Zindagi Gulzar hai: Liberating women in different ways

Published: January 14, 2013

We witness viewers empathising and sympathising with Kashaf’s demand for independence, perhaps because she is conservatively dressed. PHOTO: https://www.facebook.com/ZindagiGulzarHai

Zindagi Gulzar Hai” is a series far better than any I have seen in a long time. The drama is based on Umera Ahmed’s novel “Zindagi Gulzar Hai?” – a story about the daily diaries of two polar opposites, Kashaf and Zaroon, who are first tied in the bond of hate, then love and finally matrimony.

At first, the meeting of Kashaf and Zaroon seems like a Pakistani adaptation of Elizabeth Bennet’s and Mr Darcy’s first encounter from Pride and Prejudice. This, to any female, portrays irresistible on-screen chemistry, and one is smitten by the love story right away.

However, the drama touches upon many serious social issues – from male chauvinism to a hierarchical class structure – that lead one to think pragmatically.

Kashaf is an average looking, lower middle class girl, and the eldest daughter of an educated woman who serves as a principal in a government school in an attempt to raise her three daughters.

Her mother is an extremely patient woman who shows her appreciation to God throughout the drama. She also maintains an optimistic attitude towards life despite having faced many hardships after her husband abandons her for an uneducated woman simply because she is unable to have a son.

Kashaf vows to restore her mother’s lost pride and improve their financial situation by getting a scholarship in a renowned university. However, Kashaf’s character is not as simple as it appears. She has waited for years in hopes of a better tomorrow and she ultimately gives up.

I wouldn’t call her a pessimist but she is definitely a nihilist, waiting for each day of her life to fold and unfold as if nothing is ever going to change. Her dialogue is quite profound and telling of her character:

“Behtar nahin ke na phool na kaante maangein, bus kache raaste pe chalna seekh lein?”

(Isn’t it better that we desire neither roses nor thorns, but learn to walk on a barren field?)

Strangely she is neither an atheist nor agnostic but just believes God doesn’t pay attention to the struggling classes. But as they say,  good things always come to those who wait.

While studying for her MBA, she meets Zaroon, her opposite, in terms of character and class. Zaroon is the son of a renowned industrialist and has never had to ask for anything in life. He has everything – looks, wealth, women – you name it!

Despite this, he is leading a somewhat unfulfilled life as he seems to be in search of self-awareness and fulfilment. Zaroon is a light-hearted optimist with a strong sense of competition.

His only problems in life are an elitist mother who neglects the family and a sister who seems out of sync with her expected duties towards her fiancé and family; she wears inappropriate clothes and comes home late regularly.

Despite being raised in an elitist liberal family, Zaroon seems to have a conservative mindset. As the story progresses we witness how one’s counterpart can serve as a window to one’s fulfilment in life.

They’re both like ‘yin yang’ in a way – better together!

My interest in the series, however, is not the romantic story plot of the contrasting personalities. Instead, I have been rather analytical of the subtle underlying messages that seem to portray a gender bias at times.

I fail to decipher if the producer is actually promoting this particular stereotype, or highlighting its importance so that we notice it and ultimately eradicate it.

On one hand, you have a lower middle class family scenario where Kashaf’s father is opposing his daughter’s education beyond her degree in bachelors and is in favour of marriage to her cousin; and on the other you have Zaroon’s father challenging his daughter’s inappropriate dressing. More so, Zaroon is also seen as legitimising his right to question his sister’s late night hangouts while he does the same.

Everything boils down to them being men and their subjects being women.

Zaroon’s sister’s and mother’s challenging statements to authoritative male figures in the house, in isolation of their wealth and flamboyant outlook, would seem justified in a society of equals. Oddly, as a viewer however, everything coming from Zaroon, even the male chauvinistic comments made to his sister and best friend/ potential fiancé seem like the Ten Commandments.  This may be due to his looks and charming personality while the dumb, blonde ostentatious, elitist image of the mother, sister and best friend/potential fiancé makes everything coming out of their mouth horribly wrong to the viewers.

Unfortunately, we still judge books by their covers and none of us have been able to dislike the simplistic and innocent looking Cinderella image of a girl – thanks to Disney.

We witness viewers empathising and sympathising with Kashaf’s demand for independence, perhaps because she is conservatively dressed, but opposing the mother and daughter as they embody the opposite!

After much thought, I got the subtle gist of the series.

Indeed, a Pakistani man will always be a man exerting his male authority and it doesn’t matter what class structure he belongs to or how educated he is.

Most men demand stereotypical feminine roles whether it is for a mother, sister, wife or daughter. However, as the liberation trend suggests, they are willing to diverge from these a little to accommodate the changing times.

In Zaroon’s and Kashaf’s situation, and in many cases these days, such chauvinism would lead to problems in marriage where a man seeks an intellectual partner. Even though Kashaf is conservatively dressed, she aspires liberation in education and wishes to pursue a career of her own. She demands independence, as do other women in the series. She is an intellectual and opinionated being, while at the same time she satisfies a certain ‘Cinderella’ image of simplicity and good values. Her struggles in a man’s worlds makes her the person she is today and that is reflected in her opinions and wish to take up a career; this is hard for Zaroon to digest.

In a similar fashion, the elitist women in the drama also demand independence but of a totally different kind. Their demands are based on luxuries, not needs.

The aim, I assume, is to gauge which level of independence should be allowed to the modern woman.

So I was wrong; it is not because Zaroon is a heartthrob that we’re able to justify his statements; it is because our definition of ‘liberation’ tends to be quite shallow, skewed and deluded at times. Perhaps men need to understand that women are equals as competitive intellectuals, and at the same time feminists need to pick their battles wisely.

The measure of liberation is not evidenced by ones outlook or social life. Instead true freedom of thought is achieved in isolation of material desires – through one’s ability to absorb pluralistic views.

So, looking at this series with a positive lens, a change in perspective is due.

For men to view women as intellectual equals rather than mere objects of one’s pride and also an acceptance from women that liberation doesn’t mean we start comparing apples and pears. This could lead to a state of equilibrium in the world of Mars and Venus.

Read more by Sana here or follow her on Twitter  @Sana_H_Baba

Sana Hameed Baba

Sana Hameed Baba

A Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) student at BPP London and member of Lincoln's Inn. She has been actively involved in youth led initiatives for Pakistan in the United Kingdom and tweets @Sana_H_Baba.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • AZ

    Your last paragraph is just wonderful!!
    As my friend said “Women and men are equal, but not the same”Recommend

  • hasn

    Brilliant, i loved it!Recommend

  • Amer

    I am not a fan of Pakistani dramas but this blog isn’t bad at all. Thumbs up!! Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    Zindagi Gulzar hai is refreshing and pleasant drama series, Unlike this blog!Recommend

  • http://syedaabidabokhari.wordpress.com The Only Normal Person Here.

    Good article. I don’t watch this show though, since the female protagonist doesnt have the screen presence and her acting skills are below average. She is a wrong choice for the role. Recommend

  • MAmir

    “This may be due to his looks and charming personality while the dumb, blonde ostentatious, elitist image of the mother, sister and best friend/potential fiancé makes everything coming out of their mouth horribly wrong to the viewers.

    We witness viewers empathising and sympathising with Kashaf’s demand for independence, perhaps because she is conservatively dressed, but opposing the mother and daughter as they embody the opposite!”

    THANK YOU for bringing this up! I stopped watching the serial only because of the hypocrisy in portrayals of women. I strongly feel that not everything said by Zaroon’s sister/mother is wrong! And I also feel that so many things in Kashaf’s personality are unjustified. It’s a shame to see women divided in binaries of right and wrong based on how liberal/conservative they ‘appear’. Did not expect this after watching so many marvelous serials. Recommend

  • ioer

    Nice analysis. Recommend

  • Fatima

    Im glad this focuses on the underlying social messages being communicated through the drama rather than the love story.

    The writer has put an interesting spin on the age old ‘men vs women’ debate. I think it would solve many social problems facing us today if both genders accept that they are DIFFERENT yet EQUAL.Recommend

  • http://www.dramapakistani.net Sadaf

    I have to agree with your blog. I have been thinking and writing the same thing but not as eloquently .You are quite right . the words coming out of Kahsaf’s mouth are acceptable to most people because of her situation and that dreadfully stiff dupattah she constantly wears. The same thoughts articulated by Zaroon’s mother and sister sound like the screeches of spoiled children asking for more cake when the party’s over and the host wants to pack up for the night.Take away the designer clothes ,the imported handbag, put the annoyingly modern mother ,who dares to run an NGO instead of polishing her husband’s mansion ,in to a smaller house and suddenly she will be a saint.Context matters.
    Umera Ahmed has set up two superficially competing models of feminism which are at their root exactly the same. Poor old Zaroon will have quite bit of sense beaten into him by the end of this serial. The only reservation I have is that Zaroon is being used as a kind of “Trophy husband”,That would really would belittle all Kashaf’s attempts at independence because in the end the solution turned out to be a rich husband not a woman’s self reliance. This is one of the reasons I find Kashaf to be one of the least likable of Umera Ahmned’s heroines , I can see the cop out coming…I hope i am proved wrong Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    Though the serial is pleasant to watch, the theme is mediocre and cliched, like all the stories of Umaira Ahmed. It’s no more than any story in Pakeeza or Khawateen Digest. Thanks to the cast and director for giving it decent treatment.Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    @The Only Normal Person Here.:
    Agree.Recommend

  • sensible

    @The Only Normal Person Here
    you don’t really sound like normal!Recommend

  • Cinnamon

    Needless to say, the last paragraph indeed sums it up nicely! And yes, feminists need to pick their battles wisely! Recommend

  • Hammad

    Sana

    Thanks for writing this article. I must say that Hum TV producers are trying their level best to teach or entice people towards social evils such as gender inequality, divorce, violence against women etc. I live in States and get really disappointed after seeing the promotion of these evils within our dramas. To tell you the honest truth, sometimes I have no choice except to flip the channel as I don’t want my 3 years old to learn the bad word “Talaaq” or ask me anything about it. Similarly, the Hum TV has tremendously increased the showing of infidelity among couples. Worst of all, they are spreading the message that “evil always wins” which is totally wrong.
    There is a great need to convince these directors/producers to show something sensible to the audience. The average Pakistani family has been already frustrated with whatever going on in Pakistan (current events, stagflation etc). On the top of that, if we will show them some disturbed content, would that help in making the situation better?

    Thanks

    HammadRecommend

  • Maqsood Ahmed

    That day my wife was reading a novel she had just downloaded from internet. She had to leave for some domestic work and i came and found this novel open. Being not a great fan of Urdu novels, I wanted to close it but out of curiosity randomly i gave a reading to one two pages. Name of the novel was of course “Zindagi gulzar hai”. After few pages i forget everything else and got absorbed into it. I was attracted to its very impressive and intellectual dialogues, very inspiring ideas and the bond of the story. I could’t help reading it completely in one sitting. Few days later I saw its dramatization on Tv. I’m not convinced though that the dramatization of this novel is doing justification to the excellence and brilliance of the written version, but I am sure about the fact that this is a real masterpiece by Umaira Ahmed.
    As far as the article above is concerned, in my opinion the Sana has picked and emphasized on an issue which is not the main theme of the drama. Male mentality is not confined to Pakistani society, this is universal. Avoiding detailed argue, i would only refer to a female British writer who wrote in her article that in west if men are raising the voice of women rights and equality, they are not doing it out of justice, but only merely out of lust becuse they like woman to entertain them. Secondly, the writer being female and part of our society is also facing a dilemma of our religious and social values and freedom of women. She is not sure herself how liberal a woman being a Pakistani and Muslim can be.
    In my opinion the novel/drama emphasises on the importance of optimism, which is the need of the day and Pakistan badly need these types of dramas to give people faith, hope and positive thinking. I was not a great admirer of Umaira’s few writing’s before, but ‘Zindagi gulzar hai’ has certainely included me in the list of her fans.Recommend

  • gp65

    @AZ: “As my friend said “Women and men are equal, but not the same””

    Do not know about this serial – so will not comment on it but wanted to point out that “Equal but not the same” is a slippery slope that was used to justify seggregation in US and apartheid in South Africa. Recommend

  • Sasha

    This is an excellent piece. I have started watching this show and absolutely love it.

    As Pakistani men and women, we must change the way we to think in order to advance towards a progressive Pakistan. Men and women both need to stop hiding behind gender, double standards, culture, and a twisted sense of religion in order to implement their place in society. Recommend

  • ZK

    Wow, extremely well written piece. My favourite line is “feminiists needs to pick their battles wisely”. It is of course a two way street where “acceptance” is the key word. Recommend

  • Working Woman

    Nice analysis.Recommend

  • Nobody

    @gp65:

    I don’t always agree with some of your comments but you took the words out of my mouth with this one. The separate but equal argument (quite similar to the equal but different argument) failed miserably with segregation of blacks and whites in the US and I don’t see it successfully working with men and women either.

    @everyone:

    I haven’t seen the drama so I can’t comment on it, but I’m tired of Pakistani media portraying the liberal westernized woman as evil and cunning, out to destroy all around her to get what she wants whether it’s a career or a guy or whatever. Although the elitist women in this drama don’t sound liberal they just sound like confused, whining, sniveling brats cloaked in a ‘liberal’ outfit. Dramas such as this seem to promulgate the idea that as long as you’re cloaked in a duputta and look like sati savitri, then it’s SORT OF ALMOST MAYBE acceptable to dream of a career and independence. Goes back to the same worn out archaic issue: what a woman wears. Sigh. Time to see the bigger picture folks.

    @author:

    Not totally sure about my feelings on the blog in it’s entirety, but I loved your usage of language, especially in the last paragraph. Recommend

  • Mehak Fatima

    @Sadaf: Absolutely agree with you. It would be so disappointing to see Kashaf just getting a rich husband in the end and not what she is actually struggling for. A trophy husband is not an achievement after all. I would love to see her achieve something meaningful and make a better life for herself and her mother.

    A very refreshing piece indeed.Recommend

  • megamind

    I think this play portrays HM mentality. He often says that pakistan is in constant threat of both taliban and liberal fascists. lolz. I neither agree with him nor the author of the play.Recommend

  • Devils Advocate

    @Sadaf: That’s the beauty of the series, you can look at it either way I guess.Recommend

  • Sana Hameed Baba

    @Hammad: Hi Hammad, thanks for your note. You’re absolutely right, I have seen many Pakistani dramas showing incest, divorces, polygamy justifications etc. However, ZGH is a breath of fresh air amongst all this. I was also comparing Pakistani serials to Ekta Kapoor’s star plus stories – Star Plus is always positive and works towards their betterment. In many instances they’re promoting how families need to change their views towards daughters and daughter-in-laws. Rather than playing up on the dirt prevalent in Pakistani society, I would rather make up positive stories.Recommend

  • http://www.dramapakistani.net Sadaf

    @Sana Hameed Baba I have to strongly disagree.The Star Plus dramas I have had the misfortune to watch (at my parents house) have been unfailingly disheartening ,reinforce backward traditions and portray most women as conniving harpies destroying each other in constant little turf wars.Pakistani serials however,deal with important social issues and challenge stereotypes . What You may consider “dirt ” and beneath your notice are sad realities for many people .Those situations need to be addressed. For example one of my favorite dramas this year was ROAG, which dealt with the difficult issue of rape in a very respectful and sensitive manner. Ek Nazar Meri Taraf dealt with the effects of Adultery on families and the way young widows are treated. Durr E Shehwar contrasted the difficulties of married life in the past and present . I have yet to hear or see an Indian drama reach the depth of these dramas, which despite dealing with difficult topics were positive.
    I am very proud of the imaginative and creative writers of Pakistan that challenge the viewer and pull us out of our comfort zones. They allow us to understand , empathize and perhaps help resolve the difficulties many people face in real life. Recommend

  • amnazk

    Very well written and i completely agree!Recommend

  • uzma

    very well said and I love the concept.Recommend

  • anum

    em loving this drama.. n its a treat 2 watch <3 <3
    very well directed!!! hats off 2 ZGH team MA!Recommend

  • USA

    Pakistani dramas are awesome Recommend

  • Dr.X

    Per sawal hey Kashaf Jee itni Sarhi hoi kyun hey?!? Recommend

  • Pakistani drama lover

    @The Only Normal Person Here.:
    How can you say the female protagonist does not have screen presence and has below average acting when you don’t even watch the show!!!! Sanam Saeed plays the character of Kashaf beautifully. Kashaf isn’t supposed to be Angelina Jolie, but an average looking girl whose mind and personality is what attracts Zaroon towards her. Kashaf is supposed to be AVERAGE in every single way, so that shes’s not a bit of eye candy, but rather you are focusing on the issues that are affecting her in her life!!!Recommend

  • Ubaid Nawab

    I really liked this drama but I dont think that all these stuff is absolutely correct. As has already been said that “men and women are equal but not the same” they have freedom in choosing which path they will walk. But as a Muslim Society we should never encourage such liberalism as “WOMEN CAN GO WHERE SHE WANTS WITH WHOMEVER SHE LIKES”. Men and women are different – we don’t need science to tell us that – but are we different even in the way we see the world we share? Yes, according to new research, we see a different world even when we are looking at exactly the same thing. RESEARCH BY COLUMN by LEE DYE
    AS this type of liberalism are strictly prohibited in our ISLAM. As a muslim we should keep an eye on it as well. Not just praying five times a day..Recommend

  • http://yahoo Ayesha

    ZGH I like itRecommend

  • http://yahoo Ayesha

    ZGH ZGH ZGH ZGH MEANS zindagi gulzar haiRecommend

  • Sidrra

    Actually I disagree with part about Pakistani men being stereotypical. A man with a decent back ground always expects his wife to cater to his needs regardless to what culture or country he belongs to a man who wants a home would always expect his wife to be like zaroon wAnts his wife to be. I am from England and even here men of all colour and back ground expect a wife who can devote her life to facilitate his needs, it just depends how that has been escalated to his lady. I hated the concept of Women being so liberated in this darama I dnt have anything against women working but at the end of the day it’s a mans world and women will always be at the giving end. Recommend