According to a notification from Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), a considerable stratum of the society believes that dramas are not depicting the true picture of the Pakistani society. This was followed by an elaboration of what constituted objectionable and controversial content and that glamorisation of the same disregarded the culture of Pakistan.
The question here is: what truly is Pakistani culture? It took me a while to wrap my head around this notification – since we have previously seen several such senseless bans from PEMRA.
Last month, a friend of mine home tutored two 11th graders due to give their first set of GCSEs (Islamiat and Pakistan Studies) in the same exam session. Given that Covid restrictions had delayed this examination cycle by well over a year, these two had put their studies to a back seat and felt the pinch – once the exam dates were eventually announced. Ironically, though, there was something else at play – that went beyond the exam cycle being delayed.
This was the fact that these two boys believed that they did not need to study because their “English was good”; to them that’s all it took to get through.
I am relating this story due to the rhetoric we regularly hear about what is or isn’t our culture – which somehow largely concerns itself with how ‘individual’ behaviors intersect with and identifies to what we lazily and loosely refer to ‘Pakistani culture’. So, as an example, every time us desis find something objectionable, the all-encompassing category used to express their sentiment is that the act goes ‘against Pakistani culture’.
Considered mostly kitty party talk and at one point mostly the domain of clerics and religious parties, this cultural diaspora is, of recent, a hot favourite of high court judges, culture ministers and Pakistan’s media regulatory organisation, PEMRA. Somehow, these forums are quick to judge that an event, a film or a piece of art violates Pakistan’s culture – without explaining what Pakistani culture really is.
They don’t because they can’t.
I am sure everyone can recall countless bans that were questionable, at best. In 2020, the current government banned PUBG – citing anti Islam material that “Pakistani youth would have none of”. There is an ongoing ban on celebration of basant in the country, since 2005 – following a Supreme Court stand on prevention of loss of lives from chemical laced strings. Recall what happened with Valentine’s Day several years ago and Bollywood film on Saadat Hasan Manto that was banned by Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Certification. Then there was the ban on repeat telecasts of Hum Tv’s serial Pyar Kay Sadqay, ARY Digital’s Ishqiya and Jalan.
Interestingly, the blanket bans sometimes go one step ahead – quoting disregard and/or disrespect for Islamic teachings.
For example, when in 2018, hair stylists in north-western Pakistan banned ‘English and French’ beards, they termed the style as being un-Islamic. Karachi’s Jamiatul Uloom Islamia quoted watching Turkish TV show Diriliş Ertuğrul (as part dramas and movies) as being un-Islamic. Their fatwa read:
“Portraying Islam and Islamic personalities or their deeds through dramas or films is tantamount to insulting the dignity of these personalities themselves because the possibility of misrepresentation is huge,” read the fatwa of Jamia Daul Uloom.”
And this is where I revert to the two youngsters who, as I write this piece, have already written their GCSE exams; interestingly, one of the questions they anticipated in their Pakistan Studies exam and had prepared for was to briefly define Pakistan’s culture. For some odd reason, they equated culture with language and debated that the exam would obviously be written in English, the local examination boards would prefer it being done either in Urdu or their respective provincial language and the maulvi class would say to give it in Arabic. In my opinion, it was a brilliant argument – but came at the risk of undermining their English language communication skills.
This brings me back to my original question: what is Pakistani culture? I suppose this question has a deep-rooted history.
The Ayub Khan regime of the 1960s was probably too early to question what our culture looked like – because Pakistan was still a very young country. But his tenure did set the tone of Islamising Pakistan, when in the late 1960s his ‘modernist’ Muslim nationalist narrative began to crumble. Prolific Islamic scholar and Jamaat-i-Islami founder, Abul Ala Maududi, took this opportunity to pitch his idea of Pakistani culture. To him any ‘Indian/Hindu/Western’ influence that existed in Pakistani culture should be abolished and replaced with parallel ‘Islamic’ equivalents. This view was supported by historian IH Qureshi in his book, The Pakistani Way of Life – although in a relatively moderate tone.
These narratives do not fully encompass the concept of ‘Pakistaniyat’ – making each account myopic at best. And this was my exact sentiment, when my friend narrated the language debate her students had – whilst elaborating Pakistan’s culture for their examination purposes: what a narrow thought process!
The Ayub Khan regime of the 1960s was probably too early to question what our culture looked like – because Pakistan was still a very young country. But his tenure did set the tone of Islamising Pakistan, when in the late 1960s his ‘modernist’ Muslim nationalist narrative began to crumble.
This is where poet, literary Faiz Ahmad Faiz entered. According to him, Pakistani culture was a combination of cultures ‒ synergised by each of the various Islamic sects / groups that existed in Pakistan. In his own words, Pakistan’s culture was also influenced by the Western ethos that the country had inherited from its colonial past and by the distinct cultures of various resident minority groups.
Maybe this meant that Faiz considered Pakistan’s culture as naturally pluralistic and not monolithic. And in this view, it made sense when he suggested that Islam is universal and cannot be associated with a single nation.
So when bans are imposed on shared public content and social media forums on account of them being objectionable and/or violative of Pakistani culture – we know where the disconnect stems from. And this is despite the fact that these grounds are almost entirely rhetorical in nature and fail to explain that, if something goes against Pakistani culture, then what exactly is this culture? Defining Pakistani culture as being ‘Islamic’ in nature also doesn’t say much because practically, there are multiple representations of Islam in Pakistan – along with resident non-Muslims (who represent the white part of our national flag) in our midst.
But that is where the irony is abound. In today’s day and age, describing something as being conflictive of Pakistani culture sounds rather vague. But as a people, we’ve taken a pervasive comfort level in seeing the country as a diverse society – without having the requisite understanding or acceptance levels for this diversity.
Establishing a crossroads between the two is what is needed – but denying this reality would put the denier on an awkward end of the equation. And unfortunate as it is, this is exactly where some members of our society are still stuck.