The Modest Woman Vs. The Modern Vamp: Pakistan’s Conflicted Relationship with Women

After his interview with Jonathan Swan on HBO’s Axios, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s comments about sexual assault came under fire on social media when he said that women’s clothing plays a role in the sexual violence inflicted against them, particularly in a country as repressed as Pakistan. Outrage swept across Twitter, as #RapeApologistSelectedPM began trending on the app, and many described his words as insensitive and uninformed of the ground realities behind the epedemic of sexual violence in Pakistan. However, there was a louder moderate and conservative crowd of people who countered these criticisms and agreed with the Prime Minister’s statements. Between this heavy debate, when an overwhelming amount of people seemed to agree with the Prime Minister’s problematic statements regarding women’s appearances, it was odd that the hashtag that began trending a few days later in Pakistan with thousands of tweets on June 23 was #100mostbeautifulwomen2021

The tweets using the hashtag primarily “nominated” different women for the hashtag, mostly Pakistani celebrities or K-pop idols. It remains unclear who exactly the arbiter of the list would be, as well as why such a list was even required when women have bigger battles to be fighting in Pakistan than being pegged against each other in a strange competition over appearances by strangers on the internet. 

The hashtag can be traced back to an account of dubious origin called Top Beauty World on Twitter. With a bio that does not inspire much confidence in its veracity, the account describes itself as “3 of plastic surgeons from Los Angeles Cosmetic Surgery Clinic — Play an important role in choosing the 100 most beautiful women and 100 handsome men worldwide.”. 

And the nominees are…

It was not long ago that Mehwish Hayat was vilified on social media for committing the ultimate crime of dancing on television in a biscuit ad for popular brand Gala. Conservatives on Twitter took up metaphorical arms against the model and actress for partaking in what journalist Ansar Abbasi so politely called a “mujra.” For the transgression of dancing while fully clothed, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) eventually issued an advisory for broadcasters and advertisers urging them to refrain from using themes and content that did not correspond with the nature of the product being marketed. The thorough round of moral policing, religious shaming and name calling reflected much of Pakistani society’s preconceived notions of what good women can and can not do. The concern during the Mehwish Hayat debacle, as has been the case now, is for the fragile moral code of a society that is built on the modesty policing of women.

One might think that it makes sense for a model like Hayat to be on the list, but unfortunately, women are not exempt from being nominated even if they cover up fully. This was the case with Bushra Manek, who received a small but fair share of nominations for herself, despite the fact that she observes niqab, most likely because she does not want to be perceived for her physical attractiveness by strangers.

Alizeh Shah, another model and actress like Hayat, recently found herself on the receiving end of vitriol and moral shaming when pictures of her wearing a tank top surfaced online. Yet, she was also a popular “nominee” for the most beautiful women ranking list. 

The sudden rise of this hashtag seemed odd, as it was mere days ago that women’s appearances were being criticized, with many claiming that these celebrities were to blame for sexual violence in Pakistan. The same celebrities who were, on one hand, accused of the moral degradation of society were now being rewarded for their appearances.

The case for “hypersexualisation” in Pakistan

Although the link between the media and how it impacts levels of sex crimes in real life remains under study, it is reasonable to assert that Pakistan does not have a hypersexualised media industry which to blame. Pakistan has managed to produce a few item numbers here and there, but few and far between, as the film industry remains largely stagnant. Our most thriving media industry is our drama serials, which are also distributed and aired abroad

The drama industry has come a long way since Zia Ul Haq’s regime, when women in the media were mandated to wear the national high-collared kameez and a dupatta over their heads, when the only role for women in ads was to promote detergents or other household products. Female visibility and agency in media and otherwise became conflated with obscenity, a notion that persists to this day. Although women are not mandated to wear the national dress on television anymore, depictions of women in Pakistani dramas remain largely focused on their perceived virtue and honour, even when these scripts are penned by women. 

“Despite modernization and increased female education and labour participation, honour discourses still continue to be the most dominant feature of a woman’s life on screen and in pop culture,” writes Anam Fatima in her 2019 research, Representations of Women ’s Role in Pakistan: A Critical Analysis through Drama Serials 

There is other critical textual analysis to suggest that women, as they are depicted in popular dramas, follow the archetype of the pious, modest and submissive housewives, even when they are being beaten, abused or manipulated. They might find emancipation through professional work, but will put their family before their careers, even when the same is never expected from men. 

In more popular dramas like Humsafar (2011) and Zindagi Gulzar Hai (2012), we can see the false dichotomy between the modest pious woman, who suffers poverty and grief, versus the modern Western tramp, who is trying to seduce the female protagonist’s love interest. In many ways, these media depictions affect our perception of women in real life. Conservatives know this too, which is why dramas like Churails (2020), which depicted the latter Western tramps as the protagonists of the story, received so much backlash. These women swore, smoked and took down cheating husbands, shattering the archetype that most Pakistanis are used to. Despite the fact that Churails aired on Indian platform Zee 5, PTA intervened and sent a notice to the channel about the reception of the show in Pakistan. The backlash the show received indicated that not only should these women not be represented, they should not exist. Women who do not adhere to cultural values, norms and ideologies have no place in our media or society, outside of serving as a foil for the ‘honourable’ female protagonist.

There remains a lot of confusion about what immodesty in the context of our cultural values means. On one hand, dramas where women are demeaned and abused are perfectly adequate for prime time slots. It is also never questioned how the female protagonist, abused and beaten in one scene, may suddenly be pregnant in another. The depiction of abuse never necessitates the implication of the trauma of marital rape. However, a show like Udaari (2016) that addresses child sexual abuse was served up a notice by PEMRA for “immoral content.” Similarly, Sarmad Khoosat’s film Zindagi Tamasha (2019) was banned from airing in Pakistan, despite being lauded in other countries, after an Islamist political party objected to its portrayal of a struggling cleric. 

Because modesty is such a subjective notion, the meaning of “hypersexualisation” changes from one person to another. Some may refer to it as the free mixing between the genders, while for others it may be the absence of a dupatta. Still, many others may find the rules imposed on women under Zia Ul Haq’s regime the true idea of modesty.

This brief look at a major section of the media in Pakistan brings us to wonder why for many Pakistanis, the subjugation of women and the stigmatisation of massive social issues often forms the crux of both modesty and culture.

A case of extremes

For Pakistani society, a middle ground does not exist, as is represented by the conflicted relationship we seem to have with women. Female celebrities will at once be rewarded for their appearances, but will be surely vilified if they transgress subjective boundaries of modesty. An example of this is Turkish actress Esra Bilgic, who became a household name in Pakistan after the national success of Turkish historical drama Ertugul, which is heavily promoted by the Prime Minister himself. Imran Khan speaks of the show as a representation of Islamic conquest and tradition, perhaps not recognizing the irony that Turkey, the country that produces the show, in fact allows drinking, free mixing and clubbing which are all forbidden in Islam and in Pakistan. 

Bilgic posted a picture of herself in a bikini on Instagram, prompting Pakistani people to spam her with angry comments. She turned off the comments section for the picture, perhaps taken aback by the entitlement that Pakistanis felt they were owed to her body. Owing partly to the Prime Minister’s constant posturing of the show as promoting Islamic values and lacking “obscenity,” Pakistanis could not quite come to terms with the fact that Bilgic was not like the noble, pious and virtuous character she portrayed on screen. 

Bilgic, despite having no ties to Pakistan, was held to a ridiculously high moral standard. The kind of reaction she received gives us a good indication of the way Pakistani women are treated when they supposedly transgress boundaries that they have neither created for themselves nor accepted. At best, they are chastised and told that they have sinned. At worst, they are told that they are now playing an active role in their own oppression by tempting rapists. Some people note the irony of this rhetoric in a country where films heavily featuring explicit sexuality are trending on Netflix.

Although rights group War on Rape estimates that 82% of perpetrators in sexual crimes in Pakistan are committed by people within the family of the victim, the myth that women’s clothing will tempt men into committing heinous sexual crimes persists. Even with the sheer amount of women who have spoken up about being harassed or assaulted while wearing modest clothing, most people still put the onus of prevention on women, as that is easier than addressing root causes behind the issue such as lack of sex education, stigmatisation of healthy male-female friendships, corrupt police officers, and a broken criminal justice system.

It is reasonable to suggest that Pakistan is a country that generally dislikes women, as various forms of violence against women can be observed if one pays attention to the society around them. In a report titled “Violence Against Women and Girls in the Time of COVID 19 Pandemic,” launched by Aurat Foundation in collaboration with SAP-PK, 2,297 cases of violence against women were reported in 25 districts of Pakistan between January and December 2020, despite the challenge of under reporting due to the pandemic. Punjab reported the highest number of incidents, which included murder, rape, suicide, acid burning, kidnapping, domestic violence, child and forced marriage, dowry and inheritance. With these statistics in mind, the demand for women to dress modestly seems more like a smoke screen to cover up the state’s and society’s failure to protect women against the misogynistic mindsets that enable all gender-based violence and discrimination. After all, how could modest clothing protect a woman from the hurt ego of a man whose proposal has been rejected? Or from the self-righteous anger of a brother who has discovered that his sister has a social media account? Will modest clothing help these women in pursuing legal recourse against the perpetrators?

Adding to this conflicted relationship is the fact that several women claim that wearing modest clothing in fact prompts more men to harass them, as this makes perpetrators believe that they are underprivileged or powerless.

Of course, Pakistan is still a country that believes it respects and protects its women. Yet, the respect is conditional on women acting like the pious and submissive woman Bilgi portrays on Ertugul, and even then it is not guaranteed. Behaviours that are accepted in and even expected of men are seen as shortcomings for women, such as putting careers before family, late marriages, dancing in public or going out late at night. The responsibility to preserve culture is thus placed on the actions and bodies of the same women said culture often demeans and reduces to an archetype out of a drama serial. 

The dichotomy between the good modest girl versus the bad uncovered vamp generally guides people in their judgement of women in the public sphere, which once meted out is absolute. The latter, they say, drives men to temptation and ruins society. 

We have, however, disregarded the fact that if indeed all it takes for men to dehumanize and assault someone is the sight of a few inches of leg or an uncovered arm, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way women and their bodies are perceived in the collective cultural consciousness of Pakistan.

Romessa Nadeem is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor.

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