A woman for two pennies:
the portrayal of women and changing social constructs of gender in Pakistani TV drama

by Iram Qureshi

Pakistani television has mostly promoted a sacred traditional image of women since 1964. Although with changing global perspectives, TV’s female characters have been given modern dress and bold personalities, portrayals with fierce determination and total independence are scarce. I explore the portrayal of women in a Pakistani TV drama serial Meray Pass Tum Ho (MPTH) (I Have You, 2019) to investigate how the screenwriter, Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar, exploits gender as a social construct. MPTH presents an antithetical woman character who goes out of the bounds of society to fulfill her materialistic wishes; she gains freedom and gets involved in an extra-marital affair, hence requiring that in the script she be punished. This show became one of the few Pakistani serials that developed a story about an open live-in relationship between a man and woman out of wedlock. Using a narrative analysis, I argue that the writer conveniently conveys common, biased patriarchal opinions about gender roles, knitted up here in romance and love relationships, and I raise questions about how female characters are and might be reconstructed against male characters on Pakistani television, according to changing social norms within the country.

Gender on Pakistani television

In 1949 Simon de Beauvoir put forth the theory of gender roles being a socially constructed phenomenon when she stated, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (Translated by Parshley, 1997). [open references in new window] The proposition of someone becoming a woman depends on the fact that society associates certain traits and roles with specific sex and gender. Feminism’s challenge to traditional cultural ideologies around gender have now affected many historically patriarchal societies in western as well as eastern countries by bringing more social freedoms to and acquisition of rights for women. A visual reminder of this cultural change can be seen in many countries’ television industries.

In Pakistan, the contemporary television industry is in a competition with Indian television and is providing more modern and fashionable content for its audience than before. But in Pakistan, some elements hinder the television industry’s progressiveness or modernized content. The country still has conventional censorship policies, and the industry often bends to the orthodox beliefs of a few, in-demand, famous writers. In this regard, Virgine Dutoya (2018:71) notes that while modern Pakistani dramas explicitly address women’s issues and “champion women’s rights,” these dramas “also propose specific representation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ womanhood.” A good example of this, then, is the drama I am analyzing here: ARY Digital’s 2019 serial Meray Pass Tum Ho (MPTH) directed by Nadeem Baig and produced by Humayun Saeed. This series vividly portrays misogynistic ideas while seemingly portraying an ideal woman; it secured a high viewership with favorable social media trends and memes. Its success followed other trends in the regime in Pakistan at that time, which was favored and supported by the younger generation then. Both the government and other religious/cultural institutions played a great role in dispersing conservative politico-religious views about women through direct statements and social media campaigns. The government aimed to gain the sympathies of the public as the champions of religious ideology.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

In this case study of Meray Pass Tum Ho (MPTH) (2019-2020), I am particularly interested in how the changing social constructs of gender are depicted in the serial. I want to explore what is socially understood as masculine and feminine while looking at how the gender inequalities in Pakistani society are portrayed through television dramas. I focus primarily on narrative and script, and also consider social media and reviews to see how the drama was received by critics and the public. My focus is on the social construction of gender and patriarchy and how TV drama consumes and reflects these concepts through its fictional text. The serial appeals to viewers’ internalized sexist views by manipulating the female characters. And it also has a subtext, which I shall explore later, that subtly promotes patriarchal beliefs vs. its female characters. In addition, the use of glamor and romance, common to TV serials, are also occasion for unspoken, biased gender assumptions.

On a personal level, I was led to write about this drama after encountering a by-then infamous interview with the TV and film writer, director, and producer Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar (KRQ), a die-hard supporter of the then Prime Minister. It appeared on an online YouTube channel Entertainment Pakistan (EPK) in 2019 and it dealt with MPTH. In this case, the interview itself revealed the need to evaluate the role of the creative industries in propagating orthodox fundamentalist approaches, especially around gender, through the medium of entertainment. Qamar is a very successful figure in the media industry. He is famous for writing strong dialogue and tragic love stories in his several successful television serials and feature films.[2] The interview of Qamar to EPK then became infamous as it was strongly condemned by many, and a debate on social media arose around his extremely prejudiced remarks about women.

Qamar is an active participant in media debates around women’s rights and equality; he openly expresses his views claiming he is a feminist. Contrary to his image of himself and commenting on his interview with Entertainment Pakistan (2019), The Dawn Images wrote,

“The self-proclaimed biggest feminist of Pakistan is anything but. His latest interview is a masterclass in mansplaining” ( Images Editorial, 2019).

In the interview, Qamar had challenged women that if they want equality, they need to prove that they can do the same things as men do, such as ‘kidnapping,’ ‘gang-raping a man’ and ‘robbing a bus’ (Entertainment Pakistan, 2019). Qamar is a controversial personality and his misogynistic remarks on different occasions have been condemned widely in the media. For example, he is against the Women's March that takes place in Pakistan on the International Women's Day, the 8th of March, every year for the past few years, and he bluntly opposes a very famous slogan, My Body, My Choice, used by women during this march.

Qamar’s serials such as Pyare Afzal 2013 (trans: Dear Afzal), Sadqay Tumhare 2014 (trans: May my years be added to yours) and Mohabbat Tum Say Nafrat Hai 2017 (trans: Love, I Hate You) are based on conventions of melodrama with romantic plots; they often have tragic endings with at least one of his protagonists dying while being in a love relationship. Sadqay Tumhare was a biographical drama based on Qamar’s life story where his ex-fiancé passed away long after they could not marry each other. This incident seems to have been replicated in a way in MPTH and his other serials.  

MPTH became famous for its plot around an imposter wife, a victimized husband, and a charming seducer. It is a 23-part TV serial, which aired on ARY Digital, one of the biggest satellite TV channel networks in Pakistan. The serial was accessible all over the world due to being simultaneously streamed on ARY’s YouTube channel. ARY Digital is also one of the earliest satellite TV channel networks in Pakistan and has earned a wide viewership in and outside of the country. ARY Digital claimed in an Instagram post that this one serial achieved “Highest Ever Ratings of Any TV Program of Pakistan” with 37.1 TRPs (arydigital.tv, 2020).  

The views reflected in the serial are not necessarily the director or producer’s perspective. In this case, the writer Qamar claims that he does not allow the producer to have his/her point of view represented in his written scripts. In fact, the director Nadeem Baig and cast members agreed in the introductory show on TV that the script was not changed, and the scenes were recorded as they were written originally by the writer (ARY Digital, 2020). I have wondered then why Humayun Saeed agreed to produce and act as the protagonist here. One reason that he gives in one of his video interviews is the centrality, uniqueness and importance of the character, Danish, whom he plays as being a male victim of infidelity (Desi TV, 2020). Of course, since TV productions are industrial practice, we can also think of the director and producer’s “free” decision to be involved in the production of the serial indicates their conditions of employment and thus their concurrence with the script.

In terms of background to MPTH,  Pakistani television dramas used gender and sex issues as plot elements previously, but these were not very explicit in their expression and nor highlighted the major differences and judgments that the society holds for different genders in similar situations. And only in the past two to three decades has the media been given more liberty to raise gender and sex issues in a patent manner. What I refer to as “drama” is also referred to as “soap opera” in the United States, but it has a different role and structure in Pakistani TV. Drama is usually referred in Pakistan as Urdu language serials with one story spread over 13 to 32 or more episodes broadcast in one to two-quarters of the years. Previously, up to the 1990s, when there was only one TV channel PTV (Pakistan Television), the drama used to broadcast in primetime, between 8 and 9 pm when all the family members used to watch TV together. These dramas were used to enforce cultural beliefs, narratives and ideologies, encouraging and perpetuating traditional norms and values of the society.

Since 1964, Pakistani television has presented female characters with all the curtailments of culture and traditions, promoting them as forgiving and submissive. However, we can see a clear change in the female characters in recent years. Some television serials have presented controversial issues related to women, such as extramarital affairs, rape, prostitution, and the enhanced sexual desire of women, but the scripts had to be written in a very discreet manner to avoid becoming a target of religious criticism and state censorship policies.

Another of Qamar’s serial Ab Dekh Khuda Kya Karta Hai is about punishments and love triangle.

Drama serial Makaan depicts extra-marital relations between a woman and her brother in law.

Some of the examples are from my own experience of TV serials and TV films including Geo TV’s drama serial Makaan (aka Home) (d.Qureshi, 2004) which showed an extramarital affair between a woman (Bushra Ansari) and her younger brother-in-law (Shabbir Jan) living in the same house. Another serial Ishq ke Inteha (aka Unbounded Love) (d.Qureshi, 2009) telecast on  Geo TV, highlighted the issue of rapes and prostitution businesses run by the powerful politicians exploiting naive and needy women under the pretense of operating beauty salons business. Hum TV’s serial Sangat (d. Kashif Nisar, 2015) and Geo TV’s serial Ab Dekh Khuda kya Karta Hai (d. Ali Raza Usama, 2018) raised sexual harassment and assault issues. The TV films such as Abida Gunahgar Hogai (aka Dowry List) (d.Qureshi, 2007) displayed how the girls are compelled to earn by dancing in men-only parties for their dowries and to run their homes.

MPTH, though, is one of the pioneering television serials of Pakistan that openly displays a live-in relationship between a heterosexual couple out of wedlock. “Living together” is not considered progressive in the national cultural context. It is taboo and unacceptable in Pakistani society for a man or a woman to have pre-marital sex due to cultural and religious reasons, also it is forbidden for a man or woman to have an extra-marital physical relationship, which has consequences as adultery. In common custom, woman is taught that if a man is involved in an extra-marital affair or pre-marital sex, the wife or wife-to-be is supposed to forgive him:  the errors are made by humans, and he is after all a man. However, if a woman makes such a mistake, it is rarely forgivable by society: a woman is supposed to be the keeper of a man and a family’s honor. I will briefly explain the story of the drama serial before tracing out these issues any further.

Images from MPTH. Mehwish. Danish and Rumi enjoy a day out every Sunday. Danish works for a nominal salary in a government department.

MPTH develops incidents in the life of a rebellious woman character who defines social convention to gain a kind of freedom. The unfaithful wife, Mehwish (played by Ayeza Khan) has a 6-year-old son Rumi (played by Shees Sajjad Gul) and a dotting and loyal but possessive husband Danish Akhter (played by Humayun Saeed), who in contrast to her wants nothing more in his life than his wife. Danish, a middle-class government officer, has an apartment he inherited from his father but earns a nominal salary in which he can hardly afford a family. Mehwish is always unsatisfied with their financial situation and unsuccessfully tries to persuade Danish to take bribes. Her dissatisfaction increases because of her friendship with a young woman Anushey (played by Mehar Bano) from a rich family, who often asks Mehwish to accompany her on lavish shopping trips and spends money extravagantly on fashion wardrobe and jewelry.

Anushey buys expensive jewelry from a jewelry store for her brother’s wedding Mehwish borrows money from Anushey to buy a gold jewelry set that she has been longing to buy for a while.

Danish and Mehwish’s relationship gets worse with the arrival of Shehwar Ahmed (played by Adnan Siddiqui) in their lives. He is a business tycoon who finally wins an interpersonal competition with Danish by having Mehwish for himself. Significantly, Shehwar enjoys a physical relationship with Mehwish for months before agreeing to marry her. A non-marital sexual relationship is a major sin in Islam, which is the governing religion of Pakistan. However, this concept has more cultural value than religious, and people from other religions in the region including Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis equally oppose the idea of extra-marital or non-marital sexual relations. Shehwar’s wife Maham (played by Sawera Nadeem) breaks Mehwish’s dream-existence by evicting her from the house she occupies with Shehwar just before Mehwish’s wedding with Shehwar is to take place. Maham reports Shehwar to authorities for fraud, forgery, and money laundering, who arrest and send him to prison that same day. All at once, Mehwish becomes homeless and must try to regain her position as wife in the heart and home of Danish, who has now become a millionaire after getting into the stock exchange business. Hania (played by Hira Mani) is Rumi’s school teacher and the daughter of Danish’s work colleague, Mateen (played by Mohammed Ahmed). She tries her best to help both Danish and Rumi in overcoming the grief after Mehwish leaves them both. Hania falls in love with Danish. Maham forgives Shehwar, but Mehwish fails to win Danish back, who dies in a cardiac arrest leaving both Mehwish and Hania grieving forever.

Anushey tells Mehwish that Shehwar’s wife is suspicious of him. Shehwar and Danish are introduced first time at the henna ceremony for Anushey’s brother.