Pakistani women and the “Other”:
a study of Zindagi Gulzar Hai

by Sonal Vij

Television, especially now, with its overarching presence on Over the Top (OTT: directly streaming) online platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and so on, has a broad audience. Nowadays, not just films and television, but online series are responsible for shaping cultural ideologies and playing a significant role in representations as TV creates “a space for expression and debate over values within cultures and across cultural boundaries." (Sharma, R., & Savory, C. A. 2014) [open rfeferences in new page] Also, TV constitutes a vantage point to analyze the elaboration and diffusion of an ideological position concerning how social relations and political problems are defined. It also gives the scholar an insight into the production and transformation of dominant perspectives that circulate in society. In particular, television becomes a site of the construction of cultural and gender identities.

Through content analysis of one television series, I posit some contrdictory ways that although television offers a global background for questioning social constructs like gender, it also becomes a vehicle for dominant ideology. This essay is a case study of one of the most popular Pakistani-produced television soap operas—Zindagi Gulzar Hai—here used to analyze the representation of gender relations in popular Pakistani (produced) television. Hopefully this close study of Zindagi Gulzar Hai will shed new light on some common but little-recognized issues of gender inequality that still lie behind this “realistic” portrayal of contemporary Pakistani society. 

Zindagi Gulzar Hai (trans. Life is a Garden) was first aired in India on Zee Entertainment Enterprise's newly launched channel, Zindagi. The advertisement for this channel emphasized the phrase “Jodey Dilon ko” (Connecting Hearts), to highlight a new initiative to air Pakistani soaps and serials for Indian audiences. Zindagi Gulzar Hai (hereafter ZGH) began airing in India from 23 June 2014 (Bhattacharya & Nag, 2016) and was aired twice on popular demand. The script imagined the possibility for peaceful reconciliation between the two political rivals, India and Pakistan, by offering “sarhad paar ki kahaaniyaan” (stories from across the border) to Indian audiences. (Pant, 2019). I have chosen ZGH because of its immense popularity. At the moment, ZGH is also available on the OTT platform—Netflix. Over the years, OTT platforms have become more powerful due to their reach, that is, their capacity to go beyond cultural and physical boundaries. The drama thus occupies a significant space in “cultural diplomacy” with its overwhelming popularity and continued life on pay-for-view websites.

Narratives of oppression

In ZGH, a key sequence propels the narrative. A tensely cut sequence between Murtaza (Kashaf's father) and his daughter (Kashaf, the heroine) summarizes their troubled relationship. Murtaza wants his first wife—Kashaf’s mother, Rafia—to vacate the house. He’s doing this because Kashaf has refused to marry a man (her cousin) of her father's choice. Earlier Murtaza had abandoned Rafia and her three daughters and remarried when Kashaf's mother could not bear a male child.

In terms of background, we must consider the importance of a male child in the South Asian context. The male child takes the family name forward. In addition, daughters and unmarried women are considered a burden as they will not necessarily work and earn money. Also, many girl children are killed at birth because parents feel that they will have to find a suitable match for their daughters, who do not provide for the family, and the families must also give dowries when the girls get married. Most important, however, women do not perpetuate the family name. The series' title, "Life is a Garden," is heavily ironic because it presents so many sequences of strife and dysfunctional familial relationships, especially for women. True to the melodramatic tradition, it appears to speak to women and articulate women's suffering at the hands of patriarchal culture—deadbeat dads, bossy brothers, and overbearing husbands.

Kashaf's father Murtaza lives with his new family with a male son, Kashaf's stepbrother Hamad. Showing the least responsibility financially and socially towards his first wife and three girls, Murtaza tries to assert his socially accepted male right to decide that Kashaf should marry his brother's son. When Kashaf refuses, Murtaza chooses to evict them. The mother Rafia, who leads a hand-to-mouth existence, pleads with Murtaza not to take do this. Thus in Episode 6, there is a powerful sequence consisting of Kashaf, Rafia, and Murtaza which shows the family dynamic.

Kashaf says to Rafia,

"Stop pleading, mom; why don't you get it? This man is neither your husband nor our father...he is a self-centered human being."

She says so because Kashaf has seen her mother provide for them and not her father. Kashaf and her sisters study as well as earn money by giving lessons. Murtaza stares at Kashaf in anger. The mother tries to pacify everyone. She says to Kashaf, "Go inside! Go inside, Kashaf!" Murtaza gets up from the chair in anger and looks at Kashaf, and raises his index finger. He cannot stand that his daughter has raised her voice and talked back. Rafia continually tries to remind Murtaza that his first wife and children are also his responsibility. She emphasizes that girls should also have monetary rights as she has long urged Murtaza for financial help. However, Murtaza keeps finding more excuses to abandon them. He says to Rafia, "These are the children whose rights you are talking about?" There is a close up of Rafia bursting into tears and she closes her eyes tightly. Though Murtaza has been absent throughout the Kashaf’s upbringing, he now blames Rafia that she hasn't taught the children courtesy as Kashaf dares raise her voice in front of him. His ego is hurt as he says to Rafia,

"These children do not have the right upbringing ... and manners about how to address their father!"

Kashaf is the protagonist in ZGH. Despite all the hardships—monetary, emotional, and physical—she has a scholarship and goes to university every day, changing various busses in extreme weather conditions. She is confident that her education will reap benefits someday. She is vocal about her feelings towards her father. Kashaf says to Murtaza,

"I am not asking for my rights...and even if I do have any claims on you, I forgo them. I feel it is beneath me to ask a selfish man like you for anything."

Murtaza cannot stand such strong words from his daughter, so he verbally attacks Kashaf and her mother. He says,

"If you are that arrogant, tell your mother not to keep calling me for help. If you are so independent, then why don't you solve your problems yourself"

Kashaf is tired of Murtaza ignoring her, her mother, and sisters. She is consumed by her mother’s having to beg Murtaza for help. Kashaf argues,

"Now, my sister and my mother will not bother you again. As it is, except for giving is more grief, what can you do for us?"

In Pakistan, the rules governing marriage, family, inheritance, and divorce—most of which pertain to women—are considered the domains of religious authorities; thus, when women raise their voices regarding any of these laws, they in fact confront religious clergy and the established order (Rouse, 1996; Fatima 2018). When Murtaza considers that Kashaf lacks tameez (manners) and remarks that no one will marry her, he reflects an attitude common in traditional patriarchal culture that woman is devoid of any individuality outside marriage. In turn, Kashaf resists marriage. She says,

"If getting married means living with someone as selfish as you and leading a life as my mother does, I wish I never get married. If mom got an education and became self-sufficient, then so will we. We can lead a good and respectable life without depending on you.”

Education means empowerment and a threat to the ongoing male dominance, so Murtaza attacks Kashaf's decision to acquire education. He says,

"You have acquired this arrogance by reading a few books. Its significance will become apparent when you wander from pillar to post trying to carve out a meager existence like your mother.” 

Urdu dramas

The sequence I describe above is one of the most powerful sequences in this Pakistani television series. Based on the novel by Umera Ahmed by the same name, the series (directed by Sultana Siddiqui) revolves around the story of a lower-middle-class girl, Kashaf, and Zarun, a wealthy man from the upper class. Urdu dramas, which are about 25 episodes, have been an important part of Pakistani television broadcasting, first on public television and, since the liberalization of television broadcasting in 2002, on cable and satellite television (C&S TV) (Désoulières 1999; Kothari 2005; Dutoya, 2018). Some recent Pakistani dramas go further, explicitly addressing “women's issues” such as child marriage, polygamy, violence, right to education, or preference for having boys. (Dutoya, 2018). As Iram Qureshi (2020) remarks,

"These stories of Pakistani dramas uphold traditional religious and middle-class values in modern urban settings and are described by the various women one has described as being intensely relatable. The kind of fiction one can't get anywhere else has characters one can recognize in real life.”

Since many Pakistani dramas orbit around romantic tales in heterosexual context and also around family issues, it is no surprise that women are frequently at the center of the narratives (Qureshi K, 2020). Though a Pakistani drama, in ZGH, the language is a mix of Urdu and Hindi—once known as Hindustani (Bhattacharya & Nag, 2016; Bhaskar & Allen, 2009). Therefore, it is easily understood by an Indian audience as well. 

Kashaf travelling in a bus while going to college. The elders in the family object to Rafia’s  decision to send her daughter Kashaf to the university to study. They feel offended as they haven’t been consulted.