Pakistani soap operas highlight social issues to break taboos

soap operas

AFP |

In life, she chased fame, hoping to make her mark in Pakistani society. In death, murdered social media starlet Qandeel Baloch may have achieved her goal. Today she is a household name, and her tragic story has been turned into a soap opera — one of several immensely popular TV shows seeking to challenge the country’s conservative taboos.

‘Baaghi’, which means ‘Rebel’, charts the rise of Baloch from young, exploited girl to internet sensation infamous for her provocative selfies until her shocking murder, with her brother confessing to the high-profile killing. The show airs on private TV channel Urdu 1 every Thursday. Viewing figures are unavailable, but its pilot episode has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on YouTube.

Their efforts are not without backlash, and Siddiqui describes pressure from media regulators as well as a wave of vitriol on social media with people accusing her and her channel of spreading vulgarity and destroying social values.

“That girl was a lioness. She should not have died yet,” says Shazia Khan, a writer on the series. Baloch’s fate polarised Pakistan. For some, it inflamed outrage over so-called “honour” killings in which hundreds of predominantly women are killed each year, usually by male relatives, for bringing what they perceive as shame on their families.

But the concept of “honour” is deeply embedded in parts of Pakistan’s patriarchial culture, and other voices argued that Baloch had made herself a target by her actions — tame by Western standards but deemed provocative in the conservative country.

Read more: My Tribute to Qandeel Baloch…

The decision to turn her death into one of Pakistan’s popular television soap operas has ensured the debate surrounding such murders of women endures. Notorious for its high-profile story, Baaghi is just one of a wave of soap operas and dramas airing plotlines that revolve around such social issues: from domestic violence to child abuse, forced and child marriages, misogyny and women’s rights.

Sultana Siddiqui, a producer who later set up her own TV station, said they wanted Sammi to be a mirror of society, and an example of “how a taboo issue could be displayed in proper manner.”

They are devoured by Pakistan’s 207 million strong population. Research by Pakistan’s media regulator shows that in 2016, 65 percent of television viewers watched drama channels featuring such soap operas. Another survey by Gallup Pakistan shows 67 percent of adult female viewers and 56 percent of adult male viewers watch entertainment shows, mainly soaps.

Their popularity makes them a potentially powerful vehicle for progress, says lawyer Benazir Jatoi, who works for women’s rights watchdog the Aurat Foundation and has long argued that laws protecting women are not enough to effect grassroots change.

Read more: The first death anniversary of Qandeel

Blowback

“Mujhe Jeene Do” (Let Me Live), another soap on Urdu 1, highlights the issue of child marriages. “If there (is) not widespread awareness, who would know that it is a crime?” Angeline Malik, the show’s director, tells AFP.

They are devoured by Pakistan’s 207 million strong population. Research by Pakistan’s media regulator shows that in 2016, 65 percent of television viewers watched drama channels featuring such soap operas.

Pakistan’s biggest entertainment channel, Hum TV, is a pioneer in using social issues as soap opera fodder.  In 2016 the channel aired “Uddari”, or “Flight”, which told the story of a young girl sexually abused by her stepfather and ignited a debate about the sexual abuse of children inside the home. 

Read more: Mufti Qavi: Now declared himself sick and is in hospital instead…

“Uddari took the sensitive subject … to every household where discussion on sex is still a taboo,” says one avid fan, Aabida Rani. In “Sammi”, which revolves around its eponymous star character, the station highlighted honour killings, forced marriages, and denial of property inheritance to women all in one show. 

Another survey by Gallup Pakistan shows 67 percent of adult female viewers and 56 percent of adult male viewers watch entertainment shows, mainly soaps.

Sultana Siddiqui, a producer who later set up her own TV station, said they wanted Sammi to be a mirror of society, and an example of “how a taboo issue could be displayed in proper manner.”

Their efforts are not without backlash, and Siddiqui describes pressure from media regulators as well as a wave of vitriol on social media with people accusing her and her channel of spreading vulgarity and destroying social values.

But the shows’ popularity kept them on the air despite the blowback, she says. 

© Agence France-Presse

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