I am a Pakistani woman and I ain’t no damsel in distress

Published: May 23, 2014

These mournful, weak, damsel in distress characters are not the true depiction of the Pakistani woman.

Our Pakistani dramas have a good fan following in Pakistan as well as abroad. Many of my friends, visiting from different countries, make sure to add DVDs of Pakistani dramas to their shopping list, every time they visit Pakistan. Our dramas have a sensibility that the saas bahu (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) feud-based Indian dramas lack. I personally believe that Indian dramas have no thought or concept behind them.

However, the way Pakistani women are portrayed in our dramas is also objectionable. Let me describe the types of women you come across in our dramas.

1. The middle-class girl, who has a love interest within the elite class. She works hard and is morally the best among the lot. She is a good daughter and has sound values. All these abilities will lead her to be the potential wife of her love interest.

2. The poor girl who is lucky enough to marry to a wealthy man. She has to prove herself better than her evil mother-in-law and her affluent cousin. All she needs to do is to make her marriage work by patience, alongside the awkward situations created by her in-laws.

3. The rich girl, whose parents suddenly passed away and her life is in turmoil because of her greedy relatives, including her siblings and chacha (paternal uncle) or mamu (maternal uncle). As usual, the solution to all her problems lie in marrying a guy who can support her to fight the evil that is her family.

4. The orphaned, Cinderella-type victim who is beaten by her ruthlessly evil aunt and cousins. She is chosen by a guy who happens to be a heartthrob. She will use her innocence, tears and domestic abilities to make him stay. The story will end after countless conspiracies inspired by her evil relatives and she gets her happy ending by marrying him.

5. The loving and dedicated wife who is betrayed by her husband as he is secretly married to another woman. She will cry and her kids will cry and, well, basically there will be a lot of crying. She will live a tough and unhappy life and all she does throughout is, you guessed it, cry her pretty little eyes out. She ends up winning her husband’s love in the last episode or he ends up being paralysed due to some fatal accident. Apparently, karma works when you shed some tears.

6. The rich girl who falls in love with a middle or lower class guy – your typical plot from the 60s and 70s movies. They get married and start their new life happily. But their families conspire to separate them and, in some twisted way, manage to succeed. Later, the couple realise that they cannot live without each other, since this realisation wasn’t present when they were inclined to get married and never leave each other. In the process, they get to see the true face of their families and this helps them patch up.

The list goes on. Except for the types mentioned above, the women in our dramas can be largely divided into two categories – the evil ones and the good ones – and both happen to be in love with the same guy.

The latter is good and pure, so she ends up winning Prince Charming’s heart, and everyone is happy that she is getting her happily ever after. The former is bad because she, in her conniving ways to win him over, will ruin his life if he chooses the good one – and for all that, the bad one will rot in hell. She is hated for being in love with the same man because she, obviously, does not have a heart or the capability to love another human being. And lastly, the evil one has a modern mind-set and dresses accordingly while the good one is conservative and is never without a dupatta.

This mind-set has made us judgmental about people’s character based on their appearance. I have come across many dupatta-wearing girls, giving loath-filled stares to those women who do not carry a dupatta with themselves, and saying,

“They are dressed up this way to seek attention”.

Clearly, it did not occur to them that these ‘attention seeking’ girls might dress up like that because they like it or because their families do not have an issue with dressing up so.

When young girls see that only the submissive and dependent girl gets to win over the heartthrob’s heart in these dramas, they try to be like them. Their expectations from and dependence on men increases and their self-esteem goes down.

I came across a young girl who got a reality check after watching some of these dramas. According to her,

“These dramas set high standards for who is considered a good husband. He is required to be rich, handsome, educated, successful and nice whereas all a girl needs to be is pretty. No, it does not work this way. Men have concerns as well.  You need to have a similar background, good education, a pleasant and confident personality. A woman should complement them in all their traits. They, too, want a companion, not some low-esteem subordinate”.

These mourning, weak, damsel in distress characters are not the true depiction of the Pakistani woman. I have seen women working in the fields alongside men as bread winners for their families, getting a job to help support her low-income household, performing active roles as engineers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, social workers, entrepreneurs, strong-willed housewives and mothers. I have come across many stories where a woman proved herself to be a man’s equal during hardships.

The women I know are strong. They do not cry over petty things and neither are they obsessed with marriage. If a man dumps her, she moves on. She does not lock herself in a room and cry herself to sleep just because she is not getting married. In a male dominated society, she faces discrimination, harassment and discouragement, yet she keeps going on.

Endorsing the mindset that women are weak and all their dreams and wishes will be fulfilled by the man who chooses to marry them takes away their right for empowerment. The writers need to stop depicting marriage-obsessed and crying women as role models for young girls. We want our girls to be strong, not damsels in distress, always depending on the opposite sex to be rescued.

Rizwana Hayat Lakk

Rizwana Hayat Lakk

A banker by profession and a doctoral student at SZABIST Islamabad. Her research interests include development economics and behavioral finance.

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

  • Deeply Agreed

    Great article! Thank you to the writer for her observant skills and thank you ET for publishing this. There was a time when Pakistani television was really good. Now it’s either the Turkish dramas (lacking all concept & drive for originality) or depicting all the points in this blog. And yes, not all women in Pakistan are damsels in distress, save for a few outnumbered cases (perhaps).Recommend

  • charanjeet maan

    Damsel is a distressing ,and possibly a dirty word in itself.Why not just say a “Woman in distress.”Recommend

  • Adpran

    Although I am not living in Pakistan, I can guess, mostly of audiences of these dramas are women. So, how could women not depicted as damsel in distress if women themselves love this depiction?.Recommend

  • Nudgeeb

    Very well written indeed, but you are missing the crux here. Its a Drama, an enactment of sorts. If the rich girl falls in love with a rich boy with no saas bahu story, no conspiracy nothing. Let alone 13 episodes, the not-so-drama-thing will not even last a few minutes.
    However, I am sure you will be able to come up with a very interesting story that revolves around “everything perfect”. Happy Writing!Recommend

  • Sobia

    Indeed a very nice piece of writing! Our dramas must come out of the panorama of peculiar family matters like marriages,divorces,love affairs and the above written by the author.There are lot lot more problems to be presented in the form of dramas as they yield long term impacts on our society and people still get inspired by drama stories.Recommend

  • MM

    Exactly! What is missing is the nuance and representation of strong role models. Recommend

  • AKS

    Rizwana It is a great analysis of our dramas and the way they depict the women .your last three paragraphs are beautifully written reflecting the true nature of our women. Pakistani women are strong and hardworking and there assertiveness and contribution to society growing day by day.Thank you for sharing your thoughtsRecommend

  • Abhinav

    “I ain’t no damsel in distress” means your are a damsel in distress. For saying you aren’t a damsel in distress, say “I ain’t a damsel in distress”.

  • Gilgit wala

    The women in this country are no blithering weeping fragile things. They do more
    with less. They know how to take care of things. How to care for the family. How to make do with less. Right up there with the rest of their sisters,..anywhere.Recommend

  • Lalit

    my kid is the best kid even if he has all the demerits in the world….Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    AT LAST someone writes this. It is high time someone said this.
    /salute #respect
    I hope no trolls ruin this blogpost cuz its right on the money. it’s like every show on TV these days thinks that if their is no poor, crying girl of limited intelligence whose luck goes from bad to worse then their show won’t be a hit. once again kudos to you for writing thisRecommend

  • Usman Shahid

    Very well written, but something to consider, Media is a multi-million dollar industry which is chiefly driven by the revenue generated through endeavors such as drama serials. Now, in order to maximize their profit they need to ensure the maximization of viewership. Now the reason why they adapt to stereotype Pakistani women is because it sells. It may be wrong on many levels but this is what the major portion of the general audience of Pakistan desire. And if they stop producing what the general audience wants, the viewership will be greatly shifted back towards the indian dramas like the time when the cable tv was introduced in Pakistan which is really less preferable then what is being broadcast now.Recommend

  • Iftikhar Ali

    the title picture is hilariousRecommend

  • Baba Ji

    “you are” !Recommend

  • Rida Waseem

    I appreciate your insight..just wanted to say in your article you’ve mentioned two types of real women …the weak impressionable female who you think is judgmental and the strong independent woman whom you admire….same is the case in our dramas, there are both strong and weak women reflecting the picture of this society….it is us who need to pick our own favorites based on our good sense!Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nice subject….I doubt the TV female characters really influence the real life ones, to a big extent. The two main factors that would influence females is the level of education they have received and their financial independence.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Perhaps thats why these weepy dramas sell so well … Its far away from our normal , typical , routine life story .Recommend

  • Janissary

    ever heard of ebonics?Recommend

  • unacknowledged

    Well I think with these kind of stories people could easily relate that is why we have been watching such dramas on TV. Indian content was encouraged at one point then it was highly discouraged beacuse of the less association with thier stories be it a ‘paanch sau crore or nau sau crore ki deal’ or a main leading actress sleeping with all her jewelllery and make up even when she is not well. I think with most of the Pakistani stories people relate undoubtedly.Recommend

  • Farhan

    Pakistani Dramas should be brought under some guidelines as its misleading youth of Pakistan. Recommend

  • Hira Mirza

    To add to this, the trend of leading scripts is now changing to one that brings up social subjects more than love stories. And, since saas bahu subjects have been beaten to the ground, audiences now support topics like sexual/marital/child abuse, adoption, transgender issues, etc. While there is a still a long way to go before we can stop presenting our women as fragile, emotional beings, there is hope that things will change soon.Recommend