Friday, 6 June 2014

Stop, I don't want to see one woman torture another anymore

"Janam Jali's" first wife does not question polygamy. She does not question her role as T-shirt presser or tea maker. She only wrings her hands up in the air and wonders what more sacrifices and prayers she can offer so her mother in law finds her in her favour again. We see the second wife flirting wither husband in bed and, he of course falls prey to her sweet talk and batting eyelashes. 

I do not know about you but I grew up on Pakistani TV dramas. I grew up idealising the strong female characters of Haseena Moin's plays: "Dhoop Kinarey," "Ankahi," and "Parosi." In fact, I feel like I am stuck in the past since I can't seem to find a well-written and entertaining TV drama. And, to demonstrate how disgusted I am by the TV plays, I am going to rant a bit about a particular play that goes by the name of "Janam Jali." 

I watched a couple of episodes of "Janam Jali," a shockingly sexist TV play that shows how one family matriarch rules over the family with an iron fist and metes out misery upon misery over the women around her. Displeased that her daughter-in-law has only produced daughters thus far she convinced her hapless, ball-less son to marry a second time, while threatening her first daughter-in-law against rebelling against this arrangement. The daughter-in-law obediently  obliges and doesn't make a peep against this injustice. The second wife is, in contrast, a conniving woman who pretends to be innocent and naive, all the time playing everyone around her in order to cozy up to her husband, cozy up to the powerful matriarch and eventually sideline the first wife. 

The play is negative and damaging on many levels. I suppose it would be easy to lured into the entertainment value of watching a melodramatic plot full of good and bad characters. The matriarch screams at her grand daughters and abuses them. She tells her second 'bahu' that her first 'bahu's' time is over and that she needs to doll up and spend more time wither son in order to get closer to him. She fills her ears with all kinds of nonsense against the first woman. This second woman in turn fills the matriarch's ears with lies about the first woman. The first wife's misery grows deeper and deeper; she internalises her problems, blaming herself for everything. The matriarch's deadly stares, megalomaniacal commands and absolute power form part of a compelling character, a tyrant who rules over subjects mercilessly. The second wife conducts sophisticated political machinations in the household. And, the man is clueless about all around him. What is not entertaining about this? 

The contrast between the two daughter-in -laws is laid out misleadingly. They both cover their heads piously, speak politely and are sweet and amiable. However, the first wife actually loves to do all the housework, press her husband's clothes and spend all day in the kitchen. The second wife cleverly dumps all this work on her all the while pretending to still slave over husband. The first wife sacrifices her ego and love for her husband for the sake of peace while the second wife plays sweet and dumb in order to cement her position. The second wife is only too happy to be given a chance to attain an important status in the household even if it means destroying another woman's happiness, even if it means lying througher teeth or playing everyone. In fact, since her first marriage failed and she cannot be an accepted member of society unless she is married to a man, she does whatever she needs to do to get close to him and the head of the family, a woman-hating matriarch

The play does not question womens' limited and controlled role's in a household and society. The first wife is true, pious, and hardworking because she sincerely loves her husband and, her role. We see her pressing her husband's shirts, cooking his favourite meals, and bringing him tea just the way he likes it. The second wife is a hypocrite because she pretends to be a dutiful and loving wife. 

Pretense really is an art form and, all the women practice it in this play. 

What is the hubby's role in all of this? This mustached hunk doesn't seem to have a mind or will of his own. He seems to love his first wife dearly but accepts his mother's rulings and, easily falls prey to her propaganda against his wife. He can't see that his wife has been blackmailed and threatened and, he is plays a passive role in the whole story. Moreover, he wonders why his wife is so normal now that he has married a second time! He questions her love for him after having had a marital night of conjugal bliss after his second wedding, as if her throwing a tantrum would encourage him to grow some balls. That's all this man does - give smoldering looks to his wife for not being upset enough that he married a second time as if he was just a helpless little boy, as if this is just a "gudda guddee ka khel."

One often reads that women in conservative societies or even regular free societies are their own worst enemies. They starve themselves, they play dumb and sweet, and compete with other women in the looks departments. They are the ones who arrange the perfect marriages by appraising the market and finding the perfect girl for their sons and brothers. They harshly judge other women according to a strictly defined code. In fact, I've heard the same dialogue in at least two other plays on Hum TV: an older woman is advising her younger brother or son that he should get married to a younger, homely and pretty girl so he can mould and control her as he needs to.  Women are the ones who insult, harass and torment their daughter-in-laws. They are the ones who fill their brother's ears about their wives. They are the ones who even compete with their own daughters for attention and importance in their own families. They are the ones who hold down their own daughters, grand daughters and nieces as genital female mutilation is performed on them in the name of tradition. They even stone their own daughters to death for dishonouring the family name. These stories are so true that they permeate our consciousness. 

This drama is a great example of how traditions and norms don't require actual prisons and chains to control, oppress and indoctrinate women. Traditions and norms and religion have this wonderful concept called honour. It can be tainted in a minute and bring shame to everything and everyone around you, even the tea cups. Ironically, it is women's seemingly-weak shoulders, bowed heads and covered bosoms that bear the weight of this family, societal and national honour. You don't want to mess with that. Preserving this honour requires indoctrination from an early age and, therefore, women don't need too much convincing of their role in the structures that need to be protected. Preserving this honour works with the threat of shame, ostracism, punishment and even death. So, women often conveniently perform the role of guard, police, and judge for other womenfolk. 

The matriarch's objective is to make sure her family's lineage continues in the form of a male heir even at the expense of degrading her first daughter-in-law to a lowly servant and, to deny her female grandchildren her doting love. She reinforces control of women by criticising everything about her grand daughters, her first daughter in law's character and, by encouraging her second daughter-in-law to use her feminine charms to seduce her son. She, misled by her second daughter in law, even goes to the extent of labeling her first daughter in law as a bad mother for having mistakenly given her own child expired medication. While ordinarily she offers no maternal love to her grandchildren, she uses the opportunity to degrade her daughter-in-law. 

In this play's dramatic scenario of a man marrying a second woman to please his mother, I wonder how polygamy actually works. How does a woman accept her man marrying another woman, especially as it is sanctioned by religion? How does she continue to bow and scrape to a system that says a man can marry up to four women? Speaking of, I wonder how they came up with the number four. Why not three? Why not seven? Why not twenty seven? And, how does it practically work? How can a woman be comfortable with a man spending the night with another woman down the hallway? How are you supposed to relate to that woman? Is she your sister? Are her children your nieces and nephews? And, how does a man equally share his affections with more than one woman? Does he take turns and spend one night with one wife, the second with the second, the third with the third and the fourth with the fourth? Or, is there a divine mathematical formula to figure out how to equally spend time withis wives?  How does he feel about about the children he has fathered with the different women? 

Marriage is not holy matrimony, sanctioned by God, ordained by religion and the rest of the bull crap. It is two people being bound to live life together, to only share sexual relations with each other and no one else, to have children within this socially-acceptable arrangement and to live together for the rest of their lives. Polygamy is, let's face it, a harem of women that a man can sleep with, father children with and live with. It does nothing for women except to only puff up the egos, power and importance of men.

"Janam Jali's" first wife does not question polygamy. She does not question her role as T-shirt presser or tea maker. She only wrings her hands up in the air and wonders what more sacrifices and prayers she can offer so her mother in law finds her in her favour again. We see the second wife flirting wither husband in bed and, he of course falls prey to her sweet talk and batting eyelashes. 

Do you want your son or daughter to see these scenes? Whatever are they supposed to learn from this? For that matter, is this really entertainment for anyone, be they young or old

What is so convenient about the situation depicted in this drama is that a man's own mother finds a new wife, a new woman for him. A new woman he can bed and, of course he has his first wife to bed too. She is for all practical purposes his pimp. 

So far, the only one who comes to our heroine's rescue is her sister in law who quietly tells her that she must stop giving in and, will only make her lot worse if she continues to be a victim. I do not know whether this will inspire our sister to pluck some courage and, start standing up for herself. I don't know whether this piece of advice will help her to break her chains of domestic servitude and, to tell her husband to go screw himself. It looks like all she really, really wants to do is to continue to slave over the man she loves, rear his babies and, be the perfect wife. 

This is my problem with all the plays I have seen so far on TV. They reinforce a woman's role in society: which is to be fair and lovely, which is to be the epitome of piety and obedience, and to catch a husband as soon as she can. 

I don't doubt that these plays depict realistic domestic and social situations. I do not doubt for a minute that women are not cruel towards each other and, act as the wardens of the very system that oppresses them. But I do feel indignant about how these TV plays turn misery, cruelty and oppression into entertainment. These plays do not question the system. These plays do not offer solutions. They do not tell stories of courage or inspiring rebellion. Are we to believe that all women in Pakistan are either victims or cruel mother in laws? 

Does anyone remember Haseena Moin's "Ahat" from the early 1990s? Directed by Sahira Kazmi, it also showed a distressed young woman who is forced to have a child after another since her husband desperately wants a son. Her girls are abused by her cranky mother-in-law who doesn't value them since they are not the right gender. Our heroine is definitely also a weepy kind but she is at least supported by  her neighbour, a strong career woman, if I remember correctly. She regularly gives her pep talks and, tells her to stand up for herself and, care for her daughters. Our heroine suffers physical exhaustion for bearing one child after another. She sees her loving husband distance himself from her. She has to endure her mother-in-law's taunts. She is even forced to give up one of her girls to a more well off relative who can't have children. But for every negative character and situation there is another reasonable and just voice. Our heroine has her friend. And, in turn, this friend's husband also gives lectures to our heroine's husband for blindly wanting a boy. For the mother-in-law there is a sarcastic family member who frequently puts this harsh and unkind woman in her place. The tone of the play is very clear: it criticises the unfair treatment of a mother-in-law of her son's wife just because she couldn't produce a boy! It criticises having children for the sake of having children. It criticises male gender bias.  

I would not mind seeing a realistic play about how women are treated by their mother-in-laws but would like to see that play question the role a society has prescribed for women. I want to see a play directly attack this system. I want to see a play depicting the awakening of a women's sense of herself when faced with cruelty and, fling off her chains. I want to see a play questioning polygamy. I want to see a play where women are supportive of each other, bound together in sisterhood. Writers and producers need to go in search of these stories and put them on our TV screens. 

In the meantime, please stop showing one woman's sadism over another's as entertainment. 

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