June 08, 2016 was the last day of Zeenat Rafiq’s life. Her mother burnt her alive for bringing shame to the family by marrying a man of her choice. Zeenat was eighteen years old. A week earlier, nineteen-year-old schoolteacher, Maria Sadaqat, had been beaten, covered in petrol and set to fire for turning down a marriage proposal from the owner of the school where she worked. The man was old enough to be her father. In the previous month, a village Jirga (traditional council of elders) had ordered the killing of teenage Amber for having helped a female friend elope with a boy that she loved. The fifteen-year-old was kidnapped from her home, drugged, hanged, and tied to the backseat of a van that was later set on fire.
The summer of 2016 was, indeed, brutal but it was hardly a season that saw more atrocities against women than any other. Pakistan, a country where more than one thousand women lose their lives to honor-killings every year, is no country for women. Certainly not for the poor, illiterate and marginalized ones. Women’s rights issues in the country are not limited to honor-killings, acid attacks, domestic abuse, forced marriages, rape, sexual harassment, child marriages, and involuntary conversions to Islam. The customs of jahez (dowry), karo-kari (the killing of people suspected of immorality), vani (the settling of debts using women), watto satta (the trading of brides), and quran se shadi (a practice used to deny inheritance to females) continue to endure, survive and, even, thrive in twenty-first century Pakistan. The list of challenges faced by Pakistani women includes poverty, hunger, homelessness, inadequate medical care, non-existent reproductive rights, sex slavery, human trafficking, lack of access to education, illiteracy, workplace discrimination, and gender wage gap. The list is as long as it is horrific. And, it is becoming longer.
The government of Pakistan is responsible for protecting women and their rights, guaranteeing their safety and security, and granting them equal citizenship. It has largely failed to do any of that and the few legislative steps that it has taken have yielded no positive results. A number of acts, bills and laws – good ones – have been passed. The government has, however, shown little, if any, interest in implementing and enforcing the laws that it has, sometimes half-heartedly and sometimes reluctantly passed. The reasons behind the government’s behavior include pressure from religious bodies, a desire to attract right-wing voters, secure their existing vote bases, a lack of focus, indifference and, more than anything else, total incompetence. These are, however, not the only reasons that have caused the laws to fail. The bigger reasons are cultural, societal and moral; and these can be affected by the government, but never fully addressed by it without the total and complete support of people. Unless, the Pakistani people come on board to protect women, any and everything done by the government does and will fail.
Laws work only when they are consistent with the norms, beliefs and morality of people and fail miserably when they collide with intellectual, moral and cultural values of society. Pakistani people need to believe that treating women with fairness, equity and justice is the right thing to do. They need to believe that women are equal citizens. And they need to believe that women have an inviolable right to respect and dignity. It is these beliefs – and nothing else – that will ensure the legitimacy, potency and effectiveness of laws passed to protect the rights of women in Pakistan.
The role, position and importance of women in society needs to be understood by Pakistani people, who need to study, think about and answer some serious questions concerning women’s rights.
- What constitutes women’s rights?
- Who needs to define women’s rights?
- What needs to be done to ensure women’s rights?
- How can societal norms and laws be made to support each other?
- What part of the responsibility of protecting women lies with the government and what part lies with the people?
- What constitutes discrimination against women?
- How has religion helped and impeded women’s rights?
Simultaneously simple and complex, the questions are important. They cannot be answered easily, and probably not at all, if people remain unaware and do not understand, appreciate and support the cause of women’s rights. And, they can be addressed effectively, and with relative ease, if people are aware and have sound knowledge, cognizance and understanding of the problems, issues and challenges faced by women in Pakistan. Public awareness is the key. All else will fail – and it has failed in the past – if the public lacks awareness.
Kashf Foundation’s new television serial, Aakhri Station, tries to raise that very awareness. That it does so with intelligence, heart and compassion makes it one of the finest television serials of 2018.
Aakhri Station is not the first Pakistani television serial to address women’s issues. The subject has been very popular in television for decades but has rarely been handled with skill, subtlety, responsibility, and intelligence. Sadly, there have been serials that have hurt the very cause they espouse by glamorizing the patriarchal mores of Pakistani society, advocating the subjugation of women, and incorrectly interpreting religion to cater to clerics, politicians and conservative viewers. Thankfully, Aakhri Station is different. Very different. It is responsible, daring and gutsy. It is subtle, understated and realistic. And, it is intelligent.
Aakhri Station succeeds because its primary goal is to raise awareness and not to entertain, preach or enrage. It does not dumb down its very potent message to cater to the lowest intellectual strata of viewers. The serial respects the intelligence and intellect of viewers, trusting their ability to understand, interpret and appreciate its message. The serial’s trust in the Rosenthal, as opposed to the Golem, effect makes it powerful, effective and compelling. Pakistani television has, for far too long, largely mistreated its viewers. It has underestimated their intelligence and acumen. It has failed to challenge their beliefs. It has not forced them to think. It has pushed meaningless but ostensibly entertaining programming down the throats of viewers. In doing so, it has cultivated a generation of television viewers who expect, and can handle, nothing more than the most banal of entertainment. This needs to change. It cannot be allowed to continue. It should not be allowed to continue. Aakhri Station is a substantial step in the right direction. It can, and hopefully will, contribute to the change that television in Pakistani so badly needs.
The third in a series of powerful, socially relevant, and responsible drama serials produced by the Kashf Foundation, Aakhri Station is hard-hitting, engaging, daring, and, in its own way, hugely entertaining. The serial forces viewers to expect more from it and delivers, generously and intelligently, on the raised expectations.
Roshaneh Zafar founded the Kashf Foundation in 1996, a specialized micro-finance institution created with the aim of alleviating poverty by providing affordable financial and non-financial services to low income Pakistanis. The institution has had a special focus on the needs of women throughout its existence and has done some highly commendable work for the empowerment, education and protection of women.
One of the many ways that the Kashf Foundation has supported the cause of women’s rights is by informing and educating Pakistanis, raising awareness of issues affecting women in Pakistan, and encouraging debate about the ills that afflict Pakistani society.
“I think we cannot solve any problem without making the public aware of it,” believes Zafar. “Once our people have awareness, they will do what needs to be done to address our social, cultural and societal problems, and they will do so willingly, with sensitivity, understanding and sincerity. We are a nation of very smart people but do need to be fully aware of the problems that plague our society before we can work on solving them.”
Kashf Foundation has used the medium of television successfully to promote its message for some time now. The foundation made its foray into television production with Rehaai in 2013. Written by Farhat Ishtiaq and directed by Mehreen Jabbar, the immensely successful serial dealt with the issue of child marriage.
“It was very important for us to bring the issue to the forefront,” says Zafar. “Twenty-one percent of Pakistani girls are forced into marriage before they turn eighteen. Child marriages have devastating social, economic and cultural consequences. We essentially rob children of their childhoods and push them into relationships they are neither equipped to handle nor understand. The results are profoundly sad.”
Written by Farhat Ishtiaq and directed by Mohammed Ehteshamuddin, Kashf Foundation’s second serial was the phenomenally successful Udaari. The serial dealt with the heretofore taboo subject of child abuse. Ahsan Khan established his credentials as a top actor of tremendous merit with his performance as the child molester in Udaari. “Eleven cases of child sex abuse are reported in Pakistan every day,” laments Khan. “And probably ten times as many go unreported. It was a privilege for me to help bring the issue to light in Udaari. The serial did help my career as an actor but the real benefit of doing Udaari was getting an opportunity to address a truly heinous crime that is commonplace in Pakistan. The play has changed me as a person. I am now committed to the cause of protecting children from sexual abuse.”
Aakhri Station is a joint production of the Kashf Foundation and Khoosat Films. It is a mini-series of seven episodes that highlights issues that affect women in Pakistan. Directed by the celebrated Sarmad Khoosat (Humsafar, Main Manto, Baaghi, Noor Ul Ain) and written by the gifted Amina Mufti (Ullu Baraye Farokht Nahi, Ghuggi, Zan Mureed), Aakhri Station features a wonderful cast of actors, led by the very capable Sanam Saeed, the exceedingly winsome Mikaal Zulfiqar and the tremendously talented Irfan Khoosat. Kashf Foundation’s style of always working with top talent pays rich dividends of quality, style and excellence in Aakhri Station. The director, writer and cast are at the top of their game in the serial, making Aakhri Station genuinely remarkable because of skilled writing, direction and acting, in addition, of course, to the importance of its subject matter.
Aakhri Station tells the story of seven women who meet in the ladies’ compartment of a train and find strength, inspiration, and courage by sharing the stories of their lives with each other. The stories, at once depressing and heartening, deal with issues of drug addiction, depression, domestic prostitution, violence against women, gambling, loneliness, and living with HIV. The women of Aakhri Station are not weak but wronged. They have been put into untenable positions due to no faults of their own. And, yet, they continue to persevere and have hope. The story of the serial is a celebration of the grit, tenacity and intelligence of its principal female characters and of the camaraderie that they forge during the course of a train journey.
“I believe that women are very strong inherently,” says Mufti. “They may not have the physical strength of men but are more resilient and tough. It is easy to portray women as weak and vulnerable but I did not want to do that with the principal characters of Aakhri Station. I wanted to show that, even in the face of adversity, women can be strong and tough. And, even in the worst of circumstances, they can retain their common sense and humor. I do not think that the women of Aakhri Station will elicit sympathy or pity. Viewers will admire and respect them.”
The rousing theme song of Akhri Station, Mujhay Apnay Jeenay Ka Haq Chahiye, articulates the thoughts of spirited Pakistani women that inhabit both the drama serial and the country. A man of immense talent and one of the finest poets of current times, Amjad Islam Amjad presents the demands and expectations of Pakistani women in a poem that is refreshingly simple and deeply moving. Set to music by Arshad Mahmood and sung by Tahira Syed and Roshaneh Zafar, the song perfectly captures the soul, spirit and ethos of the serial. Mujhay Apnay Jeenay Ka Haq Chahiye is the anthem of the twenty-first century Pakistan woman. Simple, lilting and hummable, may it be heard, understood and loved all over Pakistan!
The writer lives in Dallas and writes about culture, history and the arts. He tweets @allyadnan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, March 8th 2018.