From Haseena Moin’s empowered female characters of the 80s to the damsels in distress of today

Published: February 28, 2018

Let us travel back in time to the 80s and 90s with the classics every Pakistani must watch today.

Presently, if we take a deeper look into our Pakistani dramas, there’s a reccurring pattern of female characters as ‘damsels in distress’, with the occasional strong female character arising every now and then. Characters like the ambitious, strong-valued and independent Mishal from Besharam and Kashaf from Zindagi Gulzar Hai ,who tirelessly battled through life’s obstacles to change her fate, are seen once in a blue moon.

More recently, we were introduced to Dr Zubia from Yakeen Ka Safar, who despite severe mental and emotional trauma was determined to fulfil her dreams. The drama and her character has been quite popular amongst women nowadays; perhaps Pakistani women were excited and relieved to finally watch a character they could relate to.

However, there is still a tendency to show women as submissive, voiceless and highly emotional individuals in our dramas. If we take a walk down our drama industry’s memory lane, it’s evident that women were actually portrayed as fierce and intellectual individuals who took charge of their own lives. So why are we regressing? Why is the Pakistani woman of today not rightly reflected by our drama industry?

Let us travel back in time to the 80s and 90s with the classics, which every Pakistani must watch or rewatch, and take notes from Haseena Moin’s empowering female characters. These were the characters that Pakistani women could idealise and learn from.

1. Zara from Tanhaiyaan

Zara’s character, played by Shehnaz Sheikh, may have been introduced as demure, hesitant and protectively sheltered by her family. However, as the plot evolves, so does her character. She transforms into an individual who overcomes her fears and is fiercely career-driven. She knows exactly when to break off a toxic relationship and to prioritise herself, while setting a standard of respect which she expects from her significant other.

2. Roshan from Parosi

Roshan’s character, played by Marina Khan, was depicted as headstrong from the very beginning of the plot. Her passion for her career, as a documentary filmmaker, and her intellect may have attracted a fair amount of suitors, but she definitely didn’t let them sweep her off her feet (not even the wealthy Rehmatullah Chaudhry). Her life goals were unaffected. Roshan’s famous rant about ‘rishta dekhnay ka process’ (the process of finding suitors) and how she’ll never adhere to it, is something all girls in this society can relate to and stand up for.

3. Najia from Parchaiyan

Played by Sahira Kazmi, Najia’s character evolved massively throughout the plot; from a vibrant headstrong young woman to a mature and sober personality. She adored her novels, romanticised the rain and dreamed big. Najia was never apologetic for being ‘different’ and surely was not one to keep quiet when she had an opinion which needed to be voiced. Although her strong personality did get the best of her since that led her to making the wrong choice when it came to marriage, despite all the warnings from her loved ones. However, Najia taught us that regardless of whatever life throws your way; death of dear ones, failed relationships or crushed dreams, you mustn’t ever let that taint your heart and compassion for those around you and gracefully tackle your problems.

4. Sana from Ankahi

Sana, also played by Shehnaz Sheikh, had won hearts of the nation and to date is remembered as a character who flawlessly depicted a girl from the middle class. Her character was initially introduced as a young girl whose blunders caused upheavals but her actions were always sourced by her strong beliefs to stand up for what’s right and support her loved ones. Sana’s quick-witted mindset to overcome her daily obstacles paired with her ambition to turn things around for her family’s economic well-being, constantly asserted her strong personality and selfless nature. Sana was also exemplary when it came to equally balancing her family and personal life; she had her priorities set straight.

5. Zoya from Dhoop Kinarey

Zoya’s character, also played by Marina Khan, brings forth the conflict in our society that is prevalent till today; following parents’ wishes when choosing career paths. From being a cheerful and carefree girl, Zoya journeys out to become Dr Zoya, a mature and responsible woman who eventually realises the important role she plays in the society. Zoya’s determination to overcome the multiple challenges she faces during her career emphasise on her strength of character that when she commits and sets her mind to something, she will achieve it.

The media plays an essential role in constructing and instilling particular images of gender roles into the mindsets of its audiences. The concepts of femininity are seen deeply rooted in the media, which come from the stereotypes society has created regarding specific traits that would define a woman.

It’s the 21st century and Pakistani women are much more than just “housewives” and that should be reflected in our serials and movies. In a society where women already have to struggle harder to make their name and earn their rights, regressive portrayal of female characters in our dramas is not helping their cause. We need to stop romanticising the notion of a submissive woman being a “good catch” and for once present a female character that is not bound by a male character.

Pakistani women are individuals who defy gender role stereotypes, possess intelligence, strong personalities and bear courage to fiercely fight for their dreams. It’s essential for writers, directors and producers to strive towards bringing forth females characters, which are much close to reality and who instead of being passive damsels are portrayed as active heroes.

Hira Hyder

Hira Hyder

The author is a journalist who strives to be a voice for those who struggle to voice themselves. She believes that any obstacle in life can be battled by the right amount of spirituality, positive energy and chocolate! She tweets @HiraHyder (

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

  • SkepticalFaraz

    Thanks for pointing this out. The old Pakistani TV serials portrayed the typical middle class Pakistani woman with her career and struggles. The old Pakistani dramas portrayed the real life in Pakistan. What they portray now is woman as a victim of family members mainly influenced by tv serials in India.Recommend

  • Sahdia Awan

    Really enjoyed going down memory lane with your analysis of these old heroines who we grew up watching. You have highlighted the problem very well with today’s dramas and why they have lost their appeal.Recommend

  • Masooma

    Absolutely! Media has a great responsibility in this matter. I think the media in the past was much more responsible than today. Pakistani media has started focusing on Indian style now which is like opposite of the original. In the 70s and 80s, literacy rate of women in Pakistan was between 11%- 15% but our dramas influenced our women to be strong individuals with their own say. Now our women’s literacy rate is 45%. It shows how empowering media can be. These days our dramas show that women are victims and their life is a struggle which is translating as us taking it this way. I am totally in harmony with you that our media needs to step back and take control rather than following footsteps of other countries and empower our society in a more responsible and positive way. Bless you.Recommend

  • gp65

    Ankahi, Dhoop Kinarey, Parchaiyan, Tanhai – these are all serials that I saw in the 80s and loved. I recently saw Dhoop Kinarey and still enjoyed it very much indicating how timeless it was. Would love to see similar serials being made again.Recommend

  • Hira Hyder

    It truly would be a revival or our drama industry if similar strong female characters were brought forward to the forefront!Recommend

  • Hira Hyder

    What a brilliantly insightful feedback, thank you! Definitely, media holds a vital responsibility as to what messages it’s sending to the masses. Hopefully we’ll see more of characters like Kashaf from Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Mishal from Besharam that’ll truly depict the empowered women of our society presently.Recommend

  • Hira Hyder

    It’s unfortunate that majority of dramas truly have lost their appeal; we can only hope for stronger scripts and even more outstanding female characters to drive the plot!Recommend

  • Hira Hyder

    I absolutely agree. Unfortunately the minds of audiences too have been wired to accept docile female characters and do not see how it is far from true with regard to ‘aaj ki aurat’.Recommend

  • Amra

    Hira Hyder, you have truly impressed me!
    You ve probed deep into these characters and talked about human psychology. For sure, these characters of yesteryears don’t only teach us to never give up and be determined and positive but also how we must give ourselves another chance in life as it evolves us into that person who was once an alien to us. We, as individuals, are often too hard on ourseves cuz of that constant ” be a good girl” drill that is chanted by people around us
    These dramas n characters teach us how to forgive ourselves and how to be in love with who we are and how to respect our unique individuality. That’s most important for a healthy personality. If we are not happy with ourseves, we can’t spread it around us.
    I hope the new trend in our dramas of objectifying women or portraying them as articulate schemers dies down soon.
    We could definitely do with more zoyas, Najias and sanas.
    Young journalists like you Hira are a new ray of hope for our country.
    Your write up shows that there exist young girls like yourself who are capable of thinking beyond cuteness, dream boys and silly bawling.
    Keep it up

    Waiting for another one from you!!!!Recommend

  • mahnazsarwar

    I wouldn’t call this neo-portrayel of the female protagonist regression but degeneration of the role of a modern Pakistani woman, be it a home-maker, a career woman, a mother/daughter or a friend. Media projection of a female character 3 decades ago was of an independent, thinking being compared to today. Its writers like Haseena Moin who developed such good role models for common Pakistani women back then who are morphing into real life now. I wonder why the media is hesitant now in advocating?Recommend

  • Mahina Aslam

    Excellent piece of writing!!
    I have seen most of these dramas that you mentioned and I couldn’t agree more. You have expressed so well that I am motivated to watch the ones I missed watching.
    It is very frustrating to see career oriented women in our dramas are shown as emotionless machines and they are mostly portrayed in negative characters. The inability to stand up for themselves is considered as a virtue.
    My all time favorite drama is Ankahi mostly because it was based on a middle class family otherwise our most pakistani dramas these days are about glamour,fancy houses, designer outfits and weak storyline.
    I am looking forward to read more from you. Great job. I am so proud of you Hira!!Recommend

  • Ruhi

    I must say your observation is excellent. The dramas of that times were superb and they leave a positive impression on minds and one cannot get bored watching them again and again. One more thing that you mentioned that those characters keep on changing according the story as in the beginning those girls were very carefree and in the end they changed into a responsible person. I still remember those days when at 8:00 pm Pakistani time all the life stands still every one was in front of T.V roads were empty and no one wants to leave the house till 9:00 o’clock. Not even for wedding or party. Unforgettable dramas and great actors. Very impressive Hira Hyder you love your work. All the best.Recommend