Geo TV drama Hadsa, which tells the story of a rape survivor, has stirred up a lot of controversy on social media. Many people are upset because they feel the show doesn’t handle this sensitive topic well and it seems to be uncomfortably similar to a real-life horrific incident on the motorway in 2020.
While Pemra has banned the show, the damage has already been done, with a tweet from journalist Fareeha M Idrees shedding light on the severe trauma experienced by the survivor of the motorway incident as a result of the heartless re-enactment of her harrowing experience on television.
Lead actor Hadiqa Kiani and director Wajahat Rauf have denied the allegations of the show being inspired by the motorway incident, but it’s hard to overlook the striking similarities between the show and the actual event.
After coming across Idrees’ tweet, I decided to watch the show to figure out why and on what grounds the creators decided to make somebody’s life a source of getting a few TRPs or reviews. And what followed was so triggering that I couldn’t help but write about this issue.
The show went terribly wrong on several fronts:
- It irresponsibly portrayed a real-life incident without obtaining consent, which is a grave ethical violation.
- There were no trigger warnings in place, neglecting the potential harm to viewers who might have personal connections to such traumatic experiences.
- The dialogues were poorly crafted and cringe-inducing, capable of triggering distress, regardless of personal experiences.
- The show seemed to perpetuate victim-blaming and misogyny, contributing to harmful stereotypes and attitudes.
- It reinforced the damaging notion that a woman is somehow “broken” or “shattered” after rape, implying that it’s her responsibility to “fix” herself to continue living.
As a trauma survivor, I found the drama so triggering that I was constantly in tears and needed to drink water while watching it. Now, imagine how much more triggering it must be for the person whose life it seems to be based on, whose life events were portrayed on screen. Who will think about her?
Though the makers have denied it is based on the motorway rape, it’s hard to overlook the striking similarities between the show and the actual incident. Many elements within the show, such as the portrayal of the rape scene, media involvement, public attitudes, and victim-blaming, closely mirror the real-life incident.
I have a few questions for the creators: who is the intended audience for this show? Is it meant for trauma survivors whose lives are depicted on screen? Is it a potential guide for perpetrators seeking to commit similar crimes? Or is it simply for a general audience willing to consume anything as entertainment? Because let’s face it, there is not a single scene in a drama that empowers the survivor, but there are multiple that perpetuate victim-blaming.
Let’s believe your purpose was to raise awareness — then why is there a glaring absence of information about it? Why, by the end of your show, does a viewer remain in the dark about critical aspects such as DNA tests, scientific methods to investigate rape or the laws regarding rape in Pakistan? In fact, you didn’t have the courage to use the word “rape”, let alone delve into the psychological, physical, or legal consequences of such a heinous act.
Moreover, the use of the term “procedure” and the portrayal of a scene where the husband conveniently withdraws the case for plot convenience raise questions about your intentions. Were you genuinely attempting to raise awareness or was it all a marketing gimmick to promote your show?
Regulatory body Pemra’s role here is also perplexing; issue-based shows like Udaari and Dur Si Jaati Hai Sila, which attempt to bring about positive change in society, receive notices. Meanwhile, dramas like Tere Bin (marital rape) and Hadsa (rape) that serve no purpose other than chasing TRPs seem to go unchecked. Instead of waiting for public uproar, the regulatory authority should have taken a proactive and firm stand.
Lack of sensitivity and its implications
During my research, I found data compiled by SAMAA TV’s investigation unit from the Punjab home department and the Ministry of Human Rights, covering the period between 2017 and 2021. According to this data, a woman in Pakistan is sexually assaulted every two hours. Meanwhile, War Against Rape estimates that less than three per cent of rape cases lead to a conviction in Pakistan. This stark reality underscores the urgent need for greater sensitivity and action regarding this grave issue, which shows like Hadsa fail to address adequately, if at all.
In a conversation with Images, Syeda Sadaf Batool, a Karachi-based psychologist, offered insights into the consequences of such shows on survivors. “Survivors often experience such vivid flashbacks that it feels like they are reliving the trauma […] they experience depression, sleeping and eating disorders, with some also falling into substance abuse,” she said. “If a survivor manages to take steps towards recovery, they might suddenly regress. This can be incredibly discouraging, and many struggle to find the strength to continue.”
The psychologist added that the media has a responsibility to use trigger warnings and obtain consent when sharing survivor stories. “If they create content without consent, they become part of the problem.”
Huda Naeem, an associate clinical psychologist at Hope and Cope Psychological Services Center, noted that “survivors of rape experience PTSD, generalised anxiety, and a persistent sense of unease regardless of their company, even when they are with those they trust”.
“This feeling of insecurity often leads to dissociation, creating a disconnect between their mind and body as a way to cope. Dissociation can lead to a state called ‘freeze mode’ where individuals experience helplessness and a detachment from their true selves. They may not want to identify with their own bodies or their own identities,” she explained.
Now imagine, you’re going through such trials and tribulations, and somebody shows your story on screen without your consent. How would you feel?
Unfortunately, when portraying rape on television, most don’t think about the survivors and how it can evoke strong emotional and psychological responses in those who may have personal experiences or trauma related to sexual assault. Nor does anyone think about how it can reopen wounds and cause distress, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress reactions in survivors, as they may find it difficult to watch or be reminded of such traumatic events.
All they think of is the TRPs, reviews and critical reception. That said, there’s an additional concern that I’d like to address. Exposure to graphic portrayals of sensitive topics, such as sexual assault, through re-enactment shows like Meri Kahani Meri Zabani and certain Indian movies that perpetuate harmful stereotypes against women to unjustly rationalise these abhorrent acts, has desensitised our audience to the gravity of such issues. Consequently, many people now consider it the norm.
How should we portray sensitive issues in the media?
Rape is a profoundly sensitive and distressing subject. Therefore, it is essential for media outlets, filmmakers, and TV producers to consult with experts and survivor advocacy groups to handle this topic responsibly and ethically.
According to Naeem, “Graphic depictions of traumatic events should be avoided. Instead, creative and artistic techniques can be used to convey the gravity of the situation. For instance, films like Manto provide nuanced portrayals that are suitable for both adult and mature teenage audiences.”
She added that content warnings should be incorporated at the beginning of shows or segments that delve into such subjects. “These warnings provide viewers with essential information, allowing them to make informed choices about whether they want to engage with the content or avoid it based on their sensitivities.
“Furthermore, seek consent from survivors. Obtaining permission for any content related to their experiences can be empowering for them. It gives them control over how their stories are shared and reinforces their autonomy.”
Talking about the legal intricacies surrounding ethical consent in the portrayal of real-life events or individuals in TV shows and other media, a Karachi-based civil judge who wanted to remain anonymous said, “Pemra is the primary regulatory body, and while ethical consent from the person whose life the play is based should be obtained, such an obligation does not appear to exist legally until it can be established that the play was absolutely and specifically about THAT survivor. In such circumstances, the makers normally provide a disclaimer noting that any similarity to any individual, living or dead, is completely coincidental, therefore it has to be seen whether such a disclaimer was aired by Geo or the production firm, or whether they claimed it was based on any genuine incident.”
She said that if they claimed it was based on or inspired by genuine events, the guilt may be greater. “Yet, if they insist it is a work of fiction, establishing legal culpability may be more difficult.”
Our way forward
For one, Pemra should implement a robust system of checks and balances to prevent the broadcast of shows that perpetuate victim-blaming or trigger survivors. There should be a deliberate focus on producing shows that emphasise the significance of therapy and open dialogue within families, schools, workplaces, and communities.
But the first and most crucial step must be taken collectively by the entire nation and the creators of the drama serial Hadsa and that is to extend a heartfelt and sincere apology to all survivors of rape, with a special and profound acknowledgment of the survivor of the motorway rape incident. I would like to initiate this process with my own apology — I’m sorry.