Not in front of the children

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There is a fine line between appropriate regulatory activity on the part of a government body and outright censorship, and this comes sharply into focus when it comes to the moral policing of society, something that governments have tried to do for centuries with varying degrees of success. Regulatory bodies tend towards the conservative and as history tells us tend to be dominated by men and display a misogynist streak. We note with interest the latest injunction, by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) defining what can and cannot be screened. The list is long and PEMRA objects to ‘intimate moments between couples’ and ‘bed scenes’ as well as not caring for ‘feminist content’ and bold themes that are said to offend viewers – though PEMRA has not released detailed listings of just who has objected to what.

Anything that challenges the prevailing patriarchy is in the firing line which includes honour killings, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and any story involving rape in which the victim seeks justice and redress. Such dramatic themes are considered ‘bold’ and beyond the Pale as far as PEMRA is concerned.

There are distinct echoes of the Hays Code that governed Hollywood in the 1930’s. The Code listed red lines including – nudity even in silhouette, talk of divorce or adultery as anything other than a bad thing, all ‘swear’ words, any kiss was not to last longer than three seconds, lovers were not allowed to be horizontal and one partner had to keep a foot on the floor at all times, beds must not accommodate more than one person and actors portraying married couples had to be shown to have separate beds.  Hollywood went into creative overdrive to circumvent the code.

Hollywood in the ’30s is not the same as Pakistan in 2019 and there are elements of the Hays Code that would find favour even in some liberal sections of polite society today, but there are serious issues at stake when it comes to raising public awareness. It may not have been noticed by PEMRA but Pakistan has a significant alcohol problem, likewise drugs, and domestic violence is both widespread and endemic. ‘Feminist’ content is much needed in order to redress the balance of the scales of patriarchy and far from being banned Pakistan needs to be better informed and educated about matters that many would prefer brushed under the carpet than is current. As noted in these columns child sexual abuse – which feeds into a burgeoning pornography industry – is on the rise. Any programming that helps parents and educationalists to understand how CSA may be prevented by themselves and the children they care for is to be welcomed.

As sociologists and anthropologists over the last century have observed no society is immutable and all societies and cultures change and evolve over time – sometimes a very long time but they do inevitably change. The assertion by PEMRA that the media ‘does not depict a picture of true Pakistani society’ is simply wrong. Much of the media output in respect of programmes depicting family life is anodyne and colourless, dull and poorly acted and scripted. But some of it, and this will be the area that gives discomfort to PEMRA, moves beyond stereotypical visions of life in modern Pakistan and serves the viewer a slice of life that is very much the Pakistan of today – and tomorrow. The yesterday’s men that populate PEMRA have done little beyond exemplify their irrelevance, and just how far out of touch with the society they seek to regulate they are.