Women have long been defined in relation to a man. Visual narratives may add to perception about gender construction and or use some level of deconstruction. Images use language as a kind of nonverbal correlation and create a space for the cultural articulation of constellations of feelings inside societies and across social limits. In particular, visual narratives can delineate “otherness,” which is “a fundamental category of human thought" (Beauvoir 1949). In ZGH’s narrative trajectory and reception, there are two main otherings.

First, in relation to a man, all the key female characters in the drama become the other:

"She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute—she is the “Other.” (Beauvoir, 1949).

Second, for the Indian audience, Pakistani people become the “other.” It is crucial to understand the political context of how Pakistani people become the “other” for Indian audiences. The partition of the subcontinent into two—India and Pakistan (in 1947)—created wounds in the hearts of the communities—Hindu, Muslim, and Sikhs. Millions were killed and uprooted. As a result, two countries that were one, with shared cultural histories, now have hostile relations. There have been government policies in place to restrict the cultural and human flow on both sides.

Also, there is both media regulation and the fact that the images, characters, and representations of Pakistanis perpetuated in Indian media and films have been negative and stereotypical. Indian cinema has a conventional repertoire of depictions of Muslim women and men. In Bollywood cinema, Muslim/ Pakistani men usually wear surma (Kohl for eyes) and a cap. Women typically wear a burqa. The representation orbits around religious places like mosques.

"The broadcasters at Zindagi capitalized on this lack of a realistic representation of the Pakistani identity in Indian media and attempted to initiate cross-border communication through the syndication of Pakistani dramas in India." (Pant, 2019).

ZGH broke that pattern of old-fashioned Muslim imagery. Through ZGH, it was probably the first time that the Indian audience experienced a different portrayal of the “other.” In contrast to Indian films and TV,

“...these serials manage to provide a matter of fact representation of Pakistani lives, as Muslim people dealing with issues of class, gender, social and familial struggle ranging from the upper-class section to the lowest strata of their society.” (Bhattacharya & Nag, 2016).

Regimes of representation

Like other visual narratives, although ZGH forms "the conditions of existence of a cultural politics designed to challenge, resist and, where possible, to transform the dominant regimes of representation" (Hall, 1996), [open references in new page] in the end, it adheres to hegemony. ZGH raises questions about male children's preference, polygamy, women unwanted since birth, fragile male ego, right to education, calling out to irresponsible men, abuse, violence, and so on, but in the end it normalizes the traditional roles of women. To explore those contradictions, I am interested in examining the portrayals of women in ZGH, paying particular attention to their representation in the roles of love interests, wives, mothers, especially in the context of their position in society. These scripted roles and their visual presentation convey values and issues such as sacrifice, strength, family, sexuality, and femininity.

"Feminists argue that this politics of cultural media is gendered, and the construction of women in the media is a political act and is indicative of unequal power relations" (Fatima, 2018).

The ZGH drama was marketed and presented as pro-women, fighting stereotypes and practices that harm women. This could have been a smart marketing strategy where one expects a fight against the "naturalization of sex, gender" (Jagger, 2007). In the case of ZGH, Sanam Saeed, who plays the lead role, says, "I like characters that can be role models for young girls, roles that can help change people's perspective." (The Express Tribune, 2014). Through my analysis, I conclude that though ZGH has been promoted as a pro-woman, modern woman, and pro-liberation, the women characters finally succumb to hegemonic representations, especially about an ideal/correct/new woman in South Asian (mainly Pakistani) society. Through my analysis, I prove that these “unsettled” women find refuge in men who rescue them and make domesticity a priority. I investigate what this new emerging woman is and how it’s thought she should be.

Methodology speaking, I have taken characters, plots, themes, and dialogue into consideration in this textual analysis. I have also borrowed the concept of the emergence of a “new woman” in Pakistani society (Dutoya, 2018), but I conclude that even this new woman ends up reinforcing existing inequalities and conventionality. Contrary to the marketing strategy, for women one still finds “conditioned” adherence to gender conformity and “compulsory heterosexuality”; there’s still an and absence of full empowerment in "actualities of the everyday of people's embodied living.” (Smith, 1999 p.73)

Framing the female body

The izzat (honor) of the family resides in the body of a woman. Men have asserted control over political and economic power even within the household.

"If the female body is not necessarily always excluded within this problematic, it must always be placed within quotation marks. For it is precisely the massive reading, writing, filming of the female body which constructs and maintains a hierarchy along the lines of a sexual difference assumed as natural" (Doane, 1988).

I address control by men in Pakistani society using the definition of honor by Eylem Atakav:

“Honor is typically perceived to be residing in the body and sexuality of women; protecting this honor and policing female activities relating to marriage, sexuality or love are perceived to be the primary roles of the male or the male members of a family or a community. This idea of regulating women’s lives, experiences, and sexuality are common in patriarchal discourses surrounding a society” (2015).

The liberties that some of the female characters demand—freedom to have male friends, to dress as one’s wish, to have a life outside the family—are constructed within the ZGH script as irrational whims or errors, the consequences of which are severe on women and their families. For example, frequently the male authority figures explicitly make clear that a woman should not dress in a manner that attracts attention from the opposite sex. Therefore, the men take it upon themselves to set the women right and assert control over how they dress—the more covered, the better.

In upper-class society, women are more westernized. In Zarun's family household, for example, his sister Sara wears casual jeans and tops, make-up and the women don’t have their heads covered. The men in the family object to Sara's dressing style. As a consequence, Zarun, the liberal class's supposed voice in the series, supports his father Junaid when his father reprimands his sister Sara to wear "proper" clothes. Here, "proper" means the woman should be fully clothed. Sara's bare arms should not be exposed, and she shouldn't wear tight-fitting clothes or any attire that exposes her body or gets attention from the opposite sex. Junaid and his son Zarun want to assert their self-acquired right to comment on how a woman should dress. In Episode 3, for example, Sara leaves for a concert wearing a sleeveless top, and Junaid says, "one shouldn't wear that which makes one look indecent.” However, Sara dismisses her father's remarks and goes to the concert as she wishes. The same night there is a discussion at the dinner table where Zarun's mother, Ghazala, says that Zarun and Junaid should not have confronted Sara over her dressing. Soon, Sara is metaphorically punished for her ways, including her way of dressing, because her husband divorces her, sending a clear message that a liberal woman cannot be a good homemaker.

Zarun’s mother at many points becomes the "narrative of resistance." (Krier, 1995). Ghazala champions women's rights and rebels, saying that she will not train her daughter "to be under her husband's foot!" To counter this, Zarun becomes an "official figurehead.” He supports his father and says, "Even I think that a woman should be properly dressed." Zarun goes to the extent of warning when Sara is about to get married, she should be all the more careful about how she conducts herself, including her mode of dressing. In traditional discourses of honor, the vision of a Pakistani woman's sexuality is that she must be protected from the outside world where a woman is at risk. The reputation and shame of the household's females aren't just a matter of their individual being but affect the kin and community as a whole. (Fatima, 2018) "Naukar Kya Sochenge?" (What will servants think?) Zarun also complains to his sister for coming home late post-midnight. He tells her,

"I am a man. I can come home late, but you are a girl. Imagine what people will say."

Sara exerts her female agency by living the way she wants. No matter how obsessed or irrational the men are, women are supposed to adjust to them. Those like Sara who do not conform to this are labeled “immature.”

Towards the series’ end, the same Sara who used to stay out late at night, went to concerts, and was in control of her life now buckles. Initially, she doesn't do household chores and also doesn't know how to sew a button. She is reprimanded continuously for her liberal outlook. Once she gets married to Farhan, someone whom she had dated, she is expected to change. The same man who was okay with Sara being the way she suddenly finds her "irresponsible, stubborn" (episode 12). Sara calls “freedom” her fundamental right (episode 13). However, Farhan disagrees and sees it as his responsibility to check her. Women's decision-making is questioned continuously, and post-marriage, Farun objects to Sara meeting her male friends.

Standards are different for men and women. But a woman is unchaste if she hangs out with men other than her husband. As a result of such conflicts, Sara's first marriage falls apart. Farhan legitimizes his dominance as he urges Zarun to make his sister understand and then tells her mother to talk to Sara, who supports Sara's freedom. The importance of self-sacrifice is clearly stated in ZGH when Sara  later reflects on her marriage's failure, saying that she gave herself too much importance (episode 22). Finally, even Ghazala's support for Sara is discouraged. Sara finally blames her mother for the divorce and says that all men aren't liberal like her father, and Ghazala could have stopped Sara from getting a divorce by not prioritizing her freedom.

As Fatima (2018) says,

"By making marriage the ‘issue,’ the other aspects of a woman's life (like education, childhood, nutrition, maternal health, spiritual health other than religion), are deemed as non-existent and hence ‘non-issues.’”

Too much freedom seems unsuitable for women. Sara goes into a deep depression after her first marriage is over, and after visiting various psychiatrists, she still doesn't get better. The ultimate medicine is marriage. Solitude is no option for Pakistani women. In episode 22, Sara regrets what went wrong in the first marriage. Sara says, "I gave preference to my likes and dislikes (and that was a mistake).” Her way of dressing has changed. She is now wearing a loose suit instead of jeans and tops that she used to wear before. She is willing to compromise in her marriage. Knowingly, she decides to get married into a conservative family, and Zarun calls this "maturity.”

Zarun, one of the key protagonists of ZGH, is initially engaged to his childhood friend Asmara. Asmara belongs to the same upper-class society as Zarun does and is similar in habits to his sister and mother. Zarun cannot stand it if another man stares at or comments on his woman because the woman isn't dressed decently enough. "The clothes should reflect domestication" (Fenwick, 2011). A woman is rejected if she is an "unveiled woman who is confident and no longer self-conscious of her exposed body." (Ghorbankarimi, 2015 p.25) If she dresses in western attire, she should wear loose-fitting clothes, with blouses that have full sleeves and cover the hips. In episode 5, Asmara—Zarun's best friend and fiancé then—wears a sleeveless top to college. Zarun thinks women invite harassment if they do not cover themselves adequately (episode 6). "She is a bad woman who needs to be monitored and controlled." (Qureshi, 2016). He can’t stand his life partner being so open-minded. His doubts about Asmara become more apparent once he changes and becomes more possessive, but Asmara constantly contradicts Zarun and remains independent in her thinking.

Freedom for women becomes problematic and punitive. In itself, the term feminism is avoided, and the only time it is mentioned in ZGH, it is in a negative light. In episode 10, we see Zarun discussing feminism while writing in his diary and expressing his skepticism: ‘Why should a woman who does not make any compromise and cries louder than a man be liberated? And how can I stop Asmara [his fiancée at the time] from becoming such a woman?'" (Dutoya, 2018).

Asmara telling Zarun how she feels suffocated because he has a problem with her being liberal. Zarun's reaction to Asmara arguing for her freedom.
Zarun's and Asmara's engagement Zarun scolds Asmara because he thinks she has dressed inappropriately.

In episode 10, Zarun wonders if Asmara will be a good wife, or will she be a wife like his sister Sara, who is liberal in her outlook and talks back to her husband. Zarun seems to suggest that there is a difference between “friend” material and “wife” material. He finally finds Asmara too "headstrong" and "liberal" to be his wife. He doesn't like the kind of freedom that women like Asmara, his sister, or his mother practice. In episode 13, Zarun is vocal about his demands upon Asmara:

"I don't like women who act too liberal, and you have always known this, and I don't like any girl to get up and go with just any guy, anywhere…If you consider this slavery, then I really can't say anything because this isn't very wise...I wouldn't say I like it when you meet people that I don't like."

In the end, she suffers because she is not able to marry the man she loves. Asmara breaks up with Zarun and has to find her happiness away from him.

Centrality of family

In this series as in many dramas on Pakistani television, women need to put everything in line with their families’ needs. A woman with career aspirations has not fulfilled her duties properly. The husband, domestic chores, and children need to be the top priority even for an educated and or working woman.

“Marriage remains the only destiny for women in these dramas, and the discrimination faced by women within this institution is not unambiguously condemned.” (Dutoya, 2018)

Moreover, of the women shown to be working, there is an implicit understanding of “necessity” motivating their work instead of fulfilling a career, indicating that paid work is a means to an end and only secondary to women’s primary roles as carers, wives or mothers. (Milestone and Meyer, 2012; Fatima, 2019).

ZGH villifies upper-class women for having financial autonomy that enables their escaping patriarchal norms. "A woman whose ambition in life is to establish her career is somehow only worthy of condemnation and the wrath of her children." (Qureshi, 2016) Ghazala (Zarun's mother) has been wrong as she has paid considerable attention to her likes, dislikes, and career. She doesn't dress traditionally, doesn't cover her head, is westernized, is elitist, goes to parties, and runs an NGO. She has servants at home, so she doesn't cook, clean, and doesn't do laundry. Repeatedly, she is reminded that she has failed as a mother and a wife. Zarun has sensed the lack of a happy relationship between his mother and father (episode 24). He feels the absence of a “real” mother despite having one. Ghazala becomes a problematic and unfulfilled character who has failed to deal with her children's feelings. It is as if working women "lose their warm qualities" (Kaplan, 2000; Fatima, 2019) and end up meeting a terrible fate if they do not recognize the importance of family.

According to her children, Ghazala has been selfish and irresponsible. Throughout the drama, Ghazala has been blamed for the failed marriage of her daughter Sara (ep. 15). In a detailed conversation in episode 22, Junaid (Zarun's father/ her husband) accuses Ghazala that the house hasn't been her top priority. Ghazala was too busy in her career and had her priorities wrong. Zarun, Sara, and Junaid also blame Ghazala for the deficient upbringing of Sara and Zarun and raising them as “confused personalities.” The entire family criticizes Ghazala, saying that Zarun and Sara's childhood raising had suffered as Ghazala prioritized herself and her career. Working women characters in the series, therefore, do not enact empowerment because there is a narrative element of “retreatism” (Negra, 2009; Fatima, 2019), which keeps telling the working woman that to achieve her life's purpose, she must get back to her original duty of being a caregiver and raising a family. Her work is always portrayed as a second priority (Fatima, 2019)