She consistently displayed signs of mental illness and attempted suicide over his betrothment to Khirad (Episode 3). She encapsulated the “other woman,” subtly vilifying Khirad in front of Ashar as she extended ingenuine solidarity to Khirad. She dismissed Khizar Alam, a man who truly loved her. Humsafar slammed a woman exercising her right to reject a man, while promoting toxic infatuation with another. When Sarah realized Farida manipulated her for personal gain, she promised to expose her. A redemption arc would have been reflective of growth for Sarah through an extension of sisterhood. However, Ishtiaq nullified her agency, as she helplessly committed suicide. Her mental health remained undiscussed and was downplayed without efforts to promote suicide prevention. This Sarah versus Khirad model “[rendered] them useless without the pivotal man in the middle,” especially Sarah, whose character was ultimately aimless without Ashar (Zakariya, 2012).

Farida is the mastermind mother-in-law behind Khirad’s misery. Enraged that her husband took their son’s future in his own hands and threatened with divorce, Farida’s possessiveness and classism incited anger that she directed towards her daughter-in-law, rather than the man responsible. Accordingly, she orchestrated a plan to remove Khirad from Ashar’s life after his death. Even Ashar stimulated competition: “If I had to pick between my wife and my mother, then I would’ve picked my mother!” (Episode 23). This cultural norm– to pit mothers-in-law against their daughters-in-law, fueled by media for entertainment purposes– defines women by the men in their lives. As Farida surrendered to instant insanity, she hallucinated a tormenting version of Khirad: “Your son has been snatched away from you,” she proclaimed, enforcing the idea that a man cannot be loyal to his mother and wife simultaneously (Episode 23). The series sprinkled small spectacles of sisterhood with minor characters. However, this was undermined by the “mission-accomplished” attitude of Sarah and Farida over their treatment of another woman.

Ashar, the male protagonist, experienced a masculinity crisis– the destruction of his manhood throughout the series. He was the sole character with the privilege of making choices, yet he did not take accountability for a single one. He remained inactive for the majority of the series, embodying the “strong, silent hero” archetype (Newsom, 2015). “There is nothing I can do,” became a staple aspect of his character. When his father, Baseerat Hussain, warned Ashar that Khirad’s innocence may be taken advantage of, he absolved Ashar from any responsibility over whatever may threaten and later destroy their relationship. As he remained dormant, Ashar was the “object of desire,” or the prize to be won by either Khirad or Sarah and Farida (Zakariya, 2012). Despite his passivity, this scenario was a welcome change from the typical male objectification of a woman.

Ashar is overtly aggressive, and this characteristic emanated after his and Khirad’s separation. “If she is lying, I will kill her myself,” he threatened, sobbing uncontrollably and struggling to accept the reality he witnessed– Khirad in Khizar’s apartment, as he strategically pulled off her scarf (Episode 12). This action is symbolic of rape on Pakistani television, an attack on both a woman and her husband’s izzat (honor). By depicting rape as not only a violation of a woman, but also humiliation of her husband, Pakistani dramas indicate that men control women’s bodies. Ashar, however, viewed this event as an act of adultery, and while it forced a pregnant Khirad homeless, Ashar suffered the magnitude of the emotional blow. “Being a man, I could hardly bear this shock,” Ashar admitted to Khirad (Episode 17). In a patriarchal society, men are encouraged to maintain “emotional numbness” (Hooks, 2004). For Ashar, the only way to combat his emotional breakdown was with aggression towards and distance from every woman in his life. However, the audience is witness to the step-by-step disintegration of Ashar’s masculinity. Humsafar especially highlights male disadvantage in a patriarchal society, allowing men to deconstruct and potentially reform their attitudes and behaviors.

Discovering Khirad’s innocence in Episode 22 instantly put Ashar into hero mode. He admitted his fault in a touching conversation with Khirad: “Don’t forgive me for any of my sins… those who love are not like me” (Episode 23). Ashar’s arc suggested he was never secure in his masculinity. His admission of this redeemed his character. Unlike Sarah and Farida, who surrendered their lives physically and mentally, Ashar’s concession of manhood rewarded him a second chance with his family.

For a society that idolizes conventional family structure, promoting marriage through media is essential. In theory, marriage in Humsafar is portrayed as a medicine. Maimoona Ehsan, Khirad’s mother, and Baseerat convinced Khirad that marriage was her ticket to a secure future. Sarah had a slew of proposals from wealthy foreigners at her doorstep, including Khizar’s, and was promised by Zarina, her mother, and Ashar that marriage would erase her depression. “There is an age, a time to get married,” Zarina stated irritably at her daughter, emphasizing the ideal that women are only desirable in their reproductive years (Newsom, 2011). Television glamorizes marriage, but even Humsafar’s tagline– “How fragile is the bond of love?”– highlights the presence of an overarching instability.

In practice, marriage proved to have dire consequences. Even a successful marriage like Baseerat and Farida’s, implied that women, as law teacher Abira Ashfaq articulates “despite age, motherhood and having maintained homes, are always on the verge of losing it all” (Ashfaq, 2012). The series’ central relationship, Ashar and Khirad, were originally plagued by Ashar’s predisposition about women being “scheming,” later overridden by Khirad’s naiveté. Despite depicting a forced marriage, circumstantially, Ashar and Khirad entered a union on equal grounds– pressured without consent. There was a balanced emotional dependency; however, Khirad’s financial inferiority produced an underlying power struggle, as money is synonymous with strength. Khirad labeled Ashar as a “husband given in charity” and despised her one-sided reliance on him. Ashar served as the primary breadwinner when they were together, and was entrusted responsibility of her by Baseerat, who continuously underestimated Khirad because she was “simple and innocent” while he was “sensible and mature” (Episode 8). Khirad successfully nurtured herself and her daughter independently, highlighting her self-sufficiency. However, Ashar reinforced this dependency, as it often pacified his insecurities. Humsafar’s normalization of male authority in marriage allows for the ignorance of societal inequality between a husband and wife.

Farida is not solely to blame for Ashar’s trust issues; had the foundations of his mistrust not already been laid, Farida’s scheme would have been worthless. While Khirad blindly trusted Ashar and Sarah’s friendship, Ashar quietly seethed as Khirad enjoyed university with Khizar. These double standards highlighted flaws in Ashar as a husband– his fear of Khizar snatching Khirad away and his lack of faith in his honest, unassuming Khirad: “Most men are on a quest for the ready-made perfect woman because they feel the problems in a relationship can’t be worked out. When the slightest thing goes wrong, it seems easier to bolt than talk” (Hooks, 2014, p. 6). Ashar’s silence is reflective of a man’s inability to communicate simply because he is not expected to do so.

Upon Ashar and Khirad’s reunion, her silence prevailed once again. She allowed her daughter to take the forefront of her paternal rights without conceding a path to her heart. Finally, in Episode 21, Ashar attempts to deconstruct her stoicism, albeit unsuccessfully:

Ashar: “I’m not telling you to ask me for forgiveness. I am forgiving you myself!”
Khirad: “Thank you for your generosity.”

Khirad’s dismissal of Ashar is championed over Sarah’s dismissal of Khizar, as she acted against the uncomplicated option and chose her pride. Finally, Khirad reluctantly forgave him for their daughter’s sake. An undeniable distance remained between them. “What kind of love was this, where you didn’t even have faith in me? You abandoned me in the middle of the road. I’m tired of living life alone,” Khirad cried, manifesting four years of sacrifice. “I will never leave you alone again. I’m sorry,” Ashar apologized, for the first time in the entire series. Their reservations were realistic and not romanticized. However, Ashar’s single grand gesture undermined Khirad’s 23 episode struggle, and the viewer is reminded that even beyond Islamic values, a husband’s words weigh heavier than his wife’s.

Humsafar illustrated quintessential motherhood and contrasted it with dynamic fatherhood. Every mother in Humsafar represented conventions about motherhood in Pakistani society. Mothers were inherently weak. Maimoona was kind-hearted and taught her daughter to be independent; she was the “good” mother, killed off in the third episode. Even Maimoona was flawed, as she had more faith in her nephew as a son-in-law than her own upbringing. Farida bypassed her son’s happiness, but was reflective of the impossible standard mothers are set against, as Ashar articulated, “A wife can deceive, but a mother never does… there is no one in the world more important than your mother, but you destroyed my world… you have given death to your own son” (Episode 23). Mothers that are possessive over their sons exist, but the industry constantly promotes the malicious mother-in-law and intrinsically fuels such patterns.

Khirad, on the other hand, was the epitome of maternal sacrifice: “strength in her ability to endure” (Lieberman, 1972). She was constantly reminded of what a mother must do– think of her child– and murdered her pride for her daughter, Hareem. Ashar was Khirad’s weakness; Hareem was her strength. Khirad’s acknowledgment of her weakness as a wife displayed a level of self awareness that encouraged women to revolutionize themselves beyond the men in their lives. However, Humsafar minimized Khirad’s role as a mother by maximizing Ashar’s role as a father– he went above and beyond; she did what was expected of her. Khirad was undoubtedly strongest in her role as Hareem’s mother, but Humsafar treated this strength as part of the job description.

As fluctuant as he was a husband, Ashar proved to be the perfect father and fit seamlessly into the role. He respected Hareem’s fondness of her mother despite often challenging her maternal right. While he was the breadwinner, he also balanced as the caregiver, inspiring Pakistani men to actively play a part in their children’s lives. However, this overshadowed Khirad’s takeover of both roles for the first four years of Hareem’s life, valuing a father’s dismantling of gender roles over a mother’s. Overall, there is a serious lack of complex maternal representation in Humsafar, outweighed by paternal superiority.

“The dirt on my clothes!” Khirad screamed in a frenzy, referencing the slander of her dignity (Episode 13). This “dirt,” most often a false cheating accusation, has resulted in the killings of approximately 1,000 Pakistani women per year by their male relatives in the name of honor (Human Rights Watch, 2019). 36.7% of the world’s forced marriages are in Pakistan (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2017). Like Khoosat with Humsafar, Ashar and Khirad “got lucky,” because “love” is rarely ever the end result in forced marriage, and promoting these one-in-a-million possibilities is harmful messaging toward men and women. Fortunately, slot-leading dramas on Pakistani television today have diversified since 2011; stories of a rape survivor on Tuesdays, a man with dissociative identity disorder on Fridays, a group of four college boys and their spunky love interests navigating life in Northern Pakistan on Sundays, and more. With this increase in variety, Pakistani television has created a name for itself on an international scale, and despite its problematic themes, Humsafar is credited for being the forerunner, and depicted the inner complexities and nonbinary nature of gender.

References

Ashfaq A. (2012, February 7) “The terrible appeal of Humsafar.” Retrieved from https://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/10138/the-terrible-appeal-of-humsafar/

Duraid M. (Producer), Ishtiaq F. (Writer) & Khoosat S. (Director) (2011) Humsafar. MD Productions

Foreign & Commonwealth Office. (2018, March 16). Forced Marriage Unit Statistics 2017. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/730155/2017_FMU_statistics_FINAL.pdf

Hooks B. (2004, December 21) The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Simon & Schuster.

Ijaz S. (2019, August 22) “Pakistan Should Not Again Fail ‘Honor Killing’ Victim.” Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/23/pakistan-should-not-again-fail-honor-killing-victim

Lieberman M. (1972, December) Someday My Prince Will Come. National Council of Teachers of English.

Newsom J. (Director & Producer) (2011, January 20) Miss Representation. United States: Girls Club Entertainment

Newsom J. (Director & Producer) (2015, January 25) The Mask You Live In. United States: The Representation Project.

Taha H. (2011, December 16) “Pakistani drama industry: From gold to ashes” Retrieved October 30, 2019, from https://tribune.com.pk/story/307611/pakistan-drama-industry-from-gold-to-ashes/

The Citizen Archives of Pakistan. “Pakistan: Media and Culture Through the Ages” Retrieved November 10, 2019, from https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/pakistan-media-and-culture-through-the-ages%C2%A0/wRriyZF

Zakariya S. (2012, March 3) “Drama Serials: Golden Age?” Retrieved October 30, 2019, from https://www.dawn.com/news/699862/drama-serials-golden-age

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a pakistani-american lover of words (and macchiatos) | student at new york university

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Kanita T.

a pakistani-american lover of words (and macchiatos) | student at new york university