When your everyday news consists of the purported collapse of your government and a small but unfortunate obsession with treating the ill with fake drugs at a major regional cardiology institute, it seems that very few things will actually cause you to upchuck any remaining disgust floating around in your metaphorically ulcer-ridden stomach.
Fortunately for Pakistani TV station Samaa, Maya Khan was able to do just that.
Okay, so maybe I’ve got too much of a flair for the occasional hyperbole, but a recent stunt by the talk show host left many Pakistanis completely bewildered and disgusted. In late January, the morning show host led a team of over a dozen “aunties” into the clutches of moral decay and social destruction commonly referred to as “parks.”
The footage is nothing short of disturbing: a brigade of ‘aunties’ armed with moral superiority and out-of-fashion sunglasses ambush young couples, many of whom try to escape the onslaught of cameras and judgment, and implicate them as bearers of social impurity. The women, led by Khan and her producer, demand to see the marriage contracts of unsuspecting couples on “dates,” followed by awkward lectures on disobedience to their parents. They miss no opportunity to “shame” the couples, particularly the women, the majority of whom are niqab-clad – a common refuge for Pakistani women wishing to conceal their identity for various reasons.
Parks, in cities like Karachi and Lahore in particular, are renowned date spots specifically for lower-middle class Pakistanis. Public displays of premarital hormonal philandering are far from alien in Pakistan; many young unmarried couples openly eat in restaurants, walk in malls and other such equally sinful areas. But more often than not, these couples come from backgrounds that may not entirely encourage premarital relationships but don’t create a fatalistic fuss over dinner either. Lower-middle-class couples, unable to afford consumerist dating, cover (sometimes literally) their romanticism by spending time together in parks. This so-called “phenomenon” has elicited negative reactions from families who believe such publicization creates for an inappropriate atmosphere for a family outing.
The uproar of disbelief to Khan’s segment of moral cleansing was quick. Pakistanis across social media platforms rose in protest against the unprovoked harassment of innocent couples in public spaces. Perhaps the most notable of responses was from Pakistani blogger Mehreen Kasana, who wrote an open letter to Maya Khan:
“Young people fall in love all the time. Sometimes they don’t – it’s just infatuation. Sometimes they do and they’re confused as hell and they still go out to understand the significance of the other. In the process, they pick a location like normal people do where they can sit down and spend time together. I’m sure you liked someone when you were in college. No big deal. See, girls fall in love pretty much every single day of the week and so do boys. Sometimes they make the right decision, sometimes they make mistakes. It’s called being human. But trust me, they don’t need a team of middle aged women hounding them down public places to enlighten them about their decisions. And trust me, their mothers will handle whatever happens. No one asked you or anyone else to take the responsibility of scrutinizing them. See, what worries me a lot is when public figures like you with considerable influence on viewers morph into moral police. In a country like Pakistan where public vigilantism has exceeded levels of brutality, the last thing the youth needs is a team of moral watchdogs sniffing around for ‘impure’ behavior.”
While the segment elicited much response from other Pakistani journalists and much protest from Pakistanis who demanded that Khan be fired for her actions (and she was), there seemed to be a generally strong politicization of a show that ultimately was a perverted “Islamicized” version of Cheaters (although equally uncomfortable). From the Talibanization of the upper middle class to the death of privacy to the rise of the moral police citizenry, no thesis seems off limits in the discussion of the implications of Khan’s segment. TV sensationalism was mentioned, but the segment was barely treated as such. True, as Kasana states, promoting public vigilantism in a country where that can easily translate to violence isn’t exactly in the best taste. But neither is using bad TV as proof of some religio-cultural threat.
Maybe it’s really just what these guys say it is: that Maya Khan’s foray into moral superiority underscores sensationalist targeting of lower-middle-class couples as a feel good segment for upper classes.
Sounds about right for Pakistani television.