Yasmeen Ali has been widowed, twice. First at 27 years old and then again at 51 years old. The responsibility of her two children falls squarely on her very-female shoulders. If a Pakistani drama writer was asked to tell her story, we would be introduced to a deeply sad character who only wears dull colours, and is always on the verge of tears.
In reality, Ali has a laugh that would fill any room with cheer and a vivacious energy about her that will perk you up even while discussing widows and the Pakistani media. She is a Lahore-based lawyer, the author of a book on media laws, a political analyst who writes for the Centre of Research and Security Studies and often appears on Voice of America talk shows.
After a full day’s work, Ali loves watching HUM TV dramas. This is despite her believing that “the representation of widows on our television screens is very bad” and leaves a lot to be desired.
Ali is addicted to dramas despite recognising that they aren’t perfect, this is what real human characters are like: complex. She dearly misses her husband, her voice drops at the mere mention of his name, and his death has deeply affected her and her children; but this does not mean that she cannot and does not derive happiness from life’s big and small pleasures.
“In the dramas, widows are so dabi aur pissi hui. They don’t have any other characteristics apart from this sadness. These characters should be inspiring widows and other single women to be independent, not depressing them further,” says Ali.
But, of course, there are anomalies. For example, in a still-running HUM TV drama, Maa Sadqey, after many, many days of being exploited at the hands of her husband’s family, the main character, a widow, sets out to look for a job. Her young son, who has been brainwashed by his uncle into believing that his mother is characterless, forbids her from leaving the house during her period of iddat.
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“I have to look after and think about those who are still alive [her children], instead of mourning those who are gone,” retorts the main character, as she leaves for her job interview. Ali recounts the scene fondly, describing that the female lead spoke with such conviction that many women will realise the importance of taking care of their families rather than blindly relying on relatives.
But why does it take 20 plus episodes of abject misery and emotional abuse to get here? Why do television’s fictional widows have to be taken to the depths of despair before they can be accorded with a semblance of dignity?
Some say that this is what our masses are used to. This is the reality for most Pakistani women, they say, hence it’s a fair representation. But if the media keeps showing disempowered women this ‘reality,’ then whose job is it to inspire change and progress? Who will tell stories of widows who weren’t exploited and emotionally abused?
Others, such as Saiqa Masood*, a Lahore-based banker whose husband passed away a few years ago, say that TV dramas should be allowed their share of dramatism, and if in Pakistan that means the crying, sobbing widow, then so be it — as long as the drama is doing some good to society.
When I first called Masood, her phone was busy. She called back. “I was in a conference call, busy day you know?” she says. Masood has been working at various banks across the country for more than two decades, and now she’s at a stage where she is able to single-handedly support her daughter’s undergraduate education abroad. “It was her desire to go abroad to study and I wasn’t going to tell her that just because she doesn’t have the love and support of a father, she can’t go. So together, with her brains, my hard work and god’s blessings, we made it happen,” says Masood proudly.
She thinks that for the most part the dramas she watches on TV are quite over-the-top, but they do manage to relay many important aspects of widowhood. For instance, the suitors that appear like flies the moment your iddat is over, especially if you have some bank balance behind you. “Even if you don’t have money, a lot of men marry widows because of the sawaab, even if they already have a wife,” says Masood.
Here again, fact finds space in fiction. Pakistan’s television widows also have to deal with society’s urgent desire to see then married. In Kaisay Huay Benaam, it is Maria Wasti’s formidable sister-in-law who ensures her second marriage, the pauper who marries her does it purely out of greed for her money; in Bunty I Love You, everyone from Saba Qamar’s former fiancé, to her husband’s friends and lawyers, to her butler, plot and plan for her second marriage. The idea of a young or middle aged single woman is too unsettling for television writers, and Pakistanis, alike.
This trope receives further validation when you come across tens of Facebook pages devoted to Pakistani widows, divorces and single women meeting on social media with the express purpose of finding soulmates. Muslimah.com, an online marriage portal used in Pakistan has a special section devoted to widows and widowers searching for spouses — on their profiles, many of the widows write that they are open to polygamy.
For most of my life, I believed my step-grandmother was widowed before she was married to my grandfather. After the death of my grandmother, my grandfather, unable to imagine how he could raise eight children, married almost immediately. Eventually, he too passed away. And in my eyes, Bibi, my step-grandmother, had become a widow, again.
The truth was that Bibi had married my grandfather after her first husband had divorced her — allegedly because “she had failed to produce a son” — but since divorcees in Bahawalpur district’s Chak 24 in the late 1950s were a big taboo, young children were told she is a widow. Over time, the lie became real. Even my mother, despite 40 plus years of being a part of this family didn’t learn the (harmless) truth until very recently.
The reason this lie existed was because even within the marginalised single women of Pakistan, there are hierarchies. The first set of distinction is between women who never married, divorced women and those who lost their husbands. In Ali’s experience, divorcees are considered “bad women who are unable to keep their men,” never-married women are considered more deserving of pity than the divorcees, and the third category, the widows, “are only meant for pitying”.
This concept is solidified by television’s fictional widows: the moment they show even a glean of independence they are immediately put down by family and society. For if they become independent, then how will society pity them? The system will be upset.
Even within widows there are distinctions, the most glaring of which are class-based. The more financially stable a widow is, the more likely she will be respected. It’s the ones at the far end of the spectrum that are considered a ‘burden’.
“Uff I hate those sad, roti dhoti widow characters they show in dramas, the ones that are made to look like burdens,” says Salma Asim*, a professional cook. Asim has fed and educated three children on her own. Her husband died a decade ago from a bad liver, leaving nothing behind but unpaid bills. “I took a loan from my brother-in-law, paid my house rent and went out to cook food in people’s houses,” says Asim.
Asim travels in Karachi’s local buses daily to go from house to house to cook. She has over 20 clients and her phone never stops buzzing, more madams asking her to please come and cook for their families.
“Dekho, I understand that women in our society are vulnerable and they have no means of making money, so when the husband dies all of a sudden they just fall apart and people take advantage of them. It’s important to show these stories in drama serials. But what about me? And my story? Why can’t we have dramas that show widows whose children aren’t abused, or sold into marriage, or thrown out of the house,” she says angrily. “After a long hard day of handling masalas and mirchis, when I sit down with my children and watch TV, I want to see solutions and ways forward for widows like me.”
She wants these dramas to teach women how to take small loans, how to put money in committees, how to earn money even from within their homes, how to apply to Behbood, and, generally, how to stand on their own two feet.
“I want to see all this, instead of seeing women crying for years over the fact that their children are ‘yateem’ without a father.” After all, are the children really ‘orphaned’ while these inspiring mothers are around for them? It’s something TV writers need to think about.
*Names have been changed to protect identity