Will we ever get over the bitch and bichari conundrum?

The Pakistani entertainment industry has just two female characters — the angelic maiden and the conniving seductress.
Updated 31 Mar, 2021

In the last few years, a certain entertainment channel has delivered us blockbusters like Meray Paas Tum Ho, Jalan, and Dunk in succession. (I can feel your thumb move towards the upper left corner of your screen, just wait.) All of them feature a conniving woman whose questionable character claims the life of at least one male on the show.

In a country declared the sixth most dangerous for women, that seems like an odd portrayal of their female lead. Yet, every time the issue is pointed out, listen to producers and fans alike come out to defend such content:

“Yaar hur show mein tou aurat ko mazloom dikhaatey hain, aisi auratein bhi tou hoti hain. [They show women as victims in every other show, there are women like this too."

In the last few years, there were also Khaas, Raaz-e-Ulfat, Sabaat and Yaqeen Ka Safar. (I can feel you about to protest, but again, wait.) All of them feature a young woman stuck in a bad situation, whose life changes course as they stand accused of possessing a questionable character. This feels like a more “normal” depiction of the female lead.

And that is concerning.

For once upon a time, there was a Khirad. And she continues to haunt us.

Much of Khirad's life in Humsafar revolved around her 'purity'.
Much of Khirad's life in Humsafar revolved around her 'purity'.

Perhaps it was the staggering success of Humsafar, or perhaps the pattern became more obvious after its release, but at some point, the Pakistani drama conceived a heroine whose life revolved around the purity of her character, and as indicated by the statement of defence above, it appeared like that is the only story it wanted to tell.

Except there is a problem with such storytelling. A plot that revolves around venerating a woman’s “purity” automatically positions a woman’s chastity as something not to be presumed but to be proven. In essence, ensuring that if a woman’s virtue ever comes into question, the burden of proof lies on her. A woman who is “innocent” will be able to withstand intense scrutiny and come out on top.

She would have evidence and testimonies at hand to present to the world; if she does not right now, then she will in the future. After all, that is how these stories end. With the woman, with her head held high, walking into the horizon.

At least the conniving shrew, with her womanly wiles, jars the audience. She holds on to the audience’s imagination because she is a guilty pleasure. She is not normal. The virtuous woman does not make the audience blink twice. She is the norm.

In an interview, Fahad Mustafa claimed that he runs a production house, not a school. The content he delivers is entertainment, not education. This indicates to me that at best, Mustafa is ignorant of the power he holds. At worst, he is willing to abuse it to make an extra buck.

In no part of the world is visual content single-handedly shaping society. But it would be ridiculous to deny that art and society have a two-way formative relationship. Art is influenced by the society it is produced in, and society is influenced by the art it produces.

When storytellers looked outside the window, they saw a society that viewed a woman in terms of her sexuality. She was either the madonna or the whore. So they crafted a heroine who personified madonna like no other. In effect, positioning the madonna as the ideal woman in society, whose virtue will always have evidence to defend itself.

Now, society stands validated in demanding proof of innocence from women at every turn because it has been told that the ideal woman will be able to present it. Any time you want to shut a woman down, slander her then wait for the proof that you are told she must possess. Because this is normal.

When this kind of storytelling became predictable and stopped bringing in the numbers it used to, the storyteller looked outside the window again and crafted the anti-heroine. The woman with sexuality so toxic, it killed the men around her. And despite how problematic such storytelling is in a society as misogynistic as ours — and it is very problematic — the defenders have a point. This is only the other side of the picture.

Meray Paas Tum Ho and Humsafar are two sides of the same coin. They might be depicting two different kinds of women, but they are essentially dealing with the same deep-rooted national anxiety: a woman’s “chastity”. See, here is the thing: Fahad Mustafa might not be running a school, but content creators in this country are seated at a table, engaged in a conversation with society at large, and what they say matters.

Their preferred kind of storytelling is reliant on taking an already present anxiety, and instead of productively engaging with it, amping it up to a million. When you positioned a woman’s character as something that needs to be proven, and then neatly categorised women into madonnas and whores, you essentially placed them in a situation where, if a woman can’t produce a character certificate, she automatically becomes deserving of the abuse hurled her way.

And this presents a problem. I am hard-pressed to believe that at any point in my life a man with the cheekbones of Fawad Khan or curls of Ahad Raza Mir will stand testament to my paak daaman in case I offend someone’s ego enough for them to accuse me of being of “questionable” character.

And contrary to what producers might tell you that the “masses want to watch”, the success of this trope is fairly recent. (Side note: Retire the term “masses”). Popular Urdu plays of yesteryear, that continue to live on, did not categorise women leads in this reductive dichotomy.

Zara wasn't villanised for accepting a marriage proposal because it would make her life more comfortable in Tanhaiyan.
Zara wasn't villanised for accepting a marriage proposal because it would make her life more comfortable in Tanhaiyan.

When in Tanhaiyan, Zara accepted Saad Salman’s proposal because of the financial prospects it offered, despite her family’s disapproval, the narrative did not villainise her. Or when in Ankahi Sana fell in love with a married man, the viewer was not made to question her virtue. Similarly, in Alpha Bravo Charlie when Shehnaz proposed marriage to the man she admired, she was not depicted as brazen but as confident.

Acts that in modern-day storytelling would have a woman suffer for 30 excruciating episodes before she could be handed her character certificate were accepted by the audiences as completely, ahem, normal. Because the script simply did not bother to engage this anxiety associated with the woman’s virtuosity.

A woman’s virtuosity was presumed; it did not require the testimony of the male lead. Women in these shows were living their lives, they were allowed to make terrible and brave decisions, and their character arcs were impacted by the consequences of those decisions. When they existed outside the prism of chastity, they were fully realised, three-dimensional characters. (Side note: The author of this article will perhaps never love a woman on screen as much as she loves Tanhaiyan's Zara.)

The problem with the bitch (defined by Oxford Dictionary as a derogatory word for a "spiteful, unpleasant, or disliked woman") and bichari method of storytelling is not the one problematic drama or the story it tells. The problem with it is the social anxiety this trope is profiting off of, and in the process aggravating. It is lazy storytelling that refuses to hold itself accountable in the conversation that it is having with its audiences. Telling the story of a woman through the lens of the confidence that the men around her have in the sanctity of her character is so boring and tired, at this point, I am angry not at the misogyny, but the lack of effort.

There are multiple facets to the female experience and the Pakistani audience has warmly welcomed those narratives in the past. Storytellers will do well to flesh out their female characters instead of looking for convenience in their craft and not shift the blame of their bad narrative choices onto the audience.

Besides, the idea of going around gathering evidence of my character is so exhausting, that realistically, if my prospective mother-in-law tries to fool my husband into thinking I was having an extramarital affair with someone, no matter how high the cheekbones, I would rather relocate.

Header art by Saad Arifi