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) 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.”
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.
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).
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), 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)
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 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). 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.
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)
I draw the concept of “new woman” from Virginie Dutoya (2018). She cites Partha Chatterjee (1987). According to Chatterjee, the “new woman” was the one able to balance “modernity” and “tradition” within nationalist discourses; she was educated, urban, aware of social and political issues, yet able to retain an authentic Indian (in this case, Pakistani spirit) and infuse it into her home. Dutoya further says that the “new” Muslim women were expected to participate in the uplift of their community while ensuring the maintenance of its perceived religious, social, and cultural boundaries; they had to be educated and modern homemakers, pious (but not superstitious), and socially aware. In the contemporary sense, Kashaf fits the bill. Further, the upper-class male protagonist begins to admire this new woman Kashaf for finding this "balance" between conformity and autonomy and imposing these norms on the women from his own class.
Kashaf, the “new woman,” represents a cross between the pious lower class and a westernized liberal elite. "This award goes for female empowerment, for the thousands of Kashafs out there, to feminism, this award goes to you," a smiling Sanam Saeed (who plays Kashaf) exclaimed as she received the best actress award for her role in the famous serial Zindagi Gulzar Hai (Qureshi, 2016). As Qureshi further adds:
“It is undeniable that Zindagi Gulzar Hai emphasizes the importance of female education. It introduces us to a character like Kashaf, who’s not fragile, dependent on a man, and a self-made woman. It’s also true that Kashaf takes a stand against her father and is by every means a heroine that gives Pakistani women a better example to look up to than the usual damsels-in-distress on TV whose aim in life most often is to exert their influence over the men in their house (be it brother, son or husband). However, despite these reasons, there is a lot in ZGH that furthers all the problematic things. Zarun’s pursuit of the ‘perfect woman’ reinforces and justifies the double standards of our society when it comes to giving personal and sexual liberties to both the sexes.” (2016)
"The “good” woman character is pure, chaste, and untouched." (Ghorbankarimi, 2015). She needs to be a passive supporter of the way men think. The woman needs to know her limits, she should not be vocal about feminism, should not be liberal. It is interesting to note these absences. The absences contribute as much to the plot as the presences do. Kashaf, the ideal new woman doesn't wear western clothes, doesn't talk to men much, keeps to herself, and doesn't have many friends. She is sudhri hui (not spoiled with foreign values), is initially hated by Zarun. Still, subconsciously, he likes her way of living. This “new woman” also keeps away from men or late night outings. As for Kashaf, the only late night outing that she has ever had is one in college. If a woman ventures outside without a male member of her family, she seems to be chasing an unchaste life.
Zarun is impressed that Kashaf is not out late at night. To be good, a woman needs to maintain her izzat (reputation). In episode 8, for example, Kashaf is in a fix on how to reach home after a university concert. With no woman available to drop Kashaf home, she reluctantly accepts the lift from Zarun and Asmara. In one sequence, Kashaf, Zarun, and Asmara are in Zarun’s car. She refuses to go alone with him once Zarun drops Asmara. To maintain her laaj (reputation), Kashaf refuses to sit in the front seat with Zarun as she is embedded with traditional values that teach her not to be near a man alone that too at night. Contrary to Sara, Kashaf cares about what people say when they see a boy dropping her home at midnight. This refusal was proof of how well she takes care of her chastity.
Despite heated arguments, Kashaf sits in the back seat of the car while he drives. To reinforce the belief, her mother tells Kashaf that she should be more careful when it comes to a man dropping Kashaf home and reminds Kashaf that it is not advisable in their set-up to have boys drop women home. Kashaf is hesitant towards being seen alone with Zarun late at night. Kashaf explains,
"Where I come from do you know what people would say...if they see me getting out of a strange man's car late at night? A guy dropping a girl at night may be normal for you but not for me.”
Just as Zarun wants for his family, Kashaf acknowledges that rules are different for men and women. Zarun admires these values subconsciously. However, on the surface, he detests Kashaf’s behavior. Disturbingly, he proposes Kashaf marry him (as she is a virgin, hasn't had a relationship, is suppressed sexually), and his proposal is portrayed as Kashaf's most significant achievement.
It is interesting to note Kashaf's views on marriage. Kashaf has been vocal about them. However, she is led to believe that it's a necessity for her, mostly because Rafia (her mother) is quite unhappy with the idea of Kashaf being unmarried. Kashaf says, "I don't want to get married" in episodes 5, 11, 14, and 15 quite categorically. She fears, "any man is capable of being like dad! Men are unreliable!" (episode 14) She insists that her mother can marry off her sisters Shanila and Sidra. She feels that "the root of all trouble in a woman's life is marriage" (episode 5). Kashaf fears that she would have to lead a life like her mother—unsupported and unwanted with burdens of responsibility. In episode 15, Kashaf retorts to her mother,
"I already have a house, mom. And I feel afraid at the thought of a husband! and regarding children, it's not a responsibility I want to take on."
However, despite these constant repetitions, her family makes sure that Kashaf gets married. Kashaf becomes the damsel who needs to be free from her "issues" and settle down to have a family.
"It's scary how seemingly, ZGH seems to feature women empowerment, but all it does is re-establish patriarchal norms. Kashaf is a self-made woman who strives for her education, although, ultimately, it is her marriage to Zarun which wins her approval from society; a careful reminder to women that not marrying is not a choice for them." (Qureshi, 2016)
In episode 15, Kashaf says, "I have too many issues and problems...from which I cannot find release...no matter how hard I try." The strong, confident, career-oriented, responsible, financially independent woman finds bliss in rescue by Zarun, who cures her of her "issues and complexes."
The director simplifies the heroine's real suffering, her agony over choosing between a husband she loves, and the independence of mind that she desperately needs (Naficy, 2003; Ghorbankarimi 2015). Post her marriage to Zarun—who saves her—Kashaf redescribes gender dynamics, she expects and accepts, and articulates society’s dominant narrative about the structure of power and politics. She says, "I am not interested in equality of women." (episode 19) The same independent Kashaf, who was an integral part of running her family (before she got married) and career, feels relieved after her marriage. The viewer gets insight to her most intimate thoughts when she journals. She writes in her diary,
"I won't have to run around for anything ever in my life from now on...now someone else will take on that frustration." (episode 19).
Kashaf takes a backseat after marriage. The man is supposed to be the "provider," "protector," and the "head" of the family, and she happily accepts. Rather than getting offended, she leans on Zarun when he gives her money for her expenditure. She is happy being Zarun’s responsibility and considers it a blessing (episode 20). There isn't even a conflict in Kashaf’s mind about being not so independent anymore. As Dutoya writes:
“The homemaking skills of the heroines are not only practical (cooking, sewing, etc.); they also involve her responsibility (zimah dari) to hold the family together. While she is entitled to respect (izzat), a woman should accept that men deserve a certain “protocol” (as it is formulated by Zarun). This protocol is signified in different ways, let it be by using the formal aap to address her husband (while he says tum to her), bringing food to him, asking him before going out of the home, even for visiting her parents” (2018).
In ZGH, there is sympathy for the Kashaf’s struggle when she was a lower-class woman. Then it became normalized that domestic inequities around housework and child-rearing would leave her (and women like her) exclusively burdened to balance work and the emotional violence around family life in poverty. The outspoken protagonist (Kashaf), living in genteel poverty unabashedly challenges her deadbeat father's authority but then compromises her autonomy, drawing viewers into the "pleasures" of her upward mobility through marriage. Domestic duties, wifehood, and motherhood will eventually discipline these women through the teleological plot of traditional satisfaction. (Sengupta, 2019). Women are expected to be in a more vulnerable position than men as they “should” be responsible for their children and husbands' emotional needs. (Ferguson, 2019). The man is "entitled," and his identity is rooted in the amount of control he exercises to control the woman's day-to-day life. "Women ought to be taught to serve, nurture and support men" (Ferguson, 2019). And that's what Kashaf's mother Rafia does and the ideology she propagates.
Her mother Rafia instructs Kashaf that despite available domestic help now that Kashaf is married in a higher-class family), she should cook for Zarun and take care of all his needs. That's her farz (duty). A good woman orbits her life around the man; she nurtures he so he can perform his gender-specific roles like being the authority figure and earning the daily bread. "Women have a central role in production and reproduction; there is no separation of productive work from home and reproductive work" (Ferguson, 2019). It is interesting to note that Zarun doesn't help Kashaf in household chores (though Kashaf works an equal number of hours as he does) even when Kashaf is pregnant, and there is no domestic help available. Kashaf succumbs to everything so that she becomes achhi (good) wife. Contrary to Sara and Ghazala, Kashaf does all of Zarun’s house’s chores on her own. She cleans bathrooms, makes sure his clothes are ready, and so on. In episode 20 and episode 21, Rafia (her mother) trains Kashaf to cook in a whay that Zarun would be able to identify the taste of the food prepared by Kashaf distinctly. With no social life, Kashaf makes enough time to socialize with her mother-in-law and her husband’s extended family.
The right woman should aspire to be professional but must also be an excellent home-maker. Though Kashaf has been a better student than Zarun and has a good job, Zarun doesn't admire that. Instead, he has felt almost fatal attraction when he sees that Kashaf can sew a button in a few seconds. Zarun—though he is then engaged to Asmara, who doesn't do household chores—tells his sister Sara that he will not marry anyone who can't do household chores like sewing a button (episode 5). No matter what she has accomplished in her education or work but ultimately, Kashaf's ability to sew a button attracts him. "For the first time, I have felt impressed by you" (episode 20). Throughout the series, a woman's worth is significantly measured on how much household work she does, how much she takes care of the man's errands, and how well she cooks. Her professional standing has no worth.
The good woman can resist male authority but should be willing to “compromise” even if the man doesn't. Despite Zarun being suspicious, not respecting her boundaries (for instance, checking her phone, opening her mail), he gets away with everything. Though he expects Kashaf to tell him when a male friend calls, all this while he is in touch with his ex-girl-friend Asmara and doesn't feel the need to tell Kashaf. Kashaf leaves Zarun when she thinks that he is cheating on her. Kashaf regrets getting married and is vocal about it to her mother (episode 26). But still Kashaf feels that her life is ruined without her husband. Furthermore, despite being portrayed as a strong independent woman, Kashaf cries when she knows that she is giving birth to two girls. As Ferguson (2019) says, "a woman's role as a mother places her in a more vulnerable position than the man.” She fears that she now has the same fate as her mother, raising children on her own. Because Kashaf is pregnant, it becomes her responsibility to "harmonize the conflict" (Ferguson, 2019), which she does at the expense of herself, sacrificing herself respect and her initial demand for equality. Rather than be a single mother, she decides to go back to Zarun without any clarifications or even a healthy dialogue about his behavior. She rebels but eventually succumbs.
In the last episode, there is a sequence of Zarun playing in a garden with their two girls on a sunny day. Kashaf is self-reflective while looking at her achievements on the home front. We see continuous shots of the “marital bliss.” There seems to be an understanding that so far what Kashaf thought about life was wrong. She has been cured. Throughout the series, she writes that life's struggles make her unhappy, but now she finally says Zindagi Gulzar Hai/ Life is a garden. She confesses that she is happy being "controlled"/ kept in control by her husband who rescued her. She is elated that Zarun is not obsessed with Kashaf reproducing a male heir. Domestication is the ultimate happiness for all women characters, including once a strong-headed Kashaf.
Through my analysis, I prove how a that drama raises various issues about women and society can have regressive elements, including a regressive ending. As per the show, happiness for a woman exists solely in adhering to s patriarchal societal structure. No matter how much women study or excel in their careers, their ultimate satisfaction lies when they please their men and assume full responsibility for a household and children, putting their likes and dislikes aside.
It is especially useful to consider the representation of a trio of female characters in the drama – Sara, Asmara, and Kashaf to show how the Kashaf emerges as the feminine ideal; she achieves autonomy in personal and professional life by conforming to socially mandated codes of dress, deportment and "values.” The other two more westernized women failed to fulfill their romantic destinies—Sara has a failed marriage while Asmara does not get the man she loves, Zarun, who is attracted to Kashaf and marries her.
In ZGH, women need to put everything in line when their family needs them. Society punishes the women who do not conform to the dominant paradigm and male supremacy and do not comply with the conventional patriarchal structure. However, some of the female characters in the drama question traditional patriarchal structure. At the same time, other women "improve" and supposedly “mature.” The show is very clear about women's future—those who adhere to the conventional patriarchal norms, get controlled by men, thrive, and those who do not need to be punished and set right. There is an emergence of a “new woman” who has a career but isn't too liberal and prioritizes her marriage, home, domestic duties. Giving too much or equal importance to her career as a man is unacceptable. She needs to seek permission from men in her life and compromise no matter what to make a marriage work. In no way is the drama progressive or feminist as marketed by the producers. In fact, it's regressive and hegemonic and sends the message that it's terrible for a woman to be “too modern” or “liberal.”
Undoubtedly, ZGH acknowledges patriarchal violence but normalizes it alongside hegemonic "traditional" values. It negotiates social transformation: middle-class women gaining an education, entering the public sphere, asserting autonomy over their bodies, joining the workforce, and challenging male privilege. In the end, domesticity and familial responsibilities are naturalized as women's priorities. Female submission is not a choice but portrayed as something embedded in a woman's chromosomes.
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