Almost ten years ago, in a remarkable speech, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about the danger of the single story.
Tell a single story about a group of people again and again, she warned, and that is what they will be reduced to.
Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.
In Pakistan’s popular culture, consisting of its television dramas, its own films and the films from across the border it deems acceptable enough to be screened, there is a single story told about women over and over again:
It is the story of the suffering woman, the woman who has myriad injustices done to her but who nonetheless — and this is the important part — continues to suffer silently, stoically, patiently, with utter resignation and without any fight.
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This is the story of women that Pakistan is happy to accept. Narratives that challenge this story are met with resistance — consider Mahira Khan’s Verna, which follows this narrative of the suffering woman, but then flips it by having her take charge and fight back, and which was, therefore, initially banned in the country and only released after much fervour.
But as the recent Central Board of Film Censors ban of Bollywood film Veere Di Wedding shows, narratives that tell an entirely different story about women are deemed completely unacceptable and are rejected outright:
A story in which women party and dance with their friends, a story in which women have fun and celebrate in each other’s company, in which women are joyous and happy.
While the stoically suffering woman is embraced, the happy woman can’t even get a foot in the door.
There are other stories about women that Pakistan also rejects. The story of women who bleed, for example.
Earlier this year, the same censor board also banned Pad Man, the Akshay Kumar-starrer biopic about an Indian man who became a pioneer of menstrual health when he devised a low-cost way producing sanitary pads.
Apparently, the censor board members couldn’t even bring themselves to watch the film before refusing to issue a clearance certificate for it.
“We cannot allow a film whose name, subject and story are not acceptable yet in our society,” a board member told reporters, because even though the vast majority of Pakistani women bleed, the single story of the suffering woman does not allow room for women to bleed unless it is from a wound inflicted on them.
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As a point of contrast, at around the same time of the ban on Pad Man, Bollywood epic Padmavaat, with its scene of a large group of women stoically walking into a large fire to commit mass suicide to a score of dramatic music, was deemed completely acceptable for Pakistan and was screened in theatres across the country.
The single story of the suffering woman is not pernicious and damaging because it is untrue. Far from it:
Women suffer everyday in Pakistan, from everything from domestic abuse to lack of access to health facilities, from rape to illiteracy to harassment in the workplace and on the roads.
No, the danger of the single story, as Adichie explains, is not that it is untrue, but that it is incomplete. Of course women suffer — far too much than is comprehensible, and far too often with no justice, restitution or respite.
And art that sheds a light on the different ways in which society causes pain and trauma to women is something to be lauded.
The mini-series Akhri Station released earlier this year, for example, was celebrated for articulating the different forms of oppression of Pakistani women thoughtfully and carefully.
But to only show suffering women, and only in one way, in a way that romanticises their hurt and glorifies their pain, over and over again, across TV channels and cinema screens, to the score to maudlin and melancholy music and close-ups of tear-stricken faces, is to make suffering their only story, the only possible outcome of a woman’s life, in the popular imagination.
This is why banning a film like Veere Di Wedding is a mistake. It is a light-hearted film with a simple premise, one that has been done before by Bollywood countless times, and which is therefore not particularly revolutionary on its own:
A group of rich, beautiful childhood friends gather together when one of them is about to get married, and then shenanigans ensue (think Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara from a few years ago).
The only thing revolutionary about it is that, for the first time in Bollywood history, the group of friends is all women, as opposed to all men.
A mainstream, glitzy Bollywood film about a group of female friends, hanging out and talking to each other, should not be such a momentous occasion in South Asian cinematic history, and yet here we are.
From the film’s trailer as well as from its reviews across the border, the film certainly has its flaws. It seems to be a little frivolous, a little heavy on the mindless entertainment, a little too focused on the ultra-rich and ultra-beautiful. But so what?
Lord knows we have enough frivolous, mindless films about men and their adventures (and those films all seem to come with a heavy dose of misogyny and toxic masculinity baked right in).
What makes Veere Di Wedding — and other films like it — important is the contrast they provide to the suffering woman story.
Despite what may be a superficial, glamorous veneer, this is still a film about women living their lives, having their own fears and desires, having fraught but fulfilling friendships with one another.
It is still a film about women letting loose and talking to each other about their conflicted and complicated feelings about love, marriage and, and yes, sex.
The only people for whom the idea of women talking to each other about sex is outrageous are people who are not women.
Here is a film in which no woman gets raped or beaten up or forced into child marriage. Instead, it is a film where women have fun in each other’s company, tell dirty jokes to each other and laugh, where their clashing opinions about romance and men and careers and ambition are all hashed out.
In short, it is a film in which women are happy and joyous and celebratory. And in a sea of suffering women stories, happy women stories should not only be allowed but are in fact quite necessary in presenting a fuller, deeper picture of women and their lives.
When suffering is the default role given to women, women’s joy and depictions of this joy, has its own kind of power.
Having lots of different kinds of stories about women, stories that contradict each other, stories that add depth and nuance and contrast to each other, is a requirement in the much-needed process of recognising women in the fullness of their humanity.
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Why is Pakistan afraid of happy women?