A poor advert for the nation’s liberal space

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No child’s play Will birth control face the same fate as the anti-polio campaign?
No child’s play Will birth control face the same fate as the anti-polio campaign?, Photo: Reuters

Recently, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned an condom advertisement. Made by a company called Josh, the product was marketed in Pakistan by DKT International, a US-based NGO, with the objective of promoting family planning and prevention of HIV/AIDS in the developing world. Starring model and actress Mathira Mohammed, the ad showed a newly wed bride pampering her husband and making the neighbours jealous. The ad is at best suggestive and does not show any close physical contact. Yet, it was declared “immoral” and not suitable for screening in the holy month of Ramzan. Apparently, PEMRA had received complaints from some viewers.

Barring some murmur on the social media, no one really complained about the ban. Wonder what would have happened if the electronic or print media had protested the move. Quite certainly, dangerous duffers like Zaid Hamid (those not familiar with him can Google the character or watch his videos on YouTube to see the extent of his lunacy) and many others of his ilk might have joined the chorus in condemning the ad, pointing out how it is funded by the US. They would have even pointed out the similarity between the condom ad and the anti-polio campaign financed by USAID in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to help the CIA find Osama bin Laden. The decision to ban the ad is bizarre since Pakistan is one of the countries desperately in need of birth control. The ever-increasing rate of population growth is a burden on the economy and the society.

The story here is not about banning something but about the irrationality of the State system, and increasingly of the society. Blocking such ads a few decades ago was probably understandable given the overall attitude in the larger South Asian region towards sexuality. In comparison, the Persians were far more comfortable with their own sexuality and issues related with it. However, increasing the level of comfort with sexuality also falls in the realm of opinion formation in which both the State and the society play an equal role.

I remember a conversation with students at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, about cultural interaction with India. One of the constant refrains was that such interaction undermined Pakistan’s Islamic identity. Probed further, I found that the objection was actually a reference to promiscuity in Indian cinema. Perhaps, a lot of Indian families might also have issues with what Bollywood has begun to show. But there is always the possibility of dealing with nudity, sex and sexuality in a more mature way. What is rational does not undermine national cultural identity. The condom ad certainly didn’t.

A larger question is: how is identity framed? The identity issue, in turn, reflects the evolution of a society. The whole PEMRA ad-blocking incident is reflective of the social and psychological journey of a State and its society. It is a moot point whether such an ad could have been shown a few decades ago, before the coming of the Zia-ul-Haq era. But the fact is that the increased latent-radicalisation of the society and the influence that the religious right has begun to have could be one of the explanations of what is framing the State’s response to an incident like the condom ad.

In fact, along with this incident, what no one else sees on television these days is an indicator of how the ‘madrassa’ has come into the mainstream rather than the religious seminary getting mainstreamed. There are televangelists such as Aamir Liaquat Hussain or Maya Khan and many more who are in the process of defining and explaining religion in a bizarre and simplistic way. For a country that was created in the name of religion, there is a need for the secular-liberal to engage with the discourse so that a case can be made for liberalism. However, the private television channels seem to be encouraging a myopic interpretation that would narrow space for social progress or widen the gap between religion and rationality.

Watching television in Pakistan, especially during the holy month of Ramzan, says a lot about how the peculiar ‘public-private’ partnership is framing people’s attitudes. The public discourse or narrative on social norms is being actively framed by the private channels, which is then formally codified as a norm by the public sector denoted here by PEMRA. So, ultimately people are unable to tell what is actually a norm or part of local culture. The youth or people in general who cannot engage with sexuality believe that the reason is that it is against the norms of the soil. Hardly do they understand that norms are constantly being framed or redefined.

In fact, religious or political radicalism in Pakistan, or South Asia in general, is a modern norm produced to fill the appetite of the middle class, who are completely out of sorts with the understanding of culture. They take nationalism or political and religious radicalism as norms only because there are those who market it as such. Humanism that was part of the culture and pluralist traditions of the land got lost in modernity, which is visible through commercialism.

Some among the liberal middle class often talk about how Pakistan changed in the 10 terrible years under Zia. This was the period when the society was made to turn towards religion in the most irrational way. The jihad, jihadis, Taliban, drugs and a lot of corruption that we complain about these days was certainly the gift of those years. However, there is also an inability to internalise how deep those changes have penetrated into the society. When seemingly liberal people argue about talking to Taliban or define an engagement with the Taliban as critical for the country after 2014, they not only forget that they are supporting an existential threat for the country, but they also belie the impact of the Zia years and his politics, which has touched everyone, including those who do not consider themselves as right wing.

The reaction to Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban, being invited to give a speech at the UN is also reflective of the society’s ideological evolution. There were many educated and seemingly progressive people who were critical of why the young girl was being invited to speak at such a forum. Many thought of the occasion as yet another conspiracy to malign Pakistan (it was just plain lucky that Malala never said anything even remotely controversial in her speech). Perhaps, it was plain jealousy, but how can the reaction be divorced from the way norms were developed and inculcated into the society in the name of cultural and political identity? Laugh if we may, but blocking any open debate on birth control and HIV/AIDS through a guarded depiction of the issue is also part of this identity.

Interestingly, Pakistan is not alone in the integration of the right wing in its identity politics. A glance around the South Asian region and the world indicates similar trends. The ascendency of Narendra Modi in India or the strengthening of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka indicate a similar trend. The major problem with such evolution is that these independent identities also have enormous capacity to take neighbours towards conflict and crisis at multiple levels. It creates militaristic tendencies, which create conflict within the society and among States. The sad part is that there is no space at the moment for any alternative narrative of identity. Thus, put under a microscope, the issue is not simply about blocking of a condom ad but about a paradigm shift that will eventually prove disastrous for millions of people. Wish someone knew how to turn back the clock.

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of  Military Inc

[email protected]

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