The Pakistani woman in the media has undergone many transformations. From the gullible and vulnerable to the bold and badtameez, from being cheated on to being the cheater and from reliving difficult stories of their assault to falsely accusing partners of domestic violence. The female protagonist has done it all, including rarely being empowered and having little to no representation of actual issues.
Actor Ayeza Khan has recently come under fire for a scene in her drama Laapata where her character falsely accuses a shopkeeper of harassment after he rightfully asks for his money when she purchases goods from him.
Written by Khizer Idrees, her character threatens to falsely expose the shopkeeper and ruin his image, all because she is a woman who has access to social media.
Many people, including celebrities, have called out the actor for her irresponsible project choices at a time when Pakistan is facing a surge in gender-based violence.
Perpetuating damaging stereotypes in the name of creative freedom is not okay. Why? Because in a country where women have to go through constant exhaustive emotional labour to speak up against harassment — only to be disregarded, character shamed, questioned and finally dismissed as liars — writing characters that disregard victims of abuse is insensitive and downright disgusting.
How does Khan get away with it?
Despite her problematic choice of characters, Khan is still an actor that resonates with the Pakistani public. A large part of that, perhaps, is because she falls seamlessly within the expectations of an ideal Muslim woman working in the media.
Of course her quintessential fair skin, innocent, delicate features, two children and modest clothing add perfectly to that narrative. Her popularity comes from her image of the perfect desi girl that has entered showbiz but hasn't forgotten her culture. One who has borne children, but looks like she hasn't aged a day. That is desirable, but not in a way that makes desi men want to send her dirty DMs.
This is probably why unlike her counterparts, Khan is not someone who possesses a local male following that constantly reminds her that she has digressed from expected behaviour. Instead, she is lauded for constantly perpetuating dangerous stereotypes that continue to paint women in brushstrokes of black and white.
She will either be silent in the face of a merciless 'home wrecker' who steals her husband away only to eventually find contentment in settling with a younger, brother-like male cousin who has been wanting her all along (read: Koi Chaand Rakh); or you will find her in a red silk dress, pulling off a bold lip and cheating on her husband to build a life with a richer man who finds her desirable (read: Mere Paas Tum Ho).
She will either be virtuous or a guilty pleasure — but never will she be held responsible for the kinds of stories she is willing to be part of. Why? Because at the end of the day, she will be playing a character that thrives on her own misery. And what better way is there to dissect a Pakistani woman on national television?
This is not an isolated event
What is troubling is that this is in no way an isolated event. We live in a country where the extent to which one can exercise patience is the biggest virtue for a desi woman. Hundreds, if not thousands, are told to "wait till he comes around" when it comes to their cheating husbands.
Yet when it came to Mere Paas Tum Ho, all Khan took away from the project was popularity while men across the country had the pleasure of adding a new phrase to their vocabulary — "do takay ki aurat".
When a debut artist was attacked and made to apologise for making an ill-informed project choice, when Khalil-ur-Rehman was bashed for the script, why did we not demand that the main characters be held to the same level of accountability?
Poorly scripted versus problematic
Directors, producers and even actors have often argued that with the high ratings such shows receive, this is the kind of content the audience wants. But for viewers that have proven the local industry claims false by binge-watching 150-episode series like Ertugrul not once but four times in a row, we know that's just an excuse.
It's high time the team at Hum Network realises that as content creators, they are on a stage before society. At best, you can choose to address your audience with thought provoking, feel-good content that leaves them reflecting on their collective morals; at worst, you can abuse that power to make some extra cash. Either way, your choice will determine what the public is consuming and eventually normalising.
As an entertainer, no one is asking Khan to burden herself with the responsibility of giving a positive message every time she chooses a project to appear on screen. But as a senior artist who has a global fanbase that continues to grow — and as someone who is not unaware of the conversation on gender-based violence taking place in Pakistan today — we do expect her to take some accountability for the way she is carelessly portraying women making false accusations of assault. That too, only for the purpose of morbid enjoyment.
What the audience really wants
It is true that viewers want complex and nuanced scripts. However, when people say they are hungry for new stories, they don't mean flip the narrative and make use of sensitive issues like harassment and fake accusations as a tool for lazy storytelling and bagging high ratings.
At a time when women are being groped in broad daylight, raped in front of their children, choked to death in their own homes and beheaded, these are not the kind of stories that should be given space on national television. Why, you ask?
Because we live in a country that already has a hard time believing a survivor when they come out with their story. Conversations about harassment, abuse and sexual assault are still discomforting for us. We still don't want to hold predators accountable in fear of destroying relationships in the process.
This is why when you make a conscious choice to tell stories of outliers, you are being tone deaf to the actual problems of society. You are perpetuating the idea that women lie about accusations and you are normalising false narratives. You are discrediting victims and justifying it in the name of "the other side of the picture." You are enabling predators and sanctioning media representation — through renowned popular artists — for harassers and other men to openly discredit women who open up about their abuse.
What you are not doing is being responsible.
As a senior artist who has the power to choose from a multitude of projects coming her way, we collectively expect Ayeza Khan to do better.
The author tweets here.