Plot twist as Pakistani soap operas seek to break taboos

Pakistani actress Fatima Shah Jeelani, center, and actors Ali Abbas, left, and Imran Ashraf filming the drama serial ‘Mein Maa Nahi Banna Chahti’ (I Don’t Want To Become A Mother) in Karachi. (AFP)
Updated 12 January 2018
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Plot twist as Pakistani soap operas seek to break taboos

ISLAMABAD: 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. “That girl was a lioness. She should not have died yet,” says Shazia Khan, a writer on the series.
Baloch’s fate polarized Pakistan. For some, it inflamed outrage over so-called “honor” 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 “honor” 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 honor killings, forced marriages, and denial of property inheritance to women all in one show.
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.
Even as the shows push for awareness and change, the way soap opera heroines are portrayed can cause consternation.
Sadaf Haider, a blogger at the country’s major Dawn.com news portal, wrote in October that the storyline for Baaghi followed a predictable Pakistani track relieving the heroine of autonomy — essentially portraying Baloch as a victim.
“The actual Qandeel didn’t consider herself a beychari (helpless) at all, even a cursory reading of her interviews shows she worked hard and was proud of what she had achieved,” Haider wrote.
“Qandeel took full responsibility for her choices... So why has Baaghi portrayed something else entirely?”
Pakistani journalist Fifi Haroon has complained the portrayal of women in such shows still fits in to a patriarchal narrative.
“Simpering, dewy-faced heroines... suffer in obstinate silence or misguided stoicism,” she wrote in a BBC piece. “Tears are plentiful. Producers now claim that if you don’t show women crying, the drama won’t garner ratings.”
Lawyer Jatoi, while praising soap operas as vehicles for change, took a cautious view.
“They must ensure they are responsible enough to handle such sensitive topics and address underlying issues so as not to add to the already existing stigmas,” she told AFP.
Haroon agreed, writing that their makers must be aware of their audience.
“It is not just women,” she wrote.
“Men too are observing what it takes to be a man in Pakistani society and of course, what they can expect from the women in their lives and homes.”


South Sudan surgeon wins UN prize for treating war-hit refugees

Updated 25 September 2018
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South Sudan surgeon wins UN prize for treating war-hit refugees

  • South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has been ravaged by civil war since 2013 after clashes erupted between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar
  • At least 50,000 people have been killed and one in three South Sudanese have been uprooted from their homes

NAIROBI: A South Sudanese surgeon, who has spent two decades helping the sick and injured in the war-torn east African nation, was on Tuesday announced the winner of a UN prize for treating tens of thousands of people forced to flee violence and persecution.
Evan Atar Adaha — a 52-year-old doctor who runs the only hospital in northeastern Maban county — was given the 2018 Nansen Refugee Award for his “humanity and selflessness” where he often risked his safety to serve others, the UN said.
“I feel very humbled. I hope this award can help draw attention to the plight of refugees especially here in Africa where they are often forgotten about,” Adaha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
“You may hear and read about them, but it’s only when you are face-to-face with people who have left everything and are sick with malaria, or are malnourished, or have a bullet wound that you realize how desperate the need for help is.” Nansen Refugee Awardees are recognized by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) for dedicating their time to help people forced from their homes. Former awardees include Eleanor Roosevelt and Luciano Pavarotti.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has been ravaged by civil war since 2013 after clashes erupted between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.
The government recently signed a peace agreement with rebels, but the five-year-long war has had a devastating impact.
At least 50,000 people have been killed and one in three South Sudanese have been uprooted from their homes. The country also hosts around 300,000 refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Sudan, according to the UN.
Adaha, known locally as Dr. Atar, has been running Maban hospital — which was once an abandoned health clinic — in the northeastern town of Bunj since 2011.
When he first arrived, he said there was no operating theater and he had to stack tables to create a work area.
Over the years, he has transformed the hospital and created a maternity ward and nutrition center, as well as training young people as nurses and midwives.
The 120-bed hospital now serves around 200,000 people living in Maban county — 70 percent of whom are refugees from Sudan — and conducts about 60 operations weekly but under very difficult circumstances.
Adaha said the only x-ray machine is broken, the operating theater has only one light, and electricity is provided by generators that often break down.
Although the hospital receives support from UNHCR, Adaha said a lack of funds remains his biggest challenge to treating everyone who needs help. “In the hospital, we will treat anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a rebel, government soldier, refugee or a local person. We have pregnant women, malnourished children and even people who are wounded by bullets,” Adaha said.
“The one rule we have is that no weapons are allowed in the hospital. If you bring a weapon, then we will not treat you. Sometimes it is difficult, but most people now agree.”
The Nansen Refugee Award ceremony takes place on Oct. 1 in Geneva, and the winner will receive $150,000 to fund a project complementing their work.