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The quiet feminism of Pehli Si Muhabbat

The drama admits that Pakistani men will seldom rise up for women even if its hero Aslam can be categorised as a feminist ally.
Published 07 Sep, 2021 10:21am

Faiza Iftikhar and ARY Digital’s Pehli Si Muhabbat seems like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill drama at first glance but ironically, that is its biggest strength. The lure of the boy next door cliche rakes in millions of viewers and with Maya Ali and Sheheryar Munawar in lead roles, the serial was a guaranteed hit. At a time where dramas are consistently regressing, exposing how much Pakistan’s entertainment industry capitalises on misogyny, Pehli Si Muhabbat's feminism seeps through quietly.

Rakshi and Aslam’s storyline is predictable but succeeds in laying bare the hypocrisy of the patriarchy. Each plot line is used to defend the drama’s themes of female autonomy, the breakdown of the institution of marriage, and the unraveling of mens’ egos. Its triumph lies within its greatest lesson — a woman’s mind, body, and spirit are not placeholders for a man’s izzat [honour].

Comments on recent episodes question why Rakshi is so meek and refuses to do anything but cry. The cause for her despair is obvious yet comments focus the blame on her instead of the real culprit — her father, Faizullah. He doesn't ask Rakshi for her consent and arranges her marriage to a much older man, Sikander. When Rakshi and Aslam are caught, he fumbles his chance of redemption. His toxic masculinity and misplaced pride refuse to make room for his daughter’s own wishes.

How could Rakshi even begin to think of standing up for herself when she was never afforded the liberty to truly live her life as her own? Faizullah loves his daughter not as a father but as an entitled Pakistani man. He believes it his right to choose on Rakshi’s behalf, that daughters should be seen not heard for they are burdens. He cannot stomach the idea that his daughter could willingly become another man’s and it is this idea that Pehli Si Muhabbat seeks to undo.

Maya Ali as Rakshi
Maya Ali as Rakshi

Rakshi does not belong to her father nor Aslam — she belongs to herself but alas, society won’t allow her to forge her own identity. As a young woman, her main priority should be safeguarding her father’s izzat although such an obligation was never hers to begin with. Audiences might be frustrated with Rakshi’s helplessness and cowardice but this frustration is purposeful. It proves that the misogynistic traits that Pakistanis claim as culture are insignificant. What good is a culture that figuratively and literally suffocates almost half its population?

Rakshi’s story runs parallel to that of Aslam’s older sister, Zainab’s. Zainab’s eldest brother, Akram forcibly weds her to Murad despite knowing that she is in love with Sikander, exchanging his sister’s autonomy for a few minutes of masculine glory. Zainab lives a life of solitude, battling depression and an emotionally abusive husband. Murad remains a grey character until Pehli Si Muhabbat's second revelation — to love a woman, you must view her as a privilege, not a haq [right].

The drama challenges the patriarchal foundation of marriage in Pakistan. Marriage is often seen as a conquest that ends in the entrapment of women with virtually no way back. But women are not to be plundered, rather respected as partners. Murad must realise that Zainab’s, and by extension any woman’s, feelings are as complex and unbound as his own. While Zainab’s marriage came about under extremely misogynistic conditions, Pehli Si Muhabbat takes it a step further and questions the validity of all marriages in which respect and love aren’t centred.

Rabia Butt as Nargis, Rakshi's stepmother
Rabia Butt as Nargis, Rakshi's stepmother

Rakshi’s stepmother Nargis — a former sex worker — is arguably the most impactful female character we've seen onscreen in recent years. Pehli Si Muhabbat pushes back against the narrative that sex work should be shamed when it is cishet men that drive the industry. It is dehumanising that Nargis had to turn to marrying a man to obtain solace and the stamp of a shareef khandan [good family]. Nargis questions Faizullah’s decisions regarding Rakshi at every turn and encourages her stepdaughter to take a stand for herself. She too is a victim of Pakistan’s contempt for women and the drama dismantles the good-bad woman dichotomy.

The men who so proudly uphold the facade of a shareef khandan are anything but. Why are women forced to be dutiful to be considered worthy? The concept of purity is nothing but another artificial shackle to bind women to toeing the line drawn by men. If it is men and their egos that cannot handle women, why are women punished for it? Pakistan must reflect on its values if it wants to further itself as the nation it wants to be.

The drama admits that Pakistani men will seldom rise up for women even if its hero Aslam can truly be categorised as a feminist ally. Aslam realises at a young age the shackles the men of his family have chained Zainab in — much like the majority of Pakistani men. They witness their mothers, sisters, and aunts be scorned and policed — they are well aware of the dangers of simply being born a woman in Pakistan — yet they maintain the male hegemony of the country happily entrapping their future wives and daughters in the vicious cycle. Aslam too internalises this misogyny but to become a better man.

Sheheryar Munawar as Aslam
Sheheryar Munawar as Aslam

He refuses to become another Akram, Faizullah, or Murad. He defends Rakshi, lying for her sake when her father questions if she was involved with him because he knows the consequences that come with the stamp of a tarnished woman. He uses his privilege as a man to push back against the patriarchal figures in his orbit. When his friend Nadeem suggests blackmailing Rakshi into running away with him, Aslam promptly shuts him down, enraged at the suggestion, questioning how anyone who claims to be in love could stoop so low. While the conversation is short, it is impactful.

Pehli Si Muhabbat doesn’t outright call itself feminist and how could it when Pakistan treats the ideology as a crime?

Nadeem knows a woman is more likely to be punished for falling in love, and he does not hesitate to use this knowledge against her. He would never wish the same for his sister but has no shame in ruining another woman.

Aslam stands apart from the men of our society, he is committed in his love and respect for Rakshi. Pehli Si Muhabbat leaves viewers with the same questions after each episode: why are women not allowed to express their own autonomy? Why are they punished for trying to shrug the burden of a patriarchal culture off their shoulders? Through Aslam’s character, writer Iftikhar answers: we barely have Pakistani men willing to fight for women. Every man in this country is an accomplice in the crimes this culture inflicts upon its women — they benefit from its misogyny, they take glee in the pain of Pakistan’s women because they know this pain will never touch them. But they will rarely stand up for them, not for the women in their own homes and certainly not for those outside its four walls.

Sheheryar Munawar and Maya Ali
Sheheryar Munawar and Maya Ali

Pehli Si Muhabbat doesn’t outright call itself feminist and how could it when Pakistan treats the ideology as a crime? ARY has made questionable content as of late — Dunk, Jhooti, Nand — but it takes a tiny step forward with Pehli Si Muhabbat. The drama deconstructs the very idea Pakistan holds so near and dear — a man’s izzat. Why is the male ego so valued against decades of imprisonment of female autonomy? Is there a bigger dishonour than the treatment of women in this nation?

A man’s izzat is not dependent on a woman and it is high time that Pakistan discredits the idea. A woman is akin to a caged bird, with iron rungs forged from the suffocating heat of the patriarchy. To melt the metal, it is men who must change because the women of this country — on-screen and off-screen — have run their voices hoarse.